I served in the US Navy, but I can’t say that am a “veteran.” I was lucky to have served between wars: the Korean “Conflict” and the Vietnam War.
At age seventeen, I was one of those youths who entered military service to avoid a civilian life that, if it was going anywhere, was going in the wrong direction. I had no desire to serve my country; I was trying to get a new start.
There is little military tradition in my family—none on my father’s side, and on my mother’s side I knew that Uncle Harry had a role to play in civilian defense during World War Two.
I was a classic smartass. I was always one of the smartest kids in class. I graduated high school at age sixteen. I was skinny, wore glasses for nearsightedness, and was prone to “let my mouth overpower my ass.”
My father was my only male mentor throughout my youth. Dad was an intellectual forced by circumstance to be a skilled laborer in the printing trades instead of a college professor. Before he had to drop out of the University of California at Berkeley in his senior year due to the deaths of three of his senior relatives within one year, he had been in the ROTC—Reserve Officers Training Corps. He never talked about what he may have learned in ROTC, but he did wear his uniform for an official wedding picture because he had no suit at age twenty-two.
I entered basic training, “Boot Camp,” at the U.S. Naval Training Center in San Diego, August 23, 1954. Because I had not yet reached age eighteen I was serving a “minority enlistment,” which meant only that my enlistment would end the day I reached age twenty-one. It was also called a “kiddy cruise.”
Boot Camp was hell for me. I had no sense of personal discipline. It was quite apt, on our first full day of orientation, for the petty officer in charge of our barracks to tell us “I ain’t your mama, sailors. I ain’t gonna pick up your socks where you dropped ‘em.” The physical training was good for me, I realized after it was over in eleven weeks. But this one-hundred-thirty-nine-pound geek had been a heavy smoker since age eleven, had never engaged in physical discipline beyond playing stickball on 48th Street in Brooklyn and in running away from larger guys in Brooklyn and, later, back in San Francisco and Berkeley,whom he had inadvertently offended by his mere existence. And I had flat feet. I begged my father by telephone to send me arch supports for my boots which did ease the agony of marching.
Those eleven weeks did finally come to an end and I had become a healthy youth of one-hundred-fifty-six pounds. But before this narrative leaves boot camp I must mention the first military man for whom I developed an admiration and affection—the Chief Petty Officer who was our company commander. He had an Italian surname and he reminded me in stature, face, and manner of Uncle Harry. I was performing badly in my military discipline at around midpoint of my training. Because of the high score I achieved on my General Classification Test (GCT), I was eligible to be trained in electronics at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, near my home. The chief reminded me, by physically and verbally kicking my ass, that being smart wasn’t the only way to get the billet I wanted after Boot Camp. He got my attention and I shaped up sufficiently to get it.
I met other petty officers and line officers who had, what I later recognized as, the sense of duty, honor, and country which I absorbed mostly by osmosis. I particularly remember Chief Sellers of the OE Division (Operations-Electronics) of the USS Bon Homme Richard, CVA-31, during my time aboard this aircraft carrier, 1956 and 1957. I was poor performer, almost a malingerer. He never scolded or berated me; he just found me out and held me to account in a calm and deliberate manner.
I finally did advance to petty officer third class in my rating of electronics technician. In studying for the promotion, I came across this in the manual, paraphrased from memory: “discipline in private, praise in public.”
This was my first deep insight in the military tradition—it was like a light bulb had turned on. I later contemplated this, along with the example set by the two chiefs I have mentioned, as I went to university and later achieved the goal of becoming the chief executive of hospitals.
I continued to mature in my appreciation for the discipline and sacrifices undergone by the members of all the military services as the Vietnam war rose to a fever pitch. I have thanked God for sparing me this direct experience by virtue of my age and past service.
There is no need to recount what we all know about the horror of war and the fearful experiences of the combatants.
I will always honor any service man or woman in uniform. I was briefly in Afghanistan during a relatively peaceful period, before the first general elections in 2005. I was merely consulting to a not-for-profit organization on their management of several hospitals in the provinces outside of Kabul. I came across a soldier guarding a gate in Kunduz. While passing by him I thanked him for his service and asked him what part of the USA he came from. He said, in perfect English, that he was German. I thanked him again.
Duty, honor, country.
Let us not forget.