Veterans Day

I gave a talk at our school Veterans Day assembly today. I didn’t get everything I wanted to say in, but it seemed to go over well.

So, I thought an awful lot about what I wanted to say to you today. What message I could bring that would be of use to middle schoolers, and I want to talk to you about why you might want to consider joining the Navy after high school. Now, I’m not a recruiter, I’m not here to sell you some schickt or a bunch of meaningless jargon. I want to tell you what the Navy did for me, and what it could do for you too.

I joined the Navy when I was 18 in 1995, which probably seems like absolute ages ago to all of you, but it seem like yesterday to me. I was a rambunctious kid, bit of a troublemaker, you might say. And for me, at the time, college was simply not in the cards. I knew I needed to do something with my life, but I didn’t know what it was. I wanted to travel, and my dad was in the Navy when he was young and he went all over the world, so it sounded like a good idea for me too.

So, I signed up and shipped off to boot camp in Great Lakes, IL in October, graduated in December. After boot camp, I went to engineering common core, then I shipped off to San Diego for “A” school where I learned to be a machinist.

After San Diego I was assigned to the USS Platte, an oiler. We were a floating Caseys, a gas station for all the other Navy ships in the sea. We would pull along side another ship, the gunners mates would fire lines across to them, they’d pull the lines tight, and we’d run big hoses over to the other ship.

Then we’d just steam across the Atlantic pumping millions of gallons of gas over to the other ship. That was our job.

I went on two Mediterranean deployments during the three years I lived on the ship for six months each. During the deployments I visited Portugal, Spain, Gibraltar, France, Italy (spent a lot of time in Italy), Greece, and even went to Israel once. Back stateside we went to the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands once, and north to Nova Scotia once too. That was a blast, you can ask Mrs. Buys about that, she was there for that one!

Back then, and remember this was in the ‘90s, it was peace time, and we were an oilier, so keep that in mind, but we’d go from port to port, spending a week or two underway before pulling into port in another country for a few days. We’d get maybe a day to go explore wherever we were, sometimes go on an MWR trip or something. But, it was a blast, but it was also a lot of hard work. When you’re underway, there’s nothing better to do than to learn everything you can about the ship. And play cards. We played a lot of cards.

I got to travel, I learned that I loved the ocean, I was a firefighter on the ship, and I worked hard and became a radioman. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

After the ship I was transferred to a small joint-services command in rural England, six hours West of London in Cornwall called JMF St. Mawgan. This was a shore command that counted as sea duty for ship-shore rotation because it was so remote, but it was amazing. The Navy shipped our family over, and our Jeep, and we rented a farmhouse right outside a tiny little village. What we did there was… classified, and I was never sure if it was ever unclassified, so, we’ll just move on. I was a radioman and handled communications. The facility itself was underground in a building built to withstand a nuclear bomb. There were armed British guards at a big turnstile, then a long concrete tunnel, then you’d turn and it was another long concrete tunnel, then you’d come to a massive red 50 ton door, then a decontamination station, and then you would be in what was basically an office building.

We loved rural England so much we stayed an extra year. I spent four years there total, and it was another fantastic experience I’ll never forget. I was in England on 9/11. When everything changed. That’s a story for a different day.

Eventually, my tour in the UK came to an end and I had to move once again, this time the Navy shipped me all the way from lush green England to the high desert of Albuquerque, NM, where I was assigned to another special duty command, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which used to be the Defense Nuclear Agency. We built bombs, and they sent me every now and then up to the desert in Nevada north of Las Vegas to handle communications for testing these bombs. The base in Las Vegas was an Air Force base sectioned off into different areas that numbered up into the 50s.

After three years at DTRA, the Navy told me it was time for me to go back out to sea again. At this point, I had to stop and take stock of where I was in life.

I had joined the Navy 11 years prior with nothing but the shirt on my back. I was leaving with a family, a home, and the skills and confidence to build a career on. I looked at my young family and thought about all the long months out to sea and being apart from them, and decided that at this point I’d served my time, so I chose not to reenlist, and was honorably discharged in October of ’06.

This was meant to be a really short overview of my time in the Navy, but what I’d like for you to take out of it is that while I did work hard, harder than I ever thought possible for me, I also had some of the best times of my life in the Navy, and had experiences and went places that I never would have been able to otherwise. Navy life is unlike any other military service, or any other job.

Speaking of jobs,

No matter what kind of job you are thinking of going into when you grow up, there’s an equivalent in the Navy. The Navy is a microcosm of the United States, there’s people from all walks of life in the Navy. If you want to be a plumber, there’s a job for that. Computer programmer? There’s a job for that. Doctor? Yep. Mechanic, you bet! Construction? Absolutely, we call them the Seabees.

Don’t get me wrong, when you sign that dotted line to enlist in the Navy you are putting your life on the line. The shipboard environment is hazardous, and our ships are targets for our enemies. I’ve made, and lost, the best friends of my life in the Navy, and I’ve had friends who’ve suffered debilitating injuries. Life on the ocean is for the brave.

Being a sailor is an old service with old traditions. The Navy needs sailors to man the ships, and the ships of the United States Navy make up the most massive display of military power the world has ever known. It was an honor to be part of it. But more than that, more than flag waving and patriotism, if you want to be pragmatic about starting your life out on the right foot, the Navy is unique. You travel and serve, you do what you’re told when you’re told to do it. You learn just how hard you can work, you learn how to deal with emergencies and life-threatening situations. You learn, by pushing yourself further than you think you can go and rising to the occasion, just how deep your strength really goes.

I joined the Navy in 1995 with literally no possessions but the shirt on my back. I left eleven years later with a family, a home, and a profitable career path. Not everything has been roses and unicorns, but thanks be to my savior Jesus, I’m blessed more than I have any right to be. I owe that to the Navy. When I enlisted I signed a dotted line that I was willing to lay down my life for my country, but at the time the only country I was thinking of was a country of one… me. But what I learned in the Navy was that I wasn’t putting my life on the line for myself, I was doing it for my shipmates, for my family, for my kids. I put my life on the line because the country that let a dirt poor troublemaker from a Montana reservation rise up the ranks to be a respectable homeowner is worth defending. Because in America, where you were born does not dictate who you have to be. Your family name, your race, your checking account balance… none of that matters more than how hard you decide to work. You can wallow in your disadvantages, or you can rise above them. In America, you are not born who you were meant to be, you make your own destiny.

Do we have problems? You bet we do. Big ones. But you can’t help solve them until you solve your own. You might find yourself someday in the same position I was at 18. Listless, restless, no direction. In that case I hope you remember this, that I was once like you, and what worked for me, might work for you too.

And along the way you might find the best friends you’ve ever had, you might meet the love of your life, and you just might find a deep sense of patriotism that goes beyond waving a flag or slapping an eagle sticker on your bumper. I joined the Navy for selfish reasons, what I learned was that we did what we did for each other. For the man or woman standing next to me holding the line, fighting the fire. To keep the people we love safe, to maintain our way of life, a veteran put his life on the line.