On Veteran’s Day

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.

My Grandfather, George Pagonis and his son, my Uncle Harry–basic training at Ford Ord, California.

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.

Artemis Pavellas and Conrad Pavellas. 1935

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.

Near the end of Basic Training

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.

About Ron Pavellas

Expatriate American living in Sweden with wife. Retired from employment in the USA. Currently focused on blog articles, memoirs, and creative writing.
This entry was posted in History, Military Service, War & Peace and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to On Veteran’s Day

  1. Anna Pagonis-Pitts says:

    Dear Ron,
    Thank you so much for these reflective thoughts and appreciation for those who serve. It is most heartwarming to learn something about the role my father had and contributed to you. I think of him so often, he is always in my sweetest of thoughts.


  2. Eric Gandy says:

    Last Sunday was Rememberance Day, Poppy Day, in Britain. In my home town, Widnes, the crowds gathered at the war memorial in Victoria Park to remember the local men and boys who gave their lives in the Great War and WWII. All their names are inscribed on the memorial. Cadets, sailors, soldiers, airmen followed the local brass band which, with many young members, played well-known marches. Hymns were sung, prayers said, flags and regimental colours paraded, veterans in regimental berets saluted, suits weighed down by medals, polished shoes shining in the afternoon sun.
    After the wars, several relatives and friends made careers in the services. In most cases they came out better than when they joined.


  3. Whoever says:

    Hi, Ron,
    Really enjoyed this post. I come from three generations (four, if I count myself) of Navy, and am a Navy brat, so my experiences and family traditions are a bit different than yours


    • Whoever says:

      Whoops! Accidentally seem to have hit “send.”
      Anyways, I wanted to say that I appreciated your post, and to add that the tradition and capability of our armed forces could not be maintained if people did not serve during peacetime, and also that it is important that “ordinary” civilians serve a hitch to ensure that the armed forces don’t become too detached from the people they exist to serve.


    • Ron Pavellas says:

      Thanks for your response, ‘Whoever.’ Possibly I started something. One of my sons was in the Coast Guard (last duty aboard one of the only two ice-breakers owned by the USA), and another did a stint in the USN, serving aboard a nuclear aircraft carrier.


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