By Joshua Maloni
The name Hannah Mergi is not unfamiliar to NFP readers. The 20-year-old Youngstown native has been featured in stories where:
•At the age of 6, she donated her hair to Locks of Love. She repeated this action at 9, lending locks to Pantene. She would later shave her head (the only girl to do so) at Lewiston-Porter for a “Kiss Your Hair Goodbye” campaign, raising $500 for charity in the process.
•As a 13-year-old, Hannah taught dance to children at Heart, Love & Soul through her own Turning Pointe Foundation. She would also educate youth as an instructor at Adell’s School of Dance.
•In high school, Hannah competed in the Lewiston Art Festival Chalk Walk competition and was a Niagara County Peach Festival Peach Queen Pageant finalist.
Looking to continue a lifelong pursuit of giving back to others – and, honestly, seeking a little direction in a post-high school world – Mergi, in 2019, joined the U.S. Army infantry training program at Fort Benning, Georgia. She was part of a rigorous program that didn’t allow women to participate until 2017.
That makes the Niagara Falls Army recruiters’ claim of Mergi being the first female from Niagara County to successfully complete the program seem likely. Whether she was or she wasn’t, what isn’t up for debate is the impact Mergi had on her peers.
Fellow Private Nathan Fordham, 20, of Grapevine, Texas, said, “She's a leader … whether she realizes it or not. Everyone looks up to her. Just going through basic training, everyone knew Hannah. Everyone knew her as like the mom of the group. ‘If you have a question, go to Hannah. If you need something, go to Hannah.’ ”
For Mergi, she said her efforts were “to let females know that it's possible for them to do it – to do anything that they set their minds to. Anything that you want to accomplish, you can.”
Right before the coronavirus pandemic began, Mergi returned to Lewiston to visit her family. She sat down for a Q&A, wherein she offered more insight into her already impressive life resume, and why it’s important to give back to others.
Q: Well, I guess, let's start let's start backwards. You're home now but you're home now from where and what are you doing?
Hannah Mergi: “So, now I'm currently stationed at Fort Drum, New York, which is about three hours and 55 minutes away. And that is the closest active duty military installation we have around us.
“I’m with the unit there. And that's kind of now my home away from home, I guess you could say.”
Q: Forgive me, but I don't really know how this works specifically. Now, are you committed for a certain amount of time or how does this work?
Hannah Mergi: “Yes. So, you sign on for an eight-year commitment, but within that period of time, you can do a certain amount of years active duty, and then another in active reserves, or sign on for another active duty contract, or just sign up for a reserve contract. So, what I'm doing is I'm doing three years active duty. And if I don't choose to reenlist, I'll use the rest of the years of that eight-year commitment as inactive reserves. So, if something ever is to happen and they need to do a draft, per se, they'll call me first, because I'm considered the more qualified than using the general public.”
Q: When you were up for the Peach Queen, you said you wanted to become a trauma surgeon. Is that still the goal?
Hannah Mergi: “I wouldn't say surgeon is the goal, but back into the medical field is definitely the goal. I'm not really sure what yet, but I’m still trying to figure that out.”
Q: What appeals to you about serving in a medical capacity?
Hannah Mergi: “Just helping as much as I can, with the resources that I can, and I guess what I'm doing now – and medicine – is the best way that I know how. Besides teaching, which is what I did with dance. So, when I took a step back from that, I had to kind of find a new way that I figured I could help those around me the best.”
Hannah Mergi with Adell Hoover Manarino and Sara Humphrey. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Fincher Mergi)
Q: And that takes us back to the beginning, because Turning Pointe Foundation was, I think, the first thing that your mom alerted me to. Tell me about how that got started, because you were like 13.
Hannah Mergi: “I was; I was 13 years old.”
Q: Not a lot of 13-year-olds are thinking about how to be philanthropic, right, or how to give back. So how did that all come about?
Hannah Mergi: “So, I guess it was kind of a way that I was thinking to myself, ‘Well, I love dance, and I want others to love dance. And then there's these kids that don't have access to it, so why don't I help them?’ So, kind of being able to teach at such a young age, because I started teaching then, and I loved doing it, but also kind of share my love for dance with those who didn't have access to it. So that was kind of what my goal was there, was to teach them to love something that I loved, but also to kind of help them at the same time.”
