There are a handful of intensely proud moments of my life and not surprisingly, most have something to do with the military, either as a Sailor and Officer or as a military spouse. The commercial “America’s Navy — The Shield” -recently released around the time of the annual Army-Navy football game– captures in a few seconds what it feels like for me, and probably others who have proudly worn the uniform, when I think back to all the experiences I’ve had over my military career. Trying to explain that life to “civilians”, even the closest of family and friends, proved even more challenging during the holiday season as peacetime military service morphed into humanitarian service and then surreally, into global war on terrorism. I mention my service in previous posts but today is a bit different. So, for those of you in my life who wondered what I failed to share because I didn’t have much time to hang out during those short visits home, this is for you.
My list is by no means inclusive as I’m a retiree, a veteran and a military wife, so my experiences are wholly personal. Nor is it exclusive. I’ve learned how to deal with others from completely different backgrounds, religions, cultures, countries, family lives, moral and ethical differences. That’s my big takeaway after 20 years, having the ability to work with others, understand their viewpoints, manage their expectations. I still don’t like crowds and I would rather be in the background making the calls, rather than out in front center stage. This is the closest I’ll probably come to sharing my experiences in one shot.
1. Bootcamp was a cake walk. It’s nothing like the movies and, at the same time, it is. As a woman who went through recruit training when the infamous Navy Tailhook scandal was still raw and fresh, I look back with a smirk. For an only child who never had to share space or toys, recruit training beat out any possible prima donna notions I may have had when I landed in Orlando.
I’d spent the previous 11 months preparing mentally and physically for Orlando’s now-defunct boot camp so I knew how to do a “manly” pushup (no knees on the deck for me!) and I had my hair cut to meet the regulations, trying to avoid the base barber’s shears like my fellow male recruits. HOWEVER, my cute chin-length bob was cut again shortly after arrival– not once, but twice, when my company commander, a salty E6 tough-as-nails, Goldwing-riding woman, decided that my hair was too unruly underneath that
pisscutter garrison cap. Luckily, one of the girls in my squad had some styling experience; not a lot, mind you, but enough to fix it for the next 8 weeks of training. Sad to say though, if I didn’t wear makeup or earrings, I still looked a lot like a 12 year old boy.
By graduation day, I learned that all of us arrived with a bit of baggage and some needed a little more attention. Most of us made it to graduation without having to repeat any training. None of us went through completely alone.
2. Shower curtains exist but not everywhere. There are shower scenes in certain movies that remind me of my bootcamp experience, none of them remotely favorable. The shower scene in 1997’s Starship Troopers was a thousand times better than any of my shower experiences in bootcamp. My goodness, there was more than one shower head, so there’s space between bodies. There’s nothing fondly memorable about several women of ALL different shapes and sizes, buck-nekkid around a shower tree, trying to figure out what the H-E-double L you’re supposed to look at during your 5-minute-timed shower. The floor, yourself, the ceiling? Aagh. And don’t even think about flushing the toilet during showers! At least give a warning “Fire in the hole!”
3. You’re never alone. Not completely. From day one of boot camp to your last day in uniform, even when you want to be alone, you really aren’t. That’s just not how we did things. My supervisors knew my business, even when I didn’t share anything. Good officers and chiefs, the senior enlisted sailors and heart of the Navy, are trained to notice when things are “off” or at least that’s what I’ve always believed.
Prevention is the best medicine and being aware of any underlying factors could help prevent a bad situation from getting worse. Sadly, there are outliers in every scenario. The suicide rate has gone up especially as our involvement in global conflicts has increased. I won’t go much into that here, but you can read further here, here, and here.
4. Deployment life was good when it was bad and boring on all other days. Groundhog Day, the movie, can’t hold a candle to a deployment at sea or on land. It’s hard for me to really describe this well, but I’ll try anyway.
A few years ago, I calculated that I spent about 18 months at sea over the course of a two year assignment. To this day, that tour was the best in my 20 year career. Sure, there were days when I hated climbing out of my bunk and heading down to my office. When I had one of those days, I reminded myself that I had an office with a door I could close when over 4000 others on my ship enjoyed personal space only when they went to the toilet. Even I slept in a bunk with a dark blue curtain dividing me from my roommates. (Remember #3 above?)
Some shipboard or ship-related events are personally memorable, but not necessarily good. The naked sailor who’d had a wee bit too much to drink at a liberty port and was found riding a carnival ride with his clothes in a pile nearby. (Why the ride operator let him on buck-nekkid is beyond me.) Memorable for me as a duty officer, not good for the sailor.
The kid who decided that he would hurl himself down a ladder hoping that he’d break a leg so he could get off the ship–screaming “cut it off” in the emergency room (he got some bruises and a bruised ego, but no broken bones). Memorable for our medical team, not good for the sailor.
Spending your 34th birthday on the flight deck during night landings, standing about 20 feet from where the jets stop on a dime. Yes, some are truly memorable and unforgettably good.
The humdrum life. When you are deployed in harm’s way and you pray that you all return home safely and in one piece, you know your mission from the start. However, I’m here to tell you that there’s an adrenaline rush when your skills are put to the test. In Afghanistan, the only times I got that rush was when crap hit the fan, and on my schedule, that was always at night and into the wee hours of the morning. Successfully getting back to a normal pace meant all pieces working together for however long it took to gain normalcy. Being able to positively affect and potentially save lives…that was the reason we were there.
5. When I see/hear “_______”, I think of “______”. There are so many stories that all veterans can share, much like sitting around the campfire. I’ve only got enough heart to share these for now…
When I see a canister of Pringles paprika flavor, I think of my old roomie, a critical care nurse from New Orleans, who was known to eat an entire canister in one sitting after a long night.
She came to the Navy with years of civilian experience including Hurricane Katrina. Her first Navy deployment, during her first year in the military, was to Kandahar taking care of dozens upon dozens of critically ill patients: The triple amputee British translator whose grandfather sat by his side for weeks as the British military prepared paperwork for him and his family to move to the UK. The Air Force pilots who were shot down outside Bastion, one never to regain consciousness, both medically evacuated to Germany within hours of arrival at our hospital. The triple amputee little girl whose father had to learn to change her colostomy bag. The nursing baby who was shot in the head through her mother while they rode on the back of a motorcycle in a busy marketplace in Bastion. The civilian contractor whose illness was so grave that he wouldn’t survive a flight to Europe and whose company balked about sending him to the closest trauma center that he ended up dying in our ICU, after making one last phone call to his family. The beloved American paratrooper who was a week from redeploying home to his family after a year in the Argandab Valley; he died 45 minutes before his wife, also a soldier deployed to Kabul, could be flown in to say goodbye. The young Ranger who was shot on a Kandahar city rooftop in the middle of the night. And these are just the patients I can recall immediately.
My roomie is my hero. She’s still serving, but this time with the Marines in West Africa. I can’t send them any care packages this Christmas because they aren’t able to receive mail, but I can send her an occasional email or Facebook message. I’m glad that she’s still in the military because frankly, she’s a rare find. She came out of a Kandahar deployment with all her wits about her, although she had a crazy schedule, cared for critical patients like a revolving door, was away from her children for months at a time, and had to learn about military life on the fly. She’s authentic and real and brutally honest. There are many who serve like her. If you meet her or someone like her, strike up a conversation. She’ll tell you the honest truth. And isn’t that what people want to hear?