As a young boy I grew up with dreams instilled in me that I could become anything I wanted to be when I grew up. I had many such dreams - astronaut, fighter pilot, super spy, daredevil motorcyclist, bionic man, super hero, Jedi Knight, and the list goes on. Notice these are all very 'larger than life' ideas - especially for a kid who grew up in a small town in NE Tennessee. School came easily and I embraced the idea of learning. I excelled at history, languages and music - but found excitement in math, science and technology. I played football but wasn't a star. I was in the band and JROTC. I was a regular at multiple video arcades, played war games and role playing games (D&D). Yes, I grew up a nerd (we didn't really know the word geek in this context at the time).
While I loved learning everything I could, and had tried many things to try to gain a little respect among my classmates (would a few friends or even a date be too much to ask?) I was a certified genius. Which meant I was too much a nerd and, socially, completely inept. But, I found solace in the structure and organization presented to me through ROTC - the military way. We didn't command any respect from the school or students outside our class, except when the color guard carried the flag before sports games. But, within that structure, at least the rank I wore and my accomplishments within the unit were respected - and therefore I felt it as mine. There were no questions about who was in charge. There was a clear path to the top of the pecking order.
Put in your time, do well at your job, jump through the clearly-marked hoops, and voila - promotion!
Naturally, for me, I dropped most of my more outlandish dreams and focused on the idea that I should become a fighter pilot in the US Air Force and maybe an astronaut. So, when I first ventured off to college, I signed up for the Aerospace Engineering major and I talked to the Air Force ROTC folks. They were perfectly happy to take me and help me on my path. Put in 4 years in AF ROTC, graduate college and get commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force. If I wanted to be a pilot, that was cool - but I would have to pass a flight physical by Air Force standards. One silly eye was not naturally 20/20. So, there went my dreams of being a fighter pilot.
But, I happened to talk to the Army ROTC department as well. And they offered me a better deal. Since I had spent 4 years in JROTC, they would place me in the advanced program - meaning I would skip over the first two years of Army ROTC. While still in college, I would be commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army Reserves just after finishing my Sophomore year. I would spend my last 2 years in college in the Reserves and upon graduation transition to the Regular Army with 2 years in grade - meaning almost immediate promotion to 1st Lieutenant. So I jumped on that grenade.
I rethought my dreams and figured I could be James Bond - super spy. I signed up for Russian language (it was the cold war after all), all the science I could get my hands on and all the computer courses the university had to offer. I also dived right into all sorts of "special programs" in Army ROTC. I tried out for the college football team and actually made it - not a star, but competent enough to wear the jersey and warm the bench. I had a plan! I was on my way!
Did I mention that I was a nerd? Yeah...
I may have forgotten to mention that I also had ZERO self-discipline. Everything had always come easily when it came to school. I never learned study habits. I never learned work ethics. I had always had someone telling me how to live life. I was always the smartest guy in the room, which meant I had the notion that I knew it all. I was such a fool. And I paid for it - in my grades. I finished that first quarter with a 0.0 GPA. The school told me to take some time off and go grow the hell up. I had crushed my own dreams.
I tried another college but didn't do much better. I think I had a 1.2 GPA over 2 semesters. So, they cut off my financial aid. And then the bills for school started to hit - hard. What could I do?
I had not learned much of anything through my experience. Sure, I had held a couple jobs. Even had gotten paid for doing some programming, but that didn't fit with my dreams. Enter the US Army.
I had not graduated college. But, they were still willing to recognize my genius (max score on the ASVAB). I couldn't be an officer, but the JROTC time would let me start as an E-4 and I could still be a spy - just not a super one. Bonus - literally a sign-on bonus of $7,000 - and they would pay off my student loans and give me even more money for college! I had it in writing!
I had a plan again! I was again on my way!
So, off I went to US Army Basic Training at Ft. Dix, NJ. I had fun there. I had rank over most of my fellow trainees, but the Drill Instructors were smart enough to realize I wasn't mature enough to really lead. But, they could teach that. It was what they did. But, I was very resistant to the whole idea of not being the "teacher's pet". I was just one more trainee among thousands. Somehow I survived the experience and grew a bit in the process. I excelled at marksmanship (been hunting since I was 4 years old). And I got in shape for the first real time in my life. I dropped 35 lbs in 8 weeks and was comparatively fit physically. I still had an ego, though. (You'll see a recurring theme with this.)
I did my Advanced Training (AIT) at Ft. Devens, MA. I was going to learn how to be a spy. What a learned was that being a spy wasn't all dry martinis, tuxedos and gorgeous ladies. It was pretty boring. Oh, I excelled at it - it was easy stuff to learn anyway. But, I tended to look for other things to do outside the coursework. I met some wonderful people that way. I learned lots of things as well. learned that full-bird colonels and majors are just people - older people, but just people. I learned that there are many, many ways to get out of menial duties. I learned that mass transit systems are awesome (Boston subways and Amtrak). I learned that I loved Boston for its food and history. And I learned how to drink. I learned that last one very well - had a great tutor! (yes, this will come back to haunt me later)
After graduating from AIT in record time (it was self-paced training) I was going to be posted in Europe! I had trained for this. Gonna go spy on them Ruskies! But, apparently the Army changed its mind at the last minute and said they needed my skills in Hawaii instead.
