Read an Excerpt
Honor, Courage, Commitment
Navy Boot Camp
By J.F. Leahy
Naval Institute Press
Copyright © 2002 J.F. Leahy.
All rights reserved.
I came home one afternoon, and saw an ad that said, "Government JobsTrain to Be an Air Traffic Controller." That had to be better than working in a factory in Springfield, Missouri, for the rest of my life. I called the "800" number. Forty-five minutes later, two Navy recruiters knocked on my door.
I first went down to the Navy recruiting office in San Bernardino, California, with my friend. He had been talking about joining the Navy for, like, three years. I just went along for the ride. He decided not to come ... But here I am.
Our daughter's college grades kept slipping. The school said she could get her softball scholarship back if she could just raise her grades to 2.0. She came bopping in one day and said, "Well, Mama, I made a 1.9." I said, "That's it, child. We've been paying for school your car, your living expenses, everything, and it's just not working. It ends right now, and you're going to have to figure out something else to do." And the next thing you know, she went and joined the Navy.
I was born in Burma. I came to this country as a refugee just a few years ago. America is a wonderful country. I want to be a real American.
From colonial days to the present, young Americans have borne arms to defend freedom and our way of life. Each year, over fifty thousand volunteer to serve their country by enlisting in the U.S. Navy. Eighty-one of them arrived at the Navy's Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Illinois, on the evening of October 2000. This is their story.
If you had passed them on the street, you'd probably not have noticed them. They looked, dressed, and spoke like any other kids you'd be likely to meet in your hometown. One had delivered pizza in a sprawling Californian suburb, another grew up on a ranch in northern Montana. One worked at Wendy's, another at McDonald's. Their average age was twenty, yet several had just graduated from high school, and one was nearly thirty-five. A few had parents or close relatives in the military, but most had no connections with the service at all. All were drug freethe military has zero tolerance for drug abusers and screens extensively before enlisting recruitsalthough a few just smiled when asked privately if they had ever taken a puff in school or on the playground. Some liked heavy metal music and sported tattoos whose symbolism was lost on an older generation; others loved country music and all things western; still others listened to rap, hip-hop, or other artifacts of urban culture. Good kids, every one of them. They might have been your kids or mine.
In an age of gender integration in the military, they were almost equally divided: forty-four young men and thirty-seven young women. They hailed from large cities and small towns in thirty states. One was a college graduate, a few had attended college for a few semesters, yet another left school in the ninth grade. Most were children of the working class; their parents were electricians, truckers, policemen, shopkeepers. Their ethnic and religious identities varied: black and white; Hispanic and Asian; Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist, and nonbelievers. Three are named Smith, and two named Williams. They've names like Jones and Johnson and Jackson; one was named Gray, and another named Grayer. They are the Navy's future, they are America's future. They are America.
Thomas Kelly, 25, Pueblo, Colorado
I was a trucker before I enlisted in the Navy. My wife is twenty-three, and my daughter is five. My wife developed a chronic bone disease called osteogenisis imperfecta, or brittle-bone disease. I joined the Navy to provide a better life for them. I wanted good medical care for my wife, even if it meant being away from home for a while. As an over-the-road trucker, I'm used to that, anyway. I've lived all my life in Pueblo, so I'm looking forward to a change. I have a family tradition of serving in the Navy; my grandfather was a sailor in World War II, and my older brother was in the Navy during Desert Storm. He got out about four years ago, but he encouraged me to look into the Navy.
