Thank you for your service

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.”

Time to man up

Yesterday on Vietnam Veterans Day I had the privilege of listening to a lecture from a guy who’s pissed that Joe Biden is president and that gas prices are high. In the spring of 1972 I registered for classes that coming fall. I went home like all the other kids expecting to see them in August or September. When I got home there was a notice of pre induction physical for the draft. There was no sophomore year nor junior and senior year either. In August when my former classmates were slapping each other on the back and shaking hands I was in recruit training at Great Lakes, Illinois. 

I don’t regret my naval service. I’m proud to have served this country. I still have my dress blues even though they don’t fit. There was a time I prayed that my brother and later my son wouldn’t have to serve in the armed forces but I’ve come to believe compulsory national service would be a good thing. A recent poll of Americans revealed that only 55 percent would come to the aid of the country if we were invaded. 

We’ve spawned several generations of folks who think they’re entitled to life on their own terms no matter what. On the world stage we’re witnessing the brave people of Ukraine fend off invaders and the disruption of life as they knew it by a bunch of lawless thugs led by the man who tried to subvert our democracy. I’m sure they’d be willing to endure high energy prices for some peace and freedom. 

Freedom isn’t free. Doing what you want when you want how you want with no regard for others isn’t citizenship. It’s lawless and childish. If you’re still driving a gas guzzler 50 years after the energy crunch we lived through in the 1970s then you’re not too bright. End of rant.

I served in the United State Navy

Today marks the 47th anniversary of my release from active duty in the United States Navy. January 17, 1975 attired in my dress blues drove to the Naval Submarine Medical Center in Groton CT where I was stationed. I said goodbye to the folks I had gotten to know in the past year of service at the medical center and then walked through the clinic area to the main desk of the naval hospital. I saluted the officer of the deck on duty and received my orders and the manila folder with my service records. I don’t remember how I got to Bradley International Airport but from there I flew home to Buffalo New York on Allegany Airlines. My mother and grandmother were waiting for me at the Buffalo airport and drove me home to Arcade, New York. I was on active duty for two years three months and ten days. I was released a month and half early from my original rotation date to attend college at Community College of the Finger Lakes. 

A month later I reported to the Naval Reserve Training Center in Buffalo New York where I became part of CV1703 which was the reserve unit I was assigned for the balance of my time in the active reserve. I have lots of memories of those days and this 17th day of January will always be with me. I was drafted in the spring of 1972 after completing the freshman year at SUNY Oswego. I enlisted in the USNR on June 21 and went to recruit training on August 23. I can’t remember the day or the details of my high school graduation nor the first or last day of college at Oswego but I will never forget my time in the United States Navy. I’m proud of my record of service to the country. I was blessed with great duty assignments and great comrades in arms. I still have my uniforms though it’s been years since I was able to fit into them. My one regret after all these years is that I didn’t stay in touch with all those folks with whom I served. The words of John F. Kennedy summarize my thoughts well. 

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.

August 23rd

Until 1972 the twenty-third day of that month had no special meaning. However on this day in 1972 I left my home in Arcade, New York drove to Buffalo Airport and boarded an American Airlines Boeing 727 and made an all expenses paid trip to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. I was anxious and my future was uncertain. One of my seatmates was a sister from a religious order. We talked as we climbed out of Buffalo and made the one hour plus trip to Chicago. I don’t remember what she said, but her mere presence was a comfort to a young man on his way to the US Navy Recruit Training Command at Great Lakes, IL.

After finishing the freshman year of college at State University College at Oswego my parents handed me a letter that contained a letter notifying me that I had been drafted and the need to report for a pre-induction physical. That notice frightened me and I set to work immediately considering my options. Would I abandon my country and flee to Canada? Would I be drafted into the US Army and go to Vietnam? All of this seemed like a death sentence to a nineteen year old. I began to visit recruiters and take some battery tests which determined what skills I had that might be useful to the military. One of those recruiters and tests was at the United States Naval Reserve Center in Jamestown, New York. The test showed an aptitude for details and mathematics. The recruiter, Mr. Leonard Tullar, told me that my test results would qualify my for dental technician, personnelman and hospital corpsman.

I liked the idea of becoming a hospital corpsman. If I was going to war I wanted to go where I’d be helping people to survive. Becoming a hospital corpsman was voluntary because of the inherent danger of possibly being assigned to the US Marines as a field medical technician. I enlisted on June 21, 1972 and deferred going to recruit training until August 23.

That day had arrived and after deplaning in Chicago I followed a group of other young men who were also headed to Great Lakes. We all rode a “green” official US government bus from the airport to Camp Barry. There we were checked in and assigned a numbered square to sit on. Anyone who’s ever served will appreciate “hurry up and wait.’ That’s how we spent most of August 23 until we finally had our first navy chow which was forgettable. It was probably spam or ‘shit on a shingle.’ We got to bed late that night and up very early the next morning. It was the beginning of a great transformation from civilian to military life. I never did go to Vietnam. I graduated from recruit training after serving as our company’s education petty officer. I went on to “A” school and became a hospital corpsman. I served in labor & delivery, newborn nursery, became an ambulance driver, worked for four surgeons as their lead corpsman in the surgical clinic at the Naval Submarine Medical Center in New London, CT.

