My First Combat

43 years ago, I was preparing to enter the Navy. Although I was only 18, this was not a monumental decision for me as the Navy was our family business. On July 6, 1977, I followed in my fathers footsteps to Annapolis.

-PAXP-deijE

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Dad swearing me upon graduation as a newly minted Ensign, May 27,1981.

In those days, we were not a nation at war. Although the echoes of Walter Cronkite’s nightly reports of Americans ‘killed’ or ‘just wounded’ in Viet Nam still echoed in the back of my mind, I still had the sense that we may never go into war again. (Ah! the ignorance and bliss of youth!)

There are just a few signs of my Naval service throughout our home. Draped over the leather couch in the family room is a blue and white knit afghan blanket with our Naval Academy Class of ‘81 crest. Scattered throughout is the wedding day photo in my Service Dress White uniform, and another of Leigh with me in my formal Mess Dress uniform as well as framed copy of my military funeral memoir  (3 Minutes in Osceola Mills)  which hangs on the wall outside my home office. In my office, my Academy diploma hangs just below the ceremonial Naval sword and scabbard my parents gave me as a graduation gift.

 

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Sword and diploma.

Then there is “the box”.

On the middle shelf in the back storage room of the basement, tucked behind a lifetime of family photo albums and a pile of barely used camping equipment, is the white cardboard box with “PAT” written in red ink. Along with an assortment of mementos dating back to grade school and well into my real estate career, is a scattered, unorganized collection of memorabilia spanning my 12 years in uniform. From July 6, 1977, Induction Day, I have my original issue of “Reef Points”, the official handbook issued to each incoming Plebe; thru May 30, 1989, the DD Form 214 documenting my discharge from active duty.

Between these service-era bookends is a plethora of mementos, documents, and pictures. I have the ‘tissue copy’ of every written performance evaluation I received (just in case!) along with the ribbons, medals, dog tags, and various ship’s patches, and the “Blue Nose” Certificate for crossing the Arctic Circle. And more.

Some contents of “the box”.

The memories that race through my mind are endless, the meaningfulness deep, the legacy of lessons learned everlasting. I am reminded of the transition from that idealistic teenager of the 70’s to the energetic junior officer who could not get his pants on fast enough every morning to go fight Communism. Let’s face it, during the Reagan years, it was great to be in uniform!

The most meaningful accomplishment of my professional career will always be qualification as Underway Officer of the Deck on the aircraft carrier USS Independence (CV-62). At 24 years of age, I directed the nineteen man underway watch team and was directly responsible to the Commanding Officer for the safety and navigation of the ship during all phase of underway operations. This included flight operations, underway replenishment and when the Captain was sleeping. This also included when the ship was at “General Quarters”  (Battle Stations). During my tour we conducted combat operations in Grenada and Beirut. Nothing I have done professionally compares to the thrill and weight of responsibility of driving ’80,000 Tons of Twisted Steel and Sex Appeal’  through the water with 5,000 sailors and marines embarked, along with 90 combat-ready aircraft aboard. Nothing.

CAPT Bill Dougherty presenting U/W OOD Gold Cap on bridge of USS Independence (CV-62)

Often the ‘The Box’ brings up old sea stories and memories of traveling abroad. Today  I find myself a little more pensive, reflective on the concepts of service and sacrifice.

Like my first combat.

In late 1983, the Cuban backed military coup on the Caribbean Island of Grenada resulted in the first large-scale military operation (Operation Urgent Fury) since the Viet Nam war. Around 600 U.S. citizens, including American medical students, had been taken hostage. On the first day of the invasion, in routine preparation before “taking the deck”, I checked into the Combat Information Center (CIC), the heart of the ships operations. The entire room was brimming with activity and energy. A-7 and A-6 attack jets dropped bombs and F-14 fighter jets and electronic warfare aircraft provided air cover, keeping a watchful eye for a potential air response  out of Cuba. All this working together to support the ground invasion by Army Rangers and Navy SEALS.

All eyes turned to the center of the darkened room. The Tactical Action Officer, responsible for coordinating all aspects of the operation, was sternly speaking into a phone in one hand, while holding another secure phone in his other hand. “We have a wounded Ranger on the ground! We need a medivac chopper inbound. NOW!”.

The controlled, professional flurry of activity continued as I made my rounds preparing for the watch. While my eyes scanned weather reports, fuel status, surface ship activity, and planned maneuvers, my ears were attuned to the activity around me.