Posting - 501st Military Intelligence Brigade, 731st Military Intelligence Battalion, US Army Field Station Kunia, HI.
So, instead of Berlin, I was going to Oahu. Instead of showing those damn Reds who was boss, I was going to stand against the...uh...who were we spying on in Hawaii? I didn't even know we had Army there. Thought it was all Navy (Pearl Harbor - duh!).
USAFS Kunia, HI was an underground, multi-service facility about 1-2 miles south of Schofield Barracks on the northern portion of Oahu. We barracked on Schofield in a beautiful new set of buildings in A Quad which looked more like a college campus than an Army post. The Army hosted the facility, but we had Navy, Air Force and Marines working there.
I had a live mission. Meaning, I had a job. No training for me. Just go to work every day, do my job, and go home. Physical Training Exercises (PT), Firing Ranges, Bivouac, Deployments, and other messy endeavors were something the rest of the Army did. I worked a rotating 6 on/2 off shift. That was to create an unpredictable schedule in case us spies were being watched by 'the enemy'.
We were right across the street from Wheeler AFB. Close drive to the North Shore for surfing! Not a very long drive (nothing on the island is really that far) from Waikiki. And my job allowed me access to every military base on the island (except for the Pearl Harbor Sub Base). I went everywhere and tried everything I could think of.
I learned a lot during my time in Hawaii. I learned the the Air Force had dining facilities instead of mess halls. I learned that most of the soldiers at Schofield thought we created nuclear weapons in our underground tunnel. I learned the catch phrase "I can neither confirm nor deny that." I learned that one does not body surf in Hanauma Bay in January unless one has a death wish. I learned that when the locals get out of the water, you get out of the water. I learned it takes only 2 hours to drive around the entire island of Oahu. I learned rock climbing, surfing, snorkeling, caber toss (a long story), ice skating (yes, in Hawaii), and photography. I finished a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Science. Great life, huh? I was living the dream!
I also learned a lot about some things that would be considered not so great. I learned that a young, white, male in Army green with a military haircut was not cool on The Island - the wrong side of racism hit me in the face...literally. I learned that there were many bars open at 7:00 am. I learned that strip clubs are just exercises in frustration. I learned that a motorcycle can scare the bejezus out of you when you exceed 130 mph in under 5 seconds. I learned that the Air Force takes a dim view of you being drunk on their base while in your car and dressed like a person of suspicion in a female barracks invasion (even if you are too inebriated to stand or see). I learned that the Army is a baby factory. And I learned how to start and screw up a marriage.
But, mostly I learned how to screw myself out of a good life. Which means that I self-destructed my Army career. With my ego, it only took me 3 years to do it.
I won't go into many more details about my time in the Army as this post is getting way too long already. But, I want to tell you about what it has meant to me to be a veteran. How has being a veteran impacted my life? In short - not bloody much.
Yes, I look back on my time in the Army and know that I was performing a duty which was important at the time and I know did that job well. I offered up my life in service for the exchange of a bit of pay and a few perks while I was in. I am honored to have been a part of the organization and to have known some very great people.
Having served as I did during the Cold War, I never saw combat. I never really did much of anything of distinction. Never achieved anything of merit. And never showed any valor. I skated by as I always had. I was too damn immature to recognize what I had...what I could have been a part of for the rest of my life.
So, I was kind of embarrassed about my time in the Army for a very, very long time. I never took it upon myself to find ways being a veteran might have benefited me...not that there were many at that time (late 80s-early 90s). There were no programs. There was no healthcare. There was no "thank you for your service". No one cared. And, I was still immature, married, had a kid and was getting by on crappy jobs and living in public housing. Yeah...being a veteran was great.
Fast forward 25 years. Divorced, relocated, remarried. I joined Freemasonry. And I finally had matured a bit. I met some great men of great character. And I many of these were veterans. They had pride in what they had done. They had pride in having served their country. It showed in their eyes, in their bearing, and in their hearts. They didn't care that I didn't really accomplish anything while I was in. They just knew I had, at one time, offered the ultimate sacrifice to put myself between the dark and the light. So, I was one of them.
These great men taught me some of the greatest lessons I could ever learn. Mostly, they taught me to take pride in what I have done - good AND bad - because all those things have made me who I am today. And all those life experiences were opportunities to learn how to be a better me.
I will never be perfect. I am not even sure if that can be defined. But, I can learn from my mistakes and try to do better the next time. I can try to be better today than I was yesterday.
So that is what being a veteran means to me.
Specialist, E-4, US Army