Q: Part of that was helping Heart, Love & Soul. And so, what was the reaction there, because I think what you were trying to do was sort of provide them with a welcome distraction from some other things that maybe were not as pleasant in their life at that time. How did that go over?
Hannah Mergi: “It actually went over really well, because a lot of them, they have like camps and stuff, but not all of them run all the time. So, it's kind of this like little, two-week period of downtime where the kids still weren't doing anything. So, that's where I was kind of brought in to do like a two-week class, maybe twice a week, where they would come in; they would learn; we would learn dance, and they would kind of add on to it. And then by the end, they would have a dance to show their parents, so their parents could come in. And they would get a T-shirt. And it was kind of something for them to be proud of that they accomplished.
“And, at times, we also got scholarships for them, which was two different arts camps, or different classes that they could continue to take, if they so choose.”
Q: How long did the Turning Pointe Foundation go on for?
Hannah Mergi: “I think it was about three years; three or four years; and then towards the end, I started to get more busy with school. And then I kind of started to get this whirlwind of harder and harder to find programs that were open enough to kind of facilitate the class. So, it kind of got harder to keep in contact with them. Also, because I was still busy with school, it just a kind of just lost touch.
Q: And you went to NU?
Hannah Mergi: “I did.”
Q: Do you have a degree?
Hannah Mergi: “I stepped back from that for a little bit.
“So, I started school last fall, went through two semesters at NU. It's very difficult, I would have to say. I think that was very challenging, especially coming from high school, when I was only taking like two serious classes every day, to six was, I guess, very overwhelming; and I didn't have the right amount of discipline to be able to keep up with all of it. So, I figured I might as well step back now, before I get in too deep, and I'm either I am in debt a lot of money; or I'm just going through the motions and not really doing as best as I know I can.
“That's where the kind of the segue from nursing school to the military kind of came in. I was like, ‘I'm not as disciplined as I want to be for this, so I need to kind of find something that'll give me some more life experience, and then also teach me that discipline at the same time.’ ”
Q: Alright, so now what about dancing, did you teach that up until college?
Hannah Mergi: “I stopped teaching last year, right when I finished school.”
Q: Were you teaching with Adell?
Hannah Mergi: “I was; I was teaching with Adell.”
Q: I was looking back at old emails. Your mom said you donated your hair twice; shaved your head. So even from like – forget 13, like from age 6, you were interested in giving back to others. Why is giving back to others something that's always been important to you?
Hannah Mergi: “Honestly, I feel like it's some subconscious reason that I'm always trying to find out, but, in all reality, it's kind of how I was raised. Because I'm not given so much – I don't want to say that I'm given everything – but because of what I have, and because of what my family has been able to afford to me, I kind of feel this sense of, like, ‘If I can have it, why can't others?’ So, I kind of want to give back what I can.
“In a way, it's more of, like, I want others to experience the kind of giving feeling – because it's nice when you're given something. Like when somebody gives you a gift, you're like ‘Oh!’ You're happy about it. I like that feeling, and I wanted others to feel that way.
“But at the same time, I didn't do it so that I could feel that way – like I could feel good about myself, but I wanted others to feel happy; and I wanted others to feel … the same kind of feelings that I had when I was given something. … I would give back to make others happy – because I like seeing that. It feels nice.”
Hannah Mergi and her Lewiston-Porter High School team at the 2017 Chalk Walk competition. (File photos)
Q: You were in the Chalk Walk.
Hannah Mergi: “Oh, my goodness, that was three hours of chalk, and sun, and just insanity (laughs).
“So, it started out at our high school; it was like the preliminary round where you kind of did it on the sidewalk at high school and you would get really mad if, like, the middle schoolers would come over and walk on it. You're like, ‘I just really need to get this done,’ because, again, you were allotted a certain amount of time. And so, then, after that, they chose winners who they would send to Art Fest.
“And we were one of the chosen designs that they wanted to bring to Art Fest, and there were three of us. And that day, it was expected to rain, so I brought a tent; I brought plastic to kind of wrap around the tent; and we just kind of went at it for like three hours. It stopped; we didn't take any breaks, it was just drawing everything and trying to make sure everything looked good, and everything looked not perfect, but close to it – as close as we could get it.
