It’s become customary to thank veterans nationwide with this terse response. Whenever I see active-duty folks in airports or supermarkets, I make it a point to walk up, extend a hand, and thank them for their service. Just this week while attending a St. Bonaventure University men’s basketball contest I walked up to a couple of ROTC cadets who were recruiting and thanked them. It’s a nice gesture, especially for veterans my age who served during the Vietnam conflict when we were routinely mocked and, in some cases, spit on.
Now in many villages, veteran banners are displayed on light poles and elsewhere thanking us for serving. In our community, I walk by them daily, and I like to read them and note their particular service dates and assignments. Many served in combat areas while others like myself did not, but what is common to us all is that we answered a call to serve our country. I enlisted in the United States Naval Reserve in June 1972. I volunteered after receiving a notice of pre-induction physical. My draft number was 65. I knew I was going to be called up but managed to finish a year of college prior to that event.
I was frightened. Who wouldn’t be? Folks were still coming home in body bags and torn up by the rigors of war. I was opposed to the Vietnam War and had recently marched in an antiwar demonstration near the campus of Oswego State. Some in our generation fled to Canada, and who could blame them? Vietnam was a war of choice that benefited the military-industrial complex far more than the citizens of either Vietnam or the United States. Was I going to move to Canada and never see my family again? That didn’t seem realistic.
I set out on a discovery process. I took the AFQT (Armed Forces Qualification Test). A test to join the military? I thought all they wanted was warm bodies. I looked at the Coast Guard and the US Navy. I qualified to be an Ocean Systems Technician with the USCG, but they wanted a six-year commitment. That seemed like a long time to a nineteen-year-old. The US Navy had four years of active service. I flinched at that but the Navy recruiter told me about the naval reserve. He gave me an address, and with my grandmother at my side, we drove to nearby Jamestown, New York. I met Petty Officer Leonard Tullar on that day which changed the direction of my life. He explained the “2×6” program, two years of active duty, and the rest in the active reserve. The yeoman administered a battery of qualification tests which led them to suggest that since I scored high on clerical abilities, I was uniquely qualified to be a personnel man or a hospital corpsman. I can’t remember the exact timing of everything, but I made the decision to join as a hospital corpsman and took the oath of enlistment on June 21, 1972. I was guaranteed Hospital Corpsman “A” School at Great Lakes, IL.
That day changed the direction of my life for the better. I grew up in a home where I was routinely told by my father that I would never amount to much, and that I didn’t have what it took to be successful. I had faced an endless stream of verbal and physical abuse, and being called to war and an uncertain future didn’t seem promising, but it was.
I left for recruit training on August 23, 1972, and arrived at Great Lakes with hundreds of other guys. All the guys in Company 350 and our sister Company 351 were reservists. I met guys from across the United States who like me faced peril and uncertainty with courage. In the process, we transitioned from civilians to members of the United States Navy. Our company commander, MMC Boyd, named me “Education Petty Officer.” My job was to help the slow learners learn the Uniform Code of Military Justice, first aid, nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare. We were tear-gassed, learned how to fight shipboard fires, and graduated seven weeks later on October 13.
We reservists didn’t get the customary two weeks’ leave after recruit training. We went right on to our “A” schools. That was a trip across the road to Hospital Corps School. We were housed for eight of our fourteen weeks in wooden barracks built for World War II. We slept in bunks in open bay barracks just like we had been in boot camp. Our “head” or bathroom was a row of sinks and six commodes that faced each other with no stalls to separate. I never got used to that. After fourteen weeks, I graduated eighth in a class of sixty-eight. The guys ahead of me had been in pre-med programs and had four years of college. We learned anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, patient care, and then some.
I excelled in the Navy. Everything my father had said about me wasn’t true. I wasn’t lazy, I was an overachiever. After “A” school, I served in several duty stations. First, in Albany, GA, at a dispensary, I worked labor and delivery in the newborn nursery. Then I was transferred to Groton, CT, where I served at the naval hospital as the lead corpsman for four general surgeons. I was awarded Command Sailor of the Quarter in July 1974. I left active duty in January 1975 as a Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class. I surpassed my Dad’s rank. I served two more years in the active reserve, drilling once a month on weekends and two weeks in the summer each year. I was given the option of the standby reserve for my final year. On June 21, 1978, I became a permanent civilian with an honorable discharge still hanging on a wall in our home.
In 2008, I returned to Great Lakes to watch my nephew graduate from recruit training. The memories were flooding back. On the wall in the gift shop that day, I spotted a quote from John F. Kennedy that sums up how I felt then and now:
“I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.”