Anchors Aweigh! Remembering My Naval Journey...
Get out!!! Get out!!! Get out!!! Move it! Move it! Move it! My mind swirled and my heart pounded. I was hungry and I was tired, and I was not in the mood for all this craziness!
In the mist of all the chaos that followed our drive through the front gate, my heart began to pound hard against my breast, my palms grew sweaty, and tears of fear threatened to fall. (I always cry when fear grips my heart and uncertainty seems so daunting.) Now, the shuttle bus driver’s question began to make sense to me; it was becoming increasingly clear what he meant when he asked the six of us if we were really sure we were ready for this. “This” referred to the current yelling and barking going on around us. We were four men and two women on the bus that early morning in January. I still had no idea what I had gotten myself into. Nevertheless, I had taken the risk of stepping out into the unknown, banking my hopes on the assurance that whatever it was, this “company” had gone through a lot of trouble to get me here, so there had to be something good in store. Now I was about to find out just how good a job this really was and whether I was cut out for it. It had sounded so promising and prestigious when the recruiter laid it out to me in his office.
I had just turned twenty-one about a month ago that December, and I was feeling like an adult. I could legally do a lot of the things I couldn’t do before – including making my own decisions. According to the laws of the state of North Carolina, I could now legally drink even though I had officially been declared an adult about three years prior. My adulthood had been declared in stages and no one had bothered to ask me how I felt about that. The next logical stage to becoming an adult was to find an adult job and pay for a place of my own just like every other adult I knew.
So when I came home from school one sunny and bright afternoon in August 1999 to find a postcard from a “company” calling themselves the United States Navy, and a load of promises to make my life better, I said “where do I sign?” Among the list of great things the postcard listed were job stability, free job training, free housing, and free money for college. But the one that really caught my attention was the promise of a life travelling the globe and seeing places I could, until then, only dream about. I called the number on the postcard and waited for an answer while I wondered where this company was located and whether I would have to relocate.
Kevin introduced himself to me as a Navy recruiter and said he was at my service to answer any questions I had about the “job”. He was polite - maybe a little too polite - and very eager to please me, and I loved the attention. He was a hot-looking Caucasian man probably no more than 25. I would later come to know a lot more hot-looking men of all races, all thanks to the Navy. (Yes, the Navy has some really hot-looking men and a bevy of beautiful women.) Kevin asked me to see him the next day at their Durham Naval Recruiting office to answer a few questions and to fill out some forms. I agreed.
So started the recruitment process, which was all a blur to me. I remember picking out a job, unsure of exactly what it was I would be doing; taking and passing a series of tests – both those that tested my brain power, and those that tested my physical power, including the contents of my insides (drug testing, blood testing etc.). I also remember being processed, being weighed and measured, and being injected. Most of all, I remember meeting some of the nicest people I would ever meet.
And these people here, now, screaming and barking at us were not a good representation of the nice doctors and nurses and testers and recruiters I had become used to in Durham and Raleigh, North Carolina. I was stunned.
What was their problem?
As I stood there, gripped by fear and needing to be rescued from the pack of human wolves, a lady stepped out of nowhere and silenced our attackers. Immediately, they snapped to attention, chests puffed out and arms to their sides like little toy soldiers. Silence fell upon us and our attackers were suddenly one of us – powerless. Then the lady I later came to admire, who constantly looked out for me, and pushed me beyond what I thought to be my limits, began to address us:
Welcome to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. Here you will learn how to become sailors. You will learn the basic skills of team work and service to your fellow shipmates and to your country….
I never thought I’d ever become a sailor. I am scared half to death of vast water bodies. To think that I would reside on a ship for four years, floating in the middle of great big oceans made me want to run and hide. I was terrified, yet there I stood on that day contemplating what my life was going to be like going forward. I thought I was up for the challenge, but I was so unsure.
The Navy is not for quitters, and it is not for the soft-hearted or cry-babies (I had grown up a cry baby). You will look out for your shipmates and be accountable to each other. There is no “I” here. You will work as a team. You will pull each other up. When one of you fails, you have all failed, and when one of you succeeds, you have all succeeded.
It is just ironic that I would happen to become both the heavyweight and the lightweight of my team. I was always behind when it came to physical strength, but always ahead when it came to intellectual strength. I couldn’t find a way to balance the two. Our classroom sessions made me happy. Our days of physical training always left me in tears.
This is not a joke, this is going to be your life for the next four years, or for the duration of your service, and it could be the most important thing you ever do with your lives…
I agreed with her because at that time, joining the Navy - albeit with ignorance and very little knowledge of what it entailed – was one of the most important decisions I ever made in my life. The second most important decision I made was to stay, even when we were offered the chance to quit.
The road ahead is going to be tough and challenging. Many of you will not make it, some of you will fail time and time again, but like I said earlier, this is no place for quitters. If you don’t think you can cope, now is the time to decide what you want to do. You are free to get back on the bus and go home, and we won’t hold it against you.
I’m still not sure why I didn’t get back on that bus. I was shaking with fear and I wanted to go home and yet I stood there facing the men and women who only a few minutes ago had been yelling in our faces and threatening to make our lives miserable.
My ignorance and confidence served me well because I went through the process and stuck with it to the very end. Had I known 100% what I was getting myself into, I probably would never have called the recruiter the day I found the postcard in the mail anyway. But now I was here, and quitting wasn’t an option.
It’s been almost 10 years since I made that uninformed decision to join the Navy, and I look back on my time served with pride and regret. Regret at how apathetic I was while serving. I could have come out with a higher ranking, but I never cared enough to push myself to try because I knew I was out in four years. But, I’m proud of the fact that I served my country even when I was most afraid. I was on deck-watch the day our lives were destabilized by terrorists on our own. And I remember thinking my worst nightmare had come true: I would have to die defending the nation I love. It’s not that I didn’t think I could, or even should; it’s just that I’ve always been afraid of dying. I may not have gone into the force for all the right reasons, but I stayed for all the right reasons – to finish what I pledged to complete!
Who would have thought that a simple postcard with a message promising a life of fun and excitement would be enough to make me decide on an impulse to leave the life of comfort I had for one of uncertainty? The Navy taught me to be strong, loyal and dependable. It taught me the core values of Honor, Courage and Commitment. For these values I shall forever be proud.
Almost 10 years later, I still say Anchors Aweigh with pride in my heart, knowing exactly what it means to sail away into the unknown and to come out stronger, smarter, sharper, and triumphant. I have been taking risks ever since!