“He got kicked out of the military for ‘medical discharge.'”

Only one word crashed this sentence, but it crashed it big-time.

The story behind the statement arose from a disparity in marriage laws between Nebraska and Kansas. A 22-year-old man was being charged with the statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl; the evidence was her pregnancy. The couple had crossed from their home state to Kansas, where girls as young as 12 could legally marry with their parents’ approval, which they had. When they came home to Nebraska, the trouble started. My students were asked to argue that they should, or should not, have been permitted to marry.

News reports suggested the young man was emotionally much younger than his years. The couple had begun dating when the girl was eleven—he got to know her when he was at her house playing video games with her slightly older brother. His mother said he had never been comfortable with kids his own age, and his high school work also reflected adjustment difficulties. One piece of evidence in the case that suggested he had not yet matured was the report that he had joined the Marines but after only four months had been released on a medical discharge. (The news reporter made no mention of a medical condition either before or after his military career.)

My student’s sentence seems to reflect some understanding of the situation but not of the language of military status. Too young to have watched M*A*S*H* except perhaps in late-night re-runs, she had not heard Klinger’s plans to “get a medical discharge” or “get discharged” by means of his frocks and hats: she didn’t realize “discharge” means “dismissal” in the military (and “to discharge” means “to dismiss”). So she said he had been “kicked out” but then, unfamiliar with the military idiom, just stuck the term in, put quotation marks around it, and moved on.

The young man was released from the military on a medical discharge. Yes, “kicked out” will do, although it’s a lapse of tone, since the military does use the medical discharge to dismiss soldiers who are unfit for military service for mental or emotional problems as well as physical ones. But the preposition that must follow is on.

Oh, yes, there certainly is something that might be referred to as a “medical discharge” that could follow the preposition “for”: something that is emitted or flows out, as the discharge from a suppurating wound. And alas, that’s what I see in my mind’s eye when I read her sentence—a perfectly okay young man turns into a guy so fetid with the discharge from an unhealed wound that the military doesn’t want him around anymore.

Disgusting picture on a beautiful Sunday morning in November.

But at least Kathleen Sebelius, who was governor of Kansas at the time, found the marriage laws of her state pretty disgusting too, and vowed to urge the legislature to make some changes—changes which seem, thank goodness, to have been made.

Anyway, on the “English” aspect of this post: I find it not uncommon for students to be nervous about terminology they read in their texts or research sources but unaware that a little more research might clear up their confusion. Some students obsessively quote their sources because they’re too impressed with the importance of the author, but many more quote because they don’t have a good enough grasp of the idea to try to rephrase it, and they’re at a loss as to how to proceed.

It’s these latter students that make me sad. Stanley Crane, late and still-greatly-missed head librarian of the Pequot Library in Southport, Connecticut, used to lament that students were always eager to use the summaries in Cliff’s Notes rather than “trust their own lovely minds”; and he’s right not only about Cliff’s, and now Spark Notes and Wikipedia, but also about most of the sources they read. They’re often right not to trust the sketchy ideas and half-understandings they begin with; but they’re so, so wrong not to trust their own lovely minds to seek out, think through, and then express understood information and ideas for themselves.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

2 responses to ““He got kicked out of the military for ‘medical discharge.'”

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