Every year since then my mind wanders back to Great Lakes and my initiation into the US Navy. I remember the men I went to recruit training with and the men and women I served with. I cannot remember the day I started kindergarten nor the date of my high school graduation but I will never forget August 23 nor Friday October 13 when I carried the American flag at the head of the 13th battalion of the Naval Training Center as we graduated and followed the orders to our new assignments.

I returned to Great Lakes in 2008 to see my nephew graduate from the recruit training command and even fell asleep under a tree near the “grinder” where we marched that day in October 1972. I saw a quote that day that had meaning then and now.

“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,'” – John F. Kennedy.

Be a neighbor not a nut

Most of the pro-gun folks have serious insecurity issues that need to be addressed. Phobic fear of your neighbors and “the government” is what fuels most of these kooks. Just today while waiting to purchase a coffee and sandwich in a fast food establishment I heard a couple of sixty-something fellows blathering about their right to own an assault rifle. The AR-15 is a weapon of war. It’s not designed for accuracy. It’s designed for maximum rate of fire. They are not good for target practice and they’re less than ideal for serious hunters.

Occasionally I hear folks thanking me for my military service. If you’d really like to thank me in a meaningful way, advocate for serious gun reform. The rest of us law abiding citizens shouldn’t have to abide your desires to own military hardware. Don’t tell me it’s your 2nd amendment right. It’s not. The 2nd amendment is about being part of a well regulated militia. If you want to be a real member of the militia then join the National Guard, Army Reserve, Marine Reserve or sign up for the regulars. Visit your local recruiter for details. Serve your country not yourself. You’ll get great training and maybe some marketable skills too.

I spent five years in the United States Naval Reserve. I have fond memories of service to the United States of America. Fortunately I never experienced combat nonetheless I took the same oath of enlistment as those who did see action. Volunteering to put your ass in harms way is not something to be taken lightly. One of the greatest things I learned was how to be part of a team. Working with others for the common good is something everyone needs in their life. Moving away from parochial views and seeing a wider world was a great experience. It’s been four decades since I wore navy blues but it’s an experience I will never forget.

The Executive Officer Wants to See You

I had been at work a few hours taking care of the neonates in the newborn nursery at the Dispensary of Naval Air Station Albany GA. I was working the afternoon shift and as I recall I was getting ready to take the infants out to their mothers on the OB ward. That’s when the charge nurse gave me the message that the XO wanted to see me. I was concerned. What could the executive officer want. I put on my gown and left the ward and headed to the office where a US Navy Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman was seated waiting for me. I entered the office not knowing what to expect. Try as I might I cannot remember his name but I remember what he looked like and what he said. “Watkins, I hate to be the one to tell you this but we’ve just received word that your father died today.” Though the news was a shock it was not entirely unexpected as Dad had been ill for a number of years.

The senior chief told me I didn’t have to finish my shift and that I could return to the barracks immediately. I told him that I’d finish my shift. He instructed me to go to base personnel in the morning and they would be processing my emergency leave and travel orders. He told me not to hesitate to call him should I need additional assistance. I returned to work in shock but the infants whom I cared for ministered to me that evening. I had last seen my Dad in March. We had spent a fun week touring Northern California, eating salmon, going to the Samoa Cookhouse, going to a basketball game with my sister. In fact it had been the most fun I’d had with Dad in years. It all ended too quickly. We had made plans that when I was released from active duty in a couple of years I would come to California and enroll at Humboldt State. Now, those plans were dashed.

The next morning I went to base personnel and they had all my paperwork in order and soon thereafter I was on a plane headed home for my father’s funeral. My plane was late getting into Hartsfield International so when the Albany flight landed the airport personnel took me and my bag and drove us to the waiting Eastern Airlines jet that would take us to Buffalo. I remember my brother picked me in Buffalo and drove me home. It was all surreal and yet I remember it like it was yesterday and it’s been forty-seven years now.

Dad was only forty-six when he died. That seems very young now. I will always remember our last morning together and how he hugged me and told me he loved me. I told him, “I love you too.” Then I turned and walked toward the waiting Hughes AirWest turbo prop that took me towards home. Though he’s been gone these many years he’s never far from my memory nor is this twenty-sixty day of July when I recall once again that afternoon in Albany and the kindness of the executive officer, the nurses and fellow corpsmen and dental technicians and the infants who comforted me.

Breath of life

It’s that season in the United States when some folks roll out the “real Christian” card and it’s usually around a woman’s right to choose. I hope most folks choose life. I’m glad my Mom chose life. Even with its ups and downs it’s been a great life. That being said I do support a woman’s right to choose. There are many who assert that life begins at conception and while that may be their belief I believe that life begins at first breath. I used to work in labor and delivery forty some years ago while serving in the United States Navy and babies had to take their first breath. Some babies had difficulty and required extra help and we were there to assist them. Breath is the miracle of life. All living things breathe therefore breath is life.

