It was never easy
On the day I retired from the Navy, my crew presented me with a shadow box. That box sits on my desk and I look at it from time to time when I am not typing stories or checking out the latest on the Internet. It’s a nice box with beveled edges, a glass cover that has kept the dirt at bay for many years and a deep blue velvet background. The display is a chronology of my service from the time I enlisted until the day I retired. All of the achievements of my career are visible and each remind me about the one thing that all military people know and understand. It was never easy.
I took my first oath at the age of seventeen with my proud parents standing by. Like my father before me and his father too, I chose the Navy. I wanted adventure and travel and the recruiter had promised me that and much more. The Navy would give me the chance to grow and learn many things. I would get to travel to exotic parts around the world and experience so many things that I would never find in the Monongahela Valley where I grew up. He said that many sailors found time to achieve a college degree and if they worked hard, they could someday be a leader and maybe even an officer. But he was an honest man and added this stern warning: “It won’t be easy”.
Taking the oath of enlistment at such an early age was actually very easy. I guess in retrospect, the oath was just a step you had to take on the journey to where you wanted to be. Up until the moment I took it, I will confess that I did not think about what I was doing too much. But in the moments leading up to raising my hand and repeating it, the gravity of it came over me. For the next six years, I was going to be committed to doing whatever it was the Officers and Chiefs appointed over me would tell me to do. There were no half measures in making that commitment. If I failed, I would disappoint my parents, my friends, and myself. I remember a small moment of panic as I realize that I didn’t really know what was ahead. What seemed like such a simple step became a really big thing in that moment.
They lined us up in that room in the Federal Building in Pittsburgh. Stand at attention and raise your right hand.
“I, (state your name), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
And just like that, I took an oath that would change my life forever.
On either side of the shadow box are little brass plaques that say when and where I was stationed. Looking at them now, they seem pretty cold and sterile. There are twelve of them that represent the twenty plus years of active and reserve service. Interestingly enough, one of my commands is missing. When I look at them, I see something more than just brass. I see the sacrifices, the endless days at sea, the loneliness and the danger that many of them represented. A number of training commands, five submarines, one drydock and one submarine tender. They all have one thing in common: none of them ended up being very easy.
The ranks and awards make up the middle section of the box. Candidly, some took longer to achieve than I would have liked. For the longest time, I was convinced that the Navy would come to its senses and do things my way. Then, after a series of faltering steps, a wise Chief let me know in no uncertain terms that the Navy had done quite well for over two hundred years and if I really learned to accept that, I might make progress a little faster.
Starting over is never easy
I am lucky that I was able to completely reboot my career but as I have probably already indicated, it wasn’t easy. I learned that the oath really meant what it said. I also learned that in addition to the oath, there needed to be a strong willingness to sacrifice. I looked at those around me and saw many people who were giving their all to the service they chose. Don’t get me wrong. There were others who bitched, moaned and whined (BMW) every field day and duty day. The difference was, I decided not to be one of them. I took ever collateral duty I could, worked more hours than ever before in my life, learned new skills and polished up the old ones. No challenge was too great and I humbled myself as much as I could to achieve them.
During all of that time and ever since, I learned something about the men and women I served with. They all took the same oath. They learned what sacrifice was and learned to work together to achieve common goals. These are my brothers and sisters who share a devotion to their country and to the promises they made. Some fell along the way and some could not live up to their pledge. But on the whole, the people who I look back on now in my life with the most respect are the ones who discovered that even though it was not easy, you lived up to your oath. Even when the storms at sea knocked you about, you stayed the course. Even when it meant a ton of self-sacrifice, you honored your promise.
It is fitting that shadow box reflects the ranks in an ascending order to show the progression of growth. The ribbons are not as plentiful as some I have seen on current sailors and officers chests. But each one is a testament to the teamwork and shared sacrifices of my many shipmates. The dolphins represent membership in a unique brotherhood (that now includes a sisterhood).
The most dominant feature is the folded flag at the base.
This particular flag flew on a summer’s day over my last ship, the USS Hunley. If any of my previous commands had ever given me a hope that this one would be easy, that hope was dashed immediately. But with the help of my many shipmates (Chiefs, Officers and Sailors), we overcame some very large challenges together.
The flag at the base is a constant reminder that when you take that oath, there is something much bigger at stake than the temporary loss of some of your personal freedoms. It is the flag we all sailed under, protected with our service, and still honor today. I see the world around me now and worry that many people do not understand what it means to be counted upon. I see people too easily taking oaths or promises and just walking away with little to no remorse. I watch people who don’t get their way rioting in the street and refusing to commit any form of self-sacrifice.
But there is still time. We as a country can still turn the ship around. There are still many young men and women who have already raised their hands and taken that same oath. They need our prayers and our support. If you are not already a member of one of the many organizations that veterans have open to them, time to step up and do so.
I would just offer one word of advice:
It won’t be easy. But it will be worth it.