I served in the US Navy for a few months in 1986, five years in the early 90s, and another year and a half in the reserves. I was never asked to shoot someone. I never pulled a trigger when the weapon was aimed at a person. I served during, but not “in” the first Gulf War. I served during “peacetime”, or at least that’s how I thought about it. However, over the last few months I have been thinking more about my time in uniform, realizing the lasting and deep effects that experience had on me.
Three nights ago I had a dream in which I was being assaulted. One of the two offenders in my dream was someone from my division on the ship, someone I have not seen in over fifteen years. I woke up wondering what that was all about, but I gave it little thought as I went on through my day, my happy, productive day. Everyone has weird bad dreams sometimes. Civilians just have ones with less gray paint.
When I was on the ship I lived in, essentially, a locker room. My 38 roommates and I slept in 13 triple-stacked bunks in a berthing space the size of my current living and family rooms. Before the Navy I hated locker rooms. I wasn’t frail, but I was a geek in high school and no athlete. I hated the inevitable comparisons. In the Navy I hated showering next to a 198-lb functionally retarded man who could bench press 500 lbs and who, because he had joined many years before and outranked me, treated me like a child. I hated the regular joking about sailors being gay, complete with accompanying grabbing of each others’ bodies. Yesterday when changing at the gym I was completely comfortable in the locker room, thinking about the class I was going to teach a little later.
Here’s something weird: I never heard about any crime on the ship more serious than a regular, playground-style fight. I never heard about a sexual assault. I never saw any sign of any actual homosexuals. (My gaydar wasn’t completely oblivious, as I had been around the “family” a lot in my previous college years.) I never saw anyone shoot or get shot in the line of duty or otherwise. I never really faced an enemy. I never had to deal with a fellow sailor who was obviously a “bad guy”, someone who would, in the boring movie version of my life, be seen as any kind of villain.
There are a lot of people I know now who I like, but don’t trust. There were some people I served with whom I really didn’t like, but I trust them, and would still, with my life. And afterward it wouldn’t change how I feel about them.
Three guys I played poker with died in a plane crash. When you deploy 10,000 sailors and soldiers on metal ships with guns, bombs, torpedoes, fuel, and high voltage equipment on indifferent seas for an indefinite length of time, some don’t come back. It doesn’t matter whether it’s “peacetime” or not. They were on a E-2C Hawkeye reconnaissance plane coming in for a landing on the carrier when they got waived off. They started to gain altitude for another pass, but stalled out right after clearing the flight deck. A carrier has four screws. We never found a piece of the plane larger than a surfboard. I don’t remember their names.
My ship was in the Adriatic Sea enforcing the no-fly zone over the former Republic of Yugoslavia. We left to go home, relieved by another AEGIS cruiser who was, like us, fully provisioned and armed with Tomahawk missiles. We didn’t even make it home before we found out that the relieving ship got to fire some of her missiles. Lucky bastards! We had trained and trained — we were ready! — but we never got to fire a shot. Of course, nobody wants to kill people. Even then I knew I was lucky not to have to live with the burden of having killed.
What I didn’t realize is that, in training, in making myself mentally and emotionally ready to pull the trigger, I had already lost something. When we hurt others, we are diminished. Soldiers who are willing to do this, are willing to diminish themselves, do diminish themselves. The sacrifice is admirable, but it is a sacrifice just to prepare to kill. It does change you to prepare for war. Some changes can be more obvious, some are less so.
I am fine. I am healthy, physically and mentally. But I did not serve in combat. Many, many men and women are serving in combat now or have served in combat before. My experience was approximately 1.4 million times easier than their experience. My experience was also at least a thousand times easier than that of my wife and every other military spouse. Preparing for war takes your mind off the dangers involved; if it didn’t few people could follow through. Staying at home waiting for a loved one to return provides no such distraction. Thank you, my precious wife Dawn, for your sacrifice.
These days, I am living the dream, living the good life, the sweet retreat. I think of my father who helped identify targets for bombers during Vietnam, who now is a retired minister. I look at my children, and I hope they will serve others. If called, and am confident they will respond and serve with honor. However, I dearly hope they will never have to carry a weapon. I wish that nobody did, but some people must.
The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
– Thomas Jefferson