“That was also a cool experience because then, straight after, we were so worried about rain – as soon as they went to announce the winners, it started to downpour. You just saw all the drawings just kind of melt together into this one puddle of, like, chalk and water in the center of Center Street.
“It felt good, because you got it done. … And then it's gone. So, you’re done with it (laughs).”
Q: One of the next things for you was the Peach Queen. What was that experience like for you?
Hannah Mergi: “I loved that. I love doing it. I was so sad when I missed it. But that was, honestly, it was a good experience, because we made so many new friends. You got so many new experiences from the volunteering that you did, and then we worked with kids. We worked with so many things. So, like, kids from the Niagara Arts and Recreation Camp, we worked with them; to doing the movie night at Artpark – it was such a whirlwind of events and it was, honestly, it was fun. It was so much fun, too.
“And it didn't seem like, ‘Oh, I gotta go do this today for Peach Queen.’ But you kind of woke up excited, because you're like, ‘I get to put on my Peach Queen T-shirt, and I get to go represent my community.’ I think that was something that was really beautiful in and of itself, too.
“It all accumulated to this one night – well, two nights – you got to speak about something you were passionate about. And then you got to do a dance that you would spend a couple of rehearsals learning.”
Q: Which was probably nothing for you.
Hannah Mergi: “I wouldn’t say that. But at the same time, it was kind of funny, because you saw girls that had no dance experience at all, but they kind of blossomed and learned this entire dance – and they did it beautifully; they did it amazing. And then the next day was when you brought in your dress, and you got ready – and we all got ready backstage. And it was just kind of exciting, because you're like, ‘Ooh, who's gonna be the new Peach Queen?’ And whoever it was, you were like, you knew each and every one of us, whoever won, they deserved it.
“I remember the last year I did it, it was cold. So, my dress had pockets. I had hand-warmers in my pockets. And then the other girls would like kind of stick their hand in my pocket to get their hands warm.
“It's just like those kind of experiences, the little things, that kind of made it all worth it. And it was certainly, definitely, an amazing experience that I will never forget.”
Hannah Mergi as a Peach Queen contestant in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Robin Clark)
Q: So, how does it work? Do you enlist, and they say, “X, Y and Z,” or how does the process begin?
Hannah Mergi: “So, there is one of two ways you can do it: You can go to college, and you can commission as an officer. So, there's an enlisted side and an officer side. The officer side, there's multiple ways you can do that. There’s doing ROTC through college, and then you can commission as a second lieutenant. And then there's also going from green to gold; so you're enlisted, and you can either go to OCS, which is officer candidacy school, or your unit can sponsor you to go to college to then commission and come back as an officer.
“What I did was I started the process. This process always starts the same way: talking to a recruiter. And the hard part about that is trying to figure out what you want to do. Hopefully, you'll go where you want to for your duty station, which isn't always your choice. And that you'll be able to get a contract that either has school – so, like airborne school or ranger school or something like that. It's all kind of one big game of chance. So, you kind of have to keep an open mind, when you're enlisting, because it's not always certain that you're going to get the job you want.
“I went in wanting to be combat medic. The job wasn't available, so I had to find something else. And so, to start the process, you start by just talking to a recruiter; just getting your foot in the door. If you have any questions, they'll answer them for you. If you have any doubts, they will try and help you sort them.
“So, I talked to Brian Kimbro at the Niagara Falls recruiting office, and we was amazing. He answered all my questions, any doubts that I had; he kind of helped me sort those out, and kind of just squash them, because they weren't reasonable doubts, I should say.
“And then after that, it's when the paperwork starts. You get a thick packet; you have to fill it out – literally, they want to know everything. So, from your middle name to your first pet's name to your neighbor. You are listing everything off, like where you went to school, how long you were there, is there any proof that you were there, like contact – people they would call to have proof that you lived at a certain house, and that you went to a certain high school.
