January 30, 2009

Act 3-1/8, Scene Y: On Being a Vet

When I left the Navy in '73, I couldn't get out quickly enough. I was ready for a change. The service just wasn't for me.

On the plus side, six years had reinforced what my folks had preached about responsibility, and the Navy added to that. I became a man. (Don't smirk. It's true. This is a SERIOUS column.) Additionally, I met a lot of guys I felt -- still feel -- I could count on, if push came to shove. I saw much more of the world than almost all my childhood friends, and I had experiences they'll never duplicate. (I told you, no smirking!)

Moreover, the job security was great. Had I stayed in for 20 years and kept my nose clean, I'd have wanted for little. I may even have had a second career, possibly with the Uncle Sam -- and my current pile of retirement bucks undoubtedly would be bigger. (Wow, I just made the Navy sound really good! I almost want to re-up, 'cept that I'm waaaay too old -- you can smirk over the "re-up" part, if you want.)

In the end, though, the minus side overwhelmed the plus. My first three days in bootcamp convinced me that I would return to college. Later, though my job was more mechanical than the electronic rating I held, it was also more limited. Transistors and integrated circuits, harbingers of the computer age, lay in my path. And I really hated electronics. My Navy future, therefore, didn't look promising.

My family moved an unbelievable number of times during my childhood. I went to three different kindergartens, for cryin' out loud. (Of course, at 26, not all of these things ran through my mind. I just wanted out!) On some level, I think I knew the nomadic life wasn't for me.

The U.S. military was, and is, peopled with thousands of outstanding men and women. The very few incompetents (and one or two scumbags) I did encounter, however, made civilian life extremely attractive. I was certain that, shed of the military, I'd have an out I didn't otherwise, the Johnny Paycheck Option. That is, if what I'd be doing "in the real world" became unbearable, I'd just tell 'em to "Take This Job and Shove It!"

This may seem egotistical, but I just couldn't accept the real possibility that some incompetent petty idiot literally could hold the power of life or death over me. Of course, I've since found that civilian life has its warts, too -- especially as marriage, kids, a mortgage and other responsibilities creep into your life -- and the JPaycheck Option quickly vanishes.

Life has taught me that it takes a special sort of individual to make the military his or her life. It's not mine, but I admire my friends and others who have served, and I thank God they did!

Most what follows here is from a career Navy friend of mine, with whom I've recently regained contact. I think he sent this particular message to me because I recently retired, but he sent it to others, as well. It offers much insight, whether we're a one-hitch vet, a "lifer" or have never been in the military. I've edited it a bit for style, brevity, etc., mostly because, as a former editor, I can't help myself. Here it is:

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When a veteran leaves the "job" and retires, some of his friends may be jealous, some pleased and some may wonder if he knows what he is leaving behind. Those of us already retired, do.

We know, for example, that after a lifetime, the camaraderie that few experience will stay with us as a longing for those past times. We know the military life is a fellowship that lasts long after we've hung our uniforms in the back of the closet. And even if we throw them away, we'll wear those uniforms with every step and every breath that remain in our lives.

We also know how the very bearing of the man speaks of what he was, and in his heart still is.

Conversely, these are the burdens of the job:

Veterans still look at people critically and see what others either don't see or choose to ignore -- and we'll always look at members of the military world with respect for what they do, because we know.

"Lifers" have a lifetime of knowing. Never think for one moment a vet escapes from that life. We merely escape the job, leaving active duty.

So what I wish for you is, whenever you ease into retirement, in your heart you never forget for one moment that you are still a member of the greatest fraternity the world has ever known.

* * *
I've thanked my career veteran friend for sending this little essay. It hits the bullseye for me. I hope you got something out of it, too.

If not, well, maybe we can just dance....

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