I always feel weird extolling veterans. Yes, even on Veteran’s Day. Not because they’re not deserving, but because it feels an awful lot like self aggrandizing. You see, in 1993, I enlisted in the United States Navy to be a hospital corpsman. I am a veteran.
I won’t write a column about how veterans are somehow super human. They’re not. I won’t tell you that they are more honorable than their fellow men. Unfortunately, veterans are made up of the same groups that make up society as a whole. What I will do is tell you what veterans gave up, even during peacetime so that those who haven’t served can understand what it was like.
My first day in the Navy lasted about three weeks. That was the perception, anyway. We pulled up to Great Lakes Recruit Training Command sometime after midnight. None of us were particularly tired, but we were ready for whatever was coming. For the next several hours, we went through screenings, initial issue of our Navy PT gear, and other such things. When I finally got to crawl into a rack, I fell asleep in an instant.
Unfortunately, a mere 45 minutes later, all the lights came on and it was time to get moving. A march to breakfast and we began to eat. I think I had something like four bites in me when we were told to get up and get moving. That first full day in the navy was made up of mostly paperwork, the most mind numbing of activities possible, with the exception of being able to audition for the command’s “Triple Threat” company, which consisted of the band, chorus, and drill team. I don’t play any instrument, and I don’t sing, so I auditioned for the drill team. I didn’t make it.
We were formed into our companies and marched to our permanent barracks. That night, I slept like the dead, but again, it was all too short.
At some point, boot camp became almost surreal. There was a part of my mind questioning whether the “real world” really existed. It was only for a split second, but it was very real.
Graduation from boot camp was beyond gratifying. We knew that the future held many things for us, and we were ready to get to the our “A” schools. For me, that meant coming back to Great Lakes, but that was fine. We were members of the United States Navy now.
For those unfamiliar with navy terminology, “A” school is the school you go to in order to become part of a particular field of work. In the navy, that is called a “rating”. I was to be a Navy Corpsman, which at the time meant the Naval Hospital Corps School in Great Lakes. There was also a school in San Diego, though both are now gone.
We spent weeks learning the health care basics, starting with first aid and then into combat medicine and finishing up with nursing. Just after we finished our combat medicine phase, we sat in the common room as the news carried coverage of Somalia. The corpses of two Delta Force snipers, Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon, were being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu naked.
Word began circulating that we were going to war. According to the rumor mill, our “C” schools – which are more advanced schools giving us a speciality – were being cancelled. You see, a life at sea is not necessarily the fate of the corpsman. We also provide medical coverage for the United States Marines. According to those rumors, that’s where we were headed.
Our instructors decided that this would be a good time to beat a lesson into us. They entered our classroom to address the rumors. “I’m not going to say it’s not true,” said Chief Sink. In an instant, every male member of our class had a gut check of sorts. For the senior member of our class, this was probably something he was used to. He had served in the army during Desert Storm. For the rest of us, we had the sudden realization that we were no longer at home.
As it turns out, we went nowhere. In fact, the chief owned up a few minutes later and told us that we were still safe. However, it was a reminder. Far too many of my classmates refused to even talk about the possibility of war. “I joined for college money,” they said. In an instant, they were reminded that they joined the United States Armed Forces, not the Peace Corps.
My next several years in the navy was an odd mix of being an adult and being treated as what felt like a child. Rooms had to be kept up, haircuts to regulation, and the other typical aspects of military life that most civilians think about were combined with the demands of being responsible for the lives of other people.
Also during that time, I and every other member of the military voluntarily gave up my rights. First Amendment rights? I didn’t really have any. I could practice whatever faith I wanted, but freedom of speech? Nope. Surely the military respected our Second Amendment rights. Not hardly. Military basis are great big gun free zones. Fourth Amendment rights? With a single order, I could be required to open up my locker so it can be examined.
It’s always struck me as a little ironic that those who we charge with defending our freedoms have so little of it themselves. I, and every other veteran you know, signed away our rights more or less so that we could serve as a wall against those who would seek to destroy what we hold so dear. Most of those who are serving now signed on the line knowing they would go to war.
I’m not going to tell you that veterans are anything special. I know I’m not, at least. What I will say is that my fellow veterans, particularly those who served post 9/11, deserve respect, not by virtue of simply serving, but because they gave up so much that we all hold dear and did so for the right to possibly die in order to help you keep it.