“And, so after you get that done, you hand that in to the recruiter, and you go to what's called MEPS (military entrance processing command), which is where you get your medical testing to see if you're physically fit and you're physically able to join the military. And you also take something called the ASVAB (armed services vocational aptitude battery), (which) is basically a series of different sections – it’s like the military’s version of an SAT, kind of. It has different sections that kind of test where you’re strongest, which then also helps determine what jobs you qualify for within the military.
“There's your overall score, and then there's line scores. So, your general technology, your science and technology, your mechanical skills – all of those scores are broken down. And, depending on certain jobs, they have certain scores that you need to get that job.
“After you did that in MEPS, you enlisted into the future soldiers program, which is kind of the delayed entrance. So, after you're done with your ASVAB, you go back with your recruiter, or you go back with the liaison officer at MEPS, and that's when you pick your job.
“So, after I was done with my test, I kind of sat down and we went through this giant list of different jobs. It's overwhelming at first, but at the same time you're considering when you want to leave by, so certain time that you want to be out, and to basic. What this job is going to do for you in the long run. Or will you actually like the job that you're doing. Oh, and a bonus, because some jobs they do have an enlistment bonus.
“Once you're done with basic, you turn the paperwork into your unit, and you get extra money, which is great.
“So, I sat down. I looked through the list. Nothing really caught my eye, except infantry, which is the job that I have now. And so I chose that. It was also the soonest leave date that I had for basic, which was Aug. 19. And then after that, I did the medical portion. I enlisted that afternoon, and I was enlisted into the future soldiers program, which is the delayed entry.
“So, you train with your recruiter for that amount of time you have before you leave.
“I enlisted June 13. So, that gave me about a month, two months, to kind of prepare to leave. And then, it was just kind of a waiting game to leave.
“I was 18 when I enlisted (in 2019).”
Q: So, you started the whole process of actually being there and doing it last year.
Hannah Mergi: “I started the process two months before I left. So, yeah, it can go as fast or as slow as you want it to go.”
Q: How long is training that you've already graduated from it?
Hannah Mergi: “That was, for me, it was a 14-week program. So, normally the basic training portion is 10 weeks. And then other jobs will go to their AIT, which is Army individual training. That will be another set of weeks at a different base. So, some people might go to Fort Jackson and then go to Fort Sam Houston if they’re a combat medic. So, they'll do basic training at Fort Jackson and then go to Fort Sam Houston to do their combat medic training. But for my program, it was called OSUT, which is one station unit training. So, with that, I went to Benning, did basic training, and stayed at the same training company. I was there for all 14 weeks, training with the same people – the same drill sergeants – the entire time. All those 14 weeks were just at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Q: And what was that process like? What did you do over those 14 weeks?
Hannah Mergi: “Oh wow. It was intense. It was challenging. It had its moments where it was fun. And then it had its moments where you just, you wanted to throw your hands up and say, ‘I'm done.’ But at the same time, you kind of thought to yourself, ‘Who is this benefiting if I quit now?’
“There were definitely times where I kind of sat there and was like, ‘Why am I doing this? Like, why am I here; this is so awful. Why would anyone want to do this?’
“And then there were other moments where I was like, ‘This is so cool. This is so fun. I wouldn’t be doing this in my everyday job. This is amazing.’ So, it's kind of like you’re given a pole kind of situation where you're bonding with all these people and you're having fun and you're getting in trouble, but it's funny at the same time; and then there's other things where you're just like, ‘All right, this is a serious situation. I could get seriously hurt if I mess around with this.’ So, it kind of balanced itself out.
“For basic training, there was a lot more, like, basic Army principles that we learned and different things that everyone else learns at basic training – so, your basic rifle marksmanship, that's when you do like your gas chamber – which is the CBRN training, doing basic first aid.
“There was so much we did. Confidence course, which was basically like an obstacle course. And then there was another obstacle course. And what was fun was, some of these things, they were kind of turned into a competition between everybody. So, the obstacle course, we went up against each other. Our team would go, and then the next team would go, and the next team would go, and whoever had the best time was the team that won. So, it kind of made it more fun with that.”
Q: Is it structured like a school day? Do you do it for a certain amount of hours every day, or how does it work?