First I heard it.

“Hold the chopper. The Ranger just died.” A hint of deflation lingered in the air.

Then I felt it.

A cold, piercing silence punctured the collective ball of heightened  energy in CIC: It was palpable. Even with the leadership of senior officers and enlisted personnel with direct war experience from the previous decade, this pronouncement affected everybody in that space, in that moment.

While quickly the business of managing a war returned to a controlled, professional, yet fevered pitch, it was in this precise moment when I lost my innocence: This 70’s teenager got slapped in the face.

Simulating casualties in a training exercise, or hearing about ‘kills’ and ‘just wounded’ counts on the nightly news, is entirely different from hearing the live report that an unknown soldier has just died in the arms of his platoon leader. As I write this, I feel the same cold, piercing silence of powerlessness I felt when I first heard those words. I remember thinking, “This shit is for real.”

The next day, mounting battlefield casualties required Indy’s hangar bay to be used for medical triage. A helicopter landed on the flight deck. From my position on the bridge, approximately 40’ directly above the forward aircraft elevator, I watched the crew unload the stretcher.  I assure you, there was nothing ‘just wounded’ about the soldier with the  blood-stained, bandaged  stump where his leg used to be.

As helicopters shuttled in the wounded, the call for volunteer blood donors was made on the ships public announcement system. Within minutes it started. Hundreds of sailors and marines showed up and stood in line for hours, answering the call to literally offer their blood to help their wounded comrades-in-arms. There is no training or qualification program for this. Not everybody can be on the battlefield , or a fighter pilot, or a Navy SEAL – but everybody can find a way to support those who are.

Although I left the Navy in 1989, the stream of memories that from ‘the box’  make me feel as proud, and humbled, as the day I hung up my uniform for the last time. For those who served before me, with me, and after me  –  Thank you.

May 1989, Last day in uniform.

 

2019 Review

Books

2019 has definitely been a year of self-reflection, change and contemplation.  This is the year I turned 60, embraced care for my own mental health, began my “slow down” at work to focus more time with family, writing, traveling, and healing. My father’s continued endurance of Parkinson’s Disease has deepened my awareness of both my own mortality and the allure of learning more through bucket-list life experiences.

Lately I’ve been reflecting on the people who have, in some way, profoundly influenced me during my working career.  I’ve held 19 different jobs in my nearly 38 year working career.  This includes 11 jobs in the U.S. Navy, 4 at public corporations, and 4 industrial real estate brokerage firms.   I’ve been promoted to jobs, fired from jobs, and left jobs for better jobs. While I’m currently coming up on my 9 year anniversary (my longest stint) of what will likely be my last gig, I’ve had stints as short as 4 months, plus a combined 7 months “between jobs”.  Each stop gave me the opportunity to work with people who have showed me lessons of personal and organizational leadership that have impacted me meaningfully.

One of my immediate goals for 2020 is to write 100 “Thank You!” notes to some of those people.  Although I clearly understand the impact of receiving a handwritten note, the fact is my handwriting is so terrible and generally illegible (should have been a doctor, but I still blame Sister Rose from St Anthony’s for rapping my fingers with a wooden pointer in the 8th Grade!) that I’ll end up using a keyboard.  After all the spiritual maxim, “Gratitude begets Grace” works because of how gratitude makes the sender feel, not necessarily how the receiver reacts.

One of those notes will be to Gary Nalbandian, who was co-owner of my first real estate brokerage firm.  There are a host of life-lessons and eternal truths I picked up from Gary.  One is, on speaking of maintaining healthy work-life balance, it is important to have a support team that includes a therapist, a chiropractor, a massage therapist, an acupuncturist, a spiritual guide, a meditation practice, Tarot card reader, and an overflowing library of inspiring books.  Well, maybe I threw in the Tarot cards, but his point is simply that it takes a village if you want to keep your sanity and achieve your desired level of success.

The specific comment Gary made on books was, “If you get only one new idea out of every book you read, and you read 1 book per week, you will get 52 new ideas every year to help you become the person you want to be.”

One book a week?  My reading goals have been a bit more modest, say 1 book per month (hey 12 new ideas ain’t bad, right?), but I have, more often than not, even fallen short of that abbreviated goal.

2019 has been a good year for me in this regard.   Here are the 17 books I read this year and one of the ideas (each gave me multiple ideas, by the way).

