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.
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.
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.
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.
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.