Hannah Mergi: “So, you'll wake up in the morning at about – depending on what you're doing for PT that day – you'll wake up at about 4:45, 4:30. Get downstairs by 05. Start PT and end by around 7:30. You'll go get breakfast; you'll come back; you'll change into your uniform for the day; you'll either go to the range; you’ll do a class or you'll stay there and clean, or just do something.
“You're always doing something. There is never any free space. Like, if there is, you're still doing something. So, like, you're cleaning your weapon, or you’re cleaning your gear; you're cleaning the bay or something like that. So, there was never any, like, unknown to what we were doing. Like, you knew you were always going to be doing something every single day.
“Then you would go to lunch. After that, you would still be doing something. You go to dinner. After that, you would do something for a little bit. And then when we would get our brief, our nightly brief, that we would get for the next day. Like what time we had to be up, what time we had to be downstairs, what the uniform was. And then we would go to bed around 8 or 9 o'clock. And then we had to be up super early, like 4 o'clock, 3:30 – then that was 7 o'clock we went to bed. We were going to bed pretty early every night, which was great.
Hannah Mergi participates in gas chamber drills as part of basic training at Fort Benning. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Fincher Mergi)
Q: So that prepared you, now, to take the next step, which is what? What is the next step now, after you're trained?
Hannah Mergi: “So, after basic training, there were a couple of us that went to fulltime recruiting. That was coming home for two weeks and working with the recruiters that recruited you. Because they all went through basic training, but that was like 10, 12, 13 years ago. I'm fresh eyes; I just came out of basic training; I have the most fresh experience from it. So, if these have kids have any questions, I’m the one that can definitely answer them with the most accuracy.
“And after that, I reported to my first unit. So, your first duty station. A lot of other kids, actually, reported directly after graduation. After graduation, they saw their family for like 10 minutes, and then they were put on a bus and shipped all the way out to their duty station. Unless you were National Guard, then you just went home with your family.
“So, I reported to my duty station two weeks after I graduated; and they sent me actually straight back out on leave, because we are deploying in February-March timeframe. They wanted us to kind of get leave and go see family, like kind of do that before we're not able to see them for nine months. Because once we got back from leave, it was hit the ground running with classes; paperwork; any in-processing that you had to do, any kind of medical that you had to take care of before we left; getting your gear – because there's training gear that we get and then there's also deployment gear. So, that's all, like, the newest gear that you can get from IOTV (improved outer tactical vest), which is the bulletproof vest; to your helmet; to your knee pads, elbow pads, uniforms, everything.
“So, you're taking care of pretty much all of that; all the while you're doing classes, requalifying your weapon, and all this other stuff. They sent us on leave to go see our families before all of that stuff started.”
Q: When you go back, what do you do on a day-to-day basis? Are you training to be in the medical field? Are you training to be a soldier? Is there a difference?
Hannah Mergi: “The day-to-day basis for me, as of right now, is I'm up by 5 o'clock. I have a room inspection every day. So, they come in and inspect your room and make sure it's clean, tidy. Every day at 5:30. I go to PT. I have PT until 8. And then after PT, I'll have work. It starts at 9:30, so we have to be there at 9:30. And then after that first formation for work, they'll kind of release us to do whatever we need to get done for that day, whether it's in-processing if you just got here, like myself, or if it's getting something done for, like, your squad leader, or any other paperwork they need to take care of, go print out, what have you. Or training, because we're not really in a training cycle, but there's still training that can be done.
“So, they'll have a class or they'll teach us how to do certain things. With that, they'll train us, they'll teach us different weapons systems, or different tactical ways of movement, or different missions that we’ll conduct. So, that when we get over there, it's not all new information.
Q: Is that sort of how it works, that they agree they're going to give you training in the medical field, but at the same time you are a soldier and you could be called back to duty – so you also need to know how to be a soldier. Is it sort of like serving those two masters at the same time?
Hannah Mergi: “So, with infantry, actually, I get it, there's this little course that I have to take: the combat life service course. That is the only medical training I will get. That is all I get. That's the basic, ‘All I need to know if I'm in a pickle and I don't have a medic near me.’ Other than that, I am the grunt on the ground that's doing everything else. So, I am knowing my weapons systems – I'm knowing how they work, I'm knowing how they function, I know their rapid rate of fire. I'm kind of that person that is there to defend everything else.