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. — Genesis 2:7

Drupalcon

I’ve been at Drupalcon DC since Wednesday. I came to DC to learn as much as I could about Drupal and I have learned a great deal. I also wanted to get together with my nephew Tom who is a member of the US Navy Ceremonial Guard here in Washington. Last night after a very interesting day at DrupalCon DC I called Tom and we got together for dinner at Clyde’s, a downtown eatery. The food was excellent and I really enjoyed visiting with Tom.  I’m very proud of him and his naval service.  I let him know that. I told him that any young man or woman who volunteers for military service in a time of war has my deepest admiration and respect, not to mention my prayers too.

I’ve had a great experience here in the Alexandria, VA and Washington, DC area. I left DrupalCon a little early today so that I could spend some time on the mall and maybe stop at the Smithsonian. I did get in a nice walk all the way around the Washington Monument and back. I stopped at the Museum of Natural History and picked up some tulip bulbs for my wife. She loves to garden and this will be a way to remember my journey.

Sweet Victory

I’m in Oswego, New York this morning. I’m sitting at a Macintosh in the new campus center. I came here last night to watch the Fredonia State Blue Devils compete in the SUNYAC Men’s Basketball Championship. The Blue Devils prevailed in a close contest winning in the final 8.5 seconds on a driving layup by Junior guard, Brad Coooper.  I brought an overnight bag in case they  won and I got to use it. I stayed overnight at the Scottish Inn near the college. I’ve stayed there a number of times when our son Devin was playing for the Blue Devils. I miss seeing Devin play and wish that his basketball career could have lasted longer. I never would have thought that my allegiance to Fredonia State would have continued, but it has. I’ve been a member of the Fredonia Boosters since Devin was playing and I’ve continued my membership. 

I’m really delighted for the young men of this year’s squad and happy that they can be in today’s final game which will be played at Laker Hall on campus here at SUNY Oswego. This afternoon’s opponent for the Blue Devils will be SUNY Brockport. Brockport’s got a great team and they’ve prevailed against Fredonia in two earlier meetings this year. Nonetheless, whatever happens Fredonia State Head Coach Kevin Moore can take pride in his team’s accomplishments this season.

After last night’s game I text messaged my wife, my daughter Dara who is a Fredonia State Senior and my son Devin who is former Blue Devil player. We were all excited and happy for the team and especially for  Kevin Moore.  Like all coaches Kevin has had his ups and downs and I was happy to see him so elated with last night’s victory. I’m hoping that the Blue Devils can upset Brockport today, but even if they don’t I’m glad that I’m in Oswego this morning even though it is only 7 degrees above zero.  Life is never what we expect. It is full of pleasant surprises and ironies and this morning I’m sitting in a building that didn’t exist thirty-seven years ago when I was in the middle of my second semester at SUNY Oswego, but I’m in full sight of the campus that did, the dorm I lived in and the buildings in which I attended classes. Thirty-seven years ago I had no idea that I would be transformed from an Anthropology major to a Hospital Corpsman in the U.S. Navy in less than a year. In the ensuing thirty-seven years I would complete an enlistment in the U.S. Navy, meet a lovely young lady, get married, have two children, finish college, work in public school for over thirty years and be considered by some a geek. Those items weren’t on my plate or even in my imagination in February 1972. 

I’m trying to say that you ought never put limits on what can happen. Whatever God you believe in or don’t has plans for you. There is a force in the universe that works for good even though sometimes the good is hard to see.  I don’t know what today will bring but I’m going to try to be open. Openness and flexibility are the keys. Godspeed Fredonia State!

Tom

Today I drove to Mt. Irenaeus for Mass.  It’s part of what I usually do nearly every Sunday. On the way I placed a call to my nephew Tom who’s a member of the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard in Anacostia, DC. Earlier this week my brother called to let me know that Tom would be marching on Pennsylvania Avenue on Tuesday accompanying our new President. I wanted to call Tom and let him know how proud I am of him and that he would be in my prayers and that I hoped he would be able to stay warm despite the bitter cold that grips the east coast of our nation.  I left my message on his voice mail and continued to drive to the Mountain.

My trip this morning was a bit more exciting than normal because the road to Mt. Irenaeus was not completely plowed and my little PT Cruiser couldn’t quite make the final hill on the first try. I decided to back down the hill and wait for my friend Duane Karl who has a four-wheel drive pickup. After backing down the hill and getting my car parked on Weatherby Road I looked up and my guardian angel arrived in the person of a snow plow and sander for the Town of Wirt. The plow cleared the road and the sand provided the necessary traction for me to make the grade. Once I arrived I made my way to the chapel and Mass.  After Mass I turned my phone on and discovered that I had a nice message from Tom. He told me that he had been practicing for the inauguration and that he’d be carrying the California flag at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday afternoon.  My heart swelled with pride as I shared this news with the Friars and other guests.  I can’t think of Tom nor his part in the upcoming inauguration without becoming filled with pride and choked up a bit with emotion.

I did get home in time to see Tom on HBO. As with most of this historic event I watched it on my laptop computer.  I missed the first part of the show but saw the California flag at the end of the event and though I couldn’t see Tom I knew that he was up there. My daughter sat next to me and we both agreed that this was a special moment for us and especially for Tom.