My recruiter was Petty Officer Cliff Martin, in Pueblo. I went into his office one day, and he gave me a lot of details about Navy benefits. I'm a pretty big guy, I'm six foot six and weigh about a hundred and ninety pounds, so Petty Officer Martin suggested that I look into the master at arms rating. The master at arms force is the police department of the Navy, and he suggested that even if I only spend four years in the service, afterward I'd be qualified to apply to the FBI, the Border Patrol, or maybe the Texas Rangers. I figured boot camp would be a good experience. As long as you do what you're told, you'll be all right. I knew I'd run into a lot of guys with similar interests. I'm into country music, rodeo, and western things. I've driven trucks all over the western United States. I knew I'd be older than most of the guys, but didn't think that would be much of a problem. What really motivated me is getting the benefits of military service, especially, as I said, the medical benefits for my wife. My mom works at Fort Carson, Colorado, and she told me about how well the military treats its members. My master at arms school will be at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, and it's long enough that I can bring my wife and daughter down there for awhile. So I said fine, sign me up, and on October I reported to the processing station in Denver. By that afternoon, I was on my way.
Rebecca Anne Freeman, 21, DeQuincy, Louisiana
Well, my mom was telling you about what happened when I got my grades, that last time. I graduated from South Beauregard High School in Longville, and went on to play college softball at Pensacola Junior College in Florida. I was an outfielder on the Lady Pirates team. I'm an active person, and, to be honest, college wasn't working out for me. I felt I was taking classes just to take themI didn't have a major and I didn't know what I was going for, I was just going to school to play softball. So, when things son of fell apart, I asked my dad, who was in the Marines, and he suggested that I talk to the recruiters in Baton Rouge. I talked to a really nice guy named Avery Vaugh. I didn't know very much about the Navy or the kinds of things that they do. My mom really thought it would be better if I went into the Air Force, because she didn't want me to be on a ship all the time. My uncle had retired from the Air Force. I talked to both recruiters, and chose the Navy because it seems to have more to offer. I want to be a rescue swimmer, one of the people who jump out of helicopters to help pilots if they have an accident. I like to help people, and that seemed to be a good way to do it. As I say, I'm really sports-minded. I'm worried about a lot of things about boot camp, including meeting new people and having the officers yelling at me all the time, but the physical pan of it ought to be fun.
Eric Alan Hopkins, 18, Shelbyville, Indiana
I come from a family where military service is expected. I have lots of uncles who were in the service, and I guess we've had a member of our family in every major war that America's been in. Right after graduation, I was sitting at home, watching TV, and, out of the blue, I got a call from the Navy recruiter. I told him that I might go on to college, and he was really nice and said that he wouldn't bother me if I already had plans. But I said, what the heck, send me a couple of pamphlets and let me read them first. I really liked what they had to say, more so than the other services. I had nearly signed up with the Indiana National Guard, but their recruiter was more like, "Here, take this National Guard football, take this National Guard pencil," and he was really beginning to turn me off with his sales pitch. The Navy recruiter, Petty Officer Drew Dobbins, was really straightforward. He told me about a lot of special programs for electronics and the nuclear field, and about the different bonuses and benefits. He had me take some tests, and I did really well, so he told me that I could have my choice of programs. I was thinking about advanced electronics and computers, but they brought in a nuclear specialist, and he convinced me that that was the best choice I could make. To be honest, when I was a kid, I was more interested in the Marine Corps or the Army. But the recruiter was so straightforward and laid back, and wasn't pushy about things, that I liked it better than the other choices. I guess I could have gone on to college because my grades were high enough, but my dad's health isn't all that good, and I thought this was a better choice for me and my family.
Robert Gildersleeve, 24, Birmingham, Alabama
I come from a pretty straight family. My mother is a registered nurse and my dad is a police officer in Roosevelt City. I have three uncles who retired from the Army, and my dad got out of the Air Force in 1974. I've thought about the military since I was in high school. I was going to go to Alabama State in Montgomery right after high school, and be in the marching band. I was in marching band in high school and liked it a lot. But things didn't develop quite the way I wanted, and I sort of lost interest and jumped into the work field. From the time I was eighteen, I've had a lot of jobs holding jackhammers and that sort of thing. Awhile ago, I had a baby girlshe's just two years old nowand I started thinking that "this life is not meI can do better than this." My mind started to steer toward the military. I told my mom one night that I was thinking of joining the service. She said to me, "Robert, how many times have I heard you say that? If you're going to do it, go do it." So I went down and talked to the recruiter, and the more I learned, the better it looked.