“There's like your chain of command. So, I have people that are way above me. I'm a private, right. There's me and two other people on a team with a team leader. My team leader is they can either range from a sergeant, or a specialist. My team leader is a sergeant; and then I'm in a squad, so that's two teams. Two teams of four people – eight people in a squad.
“So, we'll do, like, missions all together as a squad or a platoon, like it ranges from any size. In order to do that, we all have to be training together, and we all have to be prepared and learning. We're always constantly learning new things and always constantly refreshing things that we already knew, in case there was something that we forgot.
“That's the other thing, is we're always constantly training. Like it's always training, training, training, training, training. So, when we get back from deployment, it will more be we’ll have that downtime to go see family and do the holidays and all that other stuff. But as soon as we're done with that, it’s straight back into the training cycle.”
Q: To be soldiers?
Hannah Mergi: “Yes. To be infantrymen. So, we're going to the field almost every other week. Going to JRTC, which is JRTC (Joint Readiness Training Center), not JROTC – which I got confused with at first – which is down in Fort Polk, which is a joint training. It's like a joint training event. So, you come and you train in the field, and you work on your live fires and your tactics and everything. You kind of get it down almost to a science. And with that, like, you kind of want to work with it so much so that you don't even have to think about it, but you do it – you just do it. And that's kind of the goal when working with your team or your squad or platoon, or anything in general, is you want it to look so smooth that you've been doing it with each other for years.
“But other than that, right now we're just preparing to head out.”
Q: What is the job that you would want to have when this is done? When you finish your commitments and you’re back out amongst the lay people, if you will, what would be the job you would want to have? What would be the career that you would be in?
Hannah Mergi: “When I get out, I want to go back to school. I want to go back to school. I definitely want to go back to nursing school. That's definitely something that I want to do.”
Q: So, you see yourself heading then into a nursing capacity?
Hannah Mergi: “Yes.”
Q: This says that you, as far as they know, where the first Niagara County woman to graduate from this program. Were there a lot of women there in general with you?
Hannah Mergi: “Yes.”
Q: There were.
Hannah Mergi: “So, we started out, so, 30th is the in-processing facility. That's where you get all your uniforms, your medical, your glasses – like everything; that's where you get all that done. So, we started out with 57 females. We had three actually drop out there. One had family issues. And the other two, they just, it wasn't for them already. They just didn't want to do it. And then once we got to basic, it slowly trickled down to the point where we graduated with 34 females in total.”
Q: Out of about how many people?
Hannah Mergi: “Out of 200. We started with 270. We graduated, I want to say, 160.”
Q: Still a small percentage relatively speaking.
It is very rigorous and intense. What's that part of it like? What’s the mental part of it for you? How challenging was that – or maybe it wasn't challenging for you, I don't know.
Hannah Mergi: “It was a little bit of both. Like, there were times where it wasn’t really challenging and I kind of saw people finding it more difficult than I was, and I was just kind of confused. I was, like, ‘Wait, what, like, this isn't that hard.’ But then there were other parts where I would be like, ‘I don't know why I'm doing this. This is just so difficult. I don't know how I can do this every day.’ And then the next thing you know, I did it.
“So, it was kind of such a whirlwind that I was like, I started it one day, and then I felt like literally the next day I graduated – it just went by so fast. And everything was just happening so fast, that you just kind of – you didn't have time to stop and take a breath and realize what you had just done; until I think, honestly, I feel like the moment that really just kind of defined it all for me – and the fact that I actually did it and accomplished it – was the march to Honor Hill, which was the last ruck march that we did after our final field training event.
“It was considered our, like, bayonet march, which was you were carrying gear and litters, and the drill sergeants are throwing all these artillery simulators, so like the whistle and then the big explosion and all that stuff. So, they’re throwing all these things at you and you literally had to hit the deck. And it’s a concrete road, so that hurt. And you have this, like, 35-pound bag on you, and then any other gear that you had; you had a weapon, which you carried around with you for 14 whole weeks. So, you just kind of hit the deck and didn't think twice about it. Like, ‘Listen, this is real. I need to just get on the ground.’ So, any scrapes or bruises you got, you didn't even realize you had them until the next day when you took a shower and you're like, ‘Wow, that's right there.’