  1. The Fields- Sammi Leigh Melville. Science fiction is not my go-to genre, but Sammi is a friend I met through the improv community here in Harrisburg. She had invited feedback from people to review her work in process.  When the book was published (her first) I ordered and found myself delightfully sucked in while my toes were stuck in the sand in January.  I later read in the Acknowledgements where she had listed those of us who had in some way contributed.  It was a profoundly beautiful way to start of the year!
  2. Origin – Dan Brown. Dan Brown’s balance of informed irreverence and great plot writing has never disappointed. Artificial Intelligence is clearly here and affecting the way we live, and the way I think about “What is my purpose?”
  3. Her Christmas Protector-Geri Krotow. Reading Harlequinesque romance novels is not my go-to (although I have been known to get sucked into the Bachelor/Bachelorette vortex from time to time.) Geri is a friend and fellow Naval Academy alum who uses her Naval Service as an Intelligence Officer as a backdrop for her military influenced romantic reads. She’s written over 20 books and they are fun (plus, it’s never bad to learn some new romantic ideas to keep the fires lit at home!)
  4. Peaks and Horizons- Charles Carroll. This was a gift, from our daughter Caity, to read prior to our trip that included visits to Tibet and Nepal. Aside from the silly things humans of all cultures will do in the name of love (i.e. cross the Himalayas) it was a superb primer on what we would experience with the China-tization of Tibet. It’s really good when paired with the film “Seven Years in Tibet”.
  5. Can’t Hurt Me – David Goggins. A solid autobiography by a special warfare operator. No matter what the pain is, you can keep moving through it.
  6. The Tao of Pooh- Benjamin Hoff. Another primer for our big trip this year. Buddha, Confucious and Laozi were pretty deep thinkers; I found it helpful to have it broken down in more simplistic terms by Pooh and friends
  7. Sixty- Ian Brown. Sent to me by my Plebe Summer roommate, Guy Williams, this is an exceptional accounting of the year that he turned 60. A terrific read as you hit this milestone. “When we close our eyes, we’re all the ages we used to be.”
  8. Everything is F*cked. A book about Hope- Mark Manson. This follow on to his “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” is ingenious, and genuinely gave me hope.
  9. Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens. A great story on prejudice, hope, friendship and survival.
  10. Rules of Civility – Amor Towles. A phenomenally well written fictional period piece recommended to Leigh by the authors’ cousin. I can not emphasize how great the writing is in Towles’ books.  Fabulous!
  11. The Great Alone- Kristin Hannah. A heart-pounding story of love, survival, commitment, and the very real impact of post Viet Nam War PTSD on the families and friends.
  12. My Life & The Principles for Success- Ross Perot. With this year’s passing of fellow Naval Academy graduate Mr. Perot, his real estate company, Hillwood, passed these out to its business associates/partners. The greatest professional honor of my civilian career has been to represent Hillwood in several real estate projects in Central Pennsylvania. His treatise on the core values that led him to such great success is really good.
  13. A Gentleman in Moscow -Amor Towles. Much like his Rules of Civility, the story-telling and word-smithing is absolutely delightful.
  14. They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us – Hanif Abdurraqib. Recommended by my friend Melissa Ford, this is a collection of writings by a black Muslim from Ohio who, as a college freshman, sat in his dorm watching the twin towers fall on 9/11. Much like the book “The Hate U Give”, this reminded me how little I know about racism, sexism, religious intolerance and white privilege.  A really great read.
  15. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone – Lori Gottlieb. A great read on psychotherapy through a therapist’s eyes (they are humans too, you know!).
  16. Impeach- Neal Katyal. An interesting read by a constitutional lawyer. Politics aside, its very good for me to read about the founding fathers and the U.S. Constitution I had sworn to protect and defend.
  17. This: Becoming Free – Michael Gungor. My therapist recommended it and I really am enjoying the circuitous route of his spiritual journey of Mega-Church Pastor’s son turned Mega-Church Pastor turned agnostic with more turns unfolding. I’m halfway through and it reminds me of the old saying, “The longest way round is the shortest way home.” Also, on his suggestion, I tried my first “flotation therapy”.  I’ll be going back.

 

Like Gary said, taking just one idea from each book has made 2019 infinitely more fulfilling; I’ve been exposed to ideas, cultures, circumstances that I otherwise would not have.

I hope you have picked something up to help with your journey as well.  There are some good books out there!

And Gary, thank you very much for the opportunity you have afforded me; your leadership and life lessons continue to have a profound on me and my family.