Now, I was a little bit suspicious of recruiters, see. Back, oh, three or four years ago, I talked to the Army recruiter, and, oh, didn't he make the Army sound good! He told me that I'd have a nice desk job, tracking missiles and such, and that it was clean, good work. But I checked with my uncle who retired from the military. I read the job description and the MOS [military occupational specialty] to my uncle and he said, "That recruiter is lying! You'll be out in a field in a tent where it's cold and rainy, and you'll have this little machine, and every time Saddam Hussein fires one of his missiles, you're going to be the first one to get hit. You see, the Army guys, they just told you what you wanted to hear, so you'd join up with them, you know?" But Petty Officer Johnson, he told it straight. I was DEP [Delayed Entry Program] for a month and a half, and he kept in touch all the time, till it was time for him to come and pick me up and take me down to the military entry processing station in Montgomery. I'm looking forward to boot camp. I'm older than some guys, but I can march pretty good, and know all the commands from being in the marching band in high school. I'm going to be an aviation apprentice when I graduate, and I'm looking forward to getting down to Pensacola, which isn't far from my family and daughter in Birmingham.
Kelly, Freeman, Hopkins, Gildersleeve, and all their new shipmates had similar experiences after deciding to enter the Navy. All were transported by their recruiters to one of sixty-five military entry processing stations (MEPS) around the country. There they were tested, screened for drugs, and presented with a formal contract outlining their obligations and what the Navy promised in return. Most enlisted for four years, although those who were accepted for advanced training made a six-year commitment. Many would receive substantial bonuses after completing initial training. All were introduced to the time-honored military tradition: hurry up and wait.
Arturo (Artie) Guiterrez, 18, Imperial, California
After my friend decided not to join up, they told me to be ready to go by myself real early Tuesday morning. Petty Officer Del Angel picked me up, and we left at three A.M. and went down to San Diego, to the MEPS station. We were supposed to be done there by eight o'clock, but they didn't come for us until ten. We went over to the airport, and we had to hang around for a couple more hours. There were three of us, and we got separated at the airport, so we had to run around there at the end, looking for each other. It was my first flight, and it was fun. When you first go up, it kind of sucks you in; it's like a roller-coaster ride. We stopped at Denver, and we had to run like crazy because we were late getting there, and it was raining.
Mary A. Smith, 21, Denison, Texas
I left my mom's at three in the morning, too. We stayed up all night, packing my bags, and I pretty much had my whole family call, and I think I got maybe thirty-five minutes of sleep the entire night. My recruiter was supposed to be at my house at four o'clock, but I called him and told him to hurry up and come over before I changed my mind. My bags had pretty much been packed beside the front door, but I kept finding other things and packing and repacking just to keep busy. He came and got me, and took me to the processing station in Dallas. I got another physical, and waited around for awhile, then got on the plane with a lot of guys who were coming to the Navy, and we were all really nervous. I didn't know what to expect. I don't have any friends in the Navy, and I didn't know what was going to happen, and nobody wanted to tell us anything. One funny thing happened at the MEPS station, though. They started calling me Smith Comma Mary, because there are so many Smiths, I guess, and the Navy has called me that ever since.
Jesse James Mathis, 19, Forest, Mississippi
I was on the delayed entry program, so I had been running an asphalt machine doing highway construction work all summer. It was pretty hot when I left Mississippi, so I was wearing a tank top and no socks. When the recruiter came and picked me up at the house, he took me to the MEPS station at Jackson, Mississippi. Me and a bunch of old boys there, we checked into a hotel and went across and ate at Denny's. Then we went and got us a bottle of whiskey and about four cases of beer. There were about six of us, all coming into the Navy. We drank awhile there at the Best Western, and swam in the pool till, oh, one o'clock or so, and just partied the rest of the night. I was tired that next morning, but we