“But that was, I think, 9.4 miles, which wasn't actually too far in the grand scheme of things. Because normally those are like 18-16 miles; but we had actually lost time, because of weather. So, we had to kind of scale everything back and like kind of rush through things. But we still got, I would say, a good value in training.
“So, we actually got to our final destination, which was just this, like, range. It was this open field. We got there early. So, we kind of went in there and took an hour-and-a-half nap, essentially. And then we had to get up, put our rucks back on, and then go up to the gates of Honor Hill, which is these two gates with golden eagles on top. And those have been there since forever, but every single person that is graduated from infantry has gone through those gates. And you went through them, and you sat down your rucks, and there was another set of gates, and those are the official gates to Honor Hill. And in the middle was this big fire there, there was music – like intense music playing – and then there was just all the infantry company units, unit crests on this board.
“And you walked in, you got a cup full of, like, grog, which was sand, seltzer water and Powerade, because it’s Sand Hill. So, you got a cup of that, and you kind of set it by your foot, because that was what we were going to toast to, to the fact that we had just finished. But then that moment in time, that's when you kind of really felt like you were part of the brotherhood – and you made it.
“And to me, I actually started to cry, because, at the beginning, I didn't think I was gonna finish. I thought I was gonna quit. I thought I was gonna quit, like I had quit everything else. Because I dropped out of school, I had this kind of mentality of like, ‘I just quit everything and I'm never going to amount to anything in my life.’ And so, completing this kind of reassured me that I can do this, and I can do anything that I put my mind to.
“And so, raising that cup and toasting to the fact that I had just become an infantryman – like everyone else who had stood there before me – was very empowering and it was very cool to see everyone around me who had finished. And that was just an amazing experience and amazing feeling in and of itself.
Q: Yeah, sounds like it. Now, you guys were in training together.
Hannah Mergi: “Yes.”
Q: So, Nathan, what was your training like for you? How would you characterize your experience?
Nathan: “I definitely didn't expect to meet Hannah. I expected to go in there and it be all boys. And turned out that it was gonna be boys and girls, so that was a nice surprise.
“For me, it seemed easier – easier than I expected. I was expecting something more hardcore and, you know, the drill sergeants being able to push you around, or get physical with you, and they weren’t. They were just verbal.”
Hannah: “Which, I think, it was honestly more mentally challenging in and of itself, the fact that they could get more verbal with you. And I think that's kind of what made us into stronger people at the same time, because words can definitely hurt. So, in order for you to come and take those words and just kind of brush them over your back, it kind of make you a stronger person.”
Nathan: “I think it makes you stronger. If you strengthen your mind, you can get through anything physically. If you strengthen yourself physically, if you have a weak mind, you won’t be able to get through as much.
“I mean, they've obviously figured it out, so maybe that's what they’re doing.”
Q: Almost half of the women that started didn't finish. What was it about Hannah that you think enabled her to complete this process and be successful at this? What did you observe about her as far as her capability to get through this?
Nathan: “She's a leader … whether she realizes it or not. Everyone looks up to her. Just going through basic training, everyone knew Hannah. Everyone knew her as like the mom of the group. ‘If you have a question, go to Hannah. If you need something, go to Hannah.’
“Hannah knows what she's doing. She has a plan for everything. It seemed like you had it under control.”
Hannah: “I did not (laughs).”
Nathan: “Fake it till you make it, I guess.”
Hannah: “I mean, I tried to keep it together as much as I could. Like, I tried to be as strong as I could, because I know, like every time I saw someone strong, I needed to be strong. So, I figured, again, do that for other people, because I know how much that motivates me.
“Another weird thing that I always thought was it motivated me to motivate other people, which seems weird, but every time I was motivating someone else to run faster or I’m kind of like, ‘Don't catch up to me. Don't let me catch up to you.’ Like on a PT test, I would always yell that behind more of the slower people. I would say, ‘Don't let me catch up to you.’ And every time I would catch up to them and go past them, I would just see them sprint right past me. Doing that kind of helped motivate me to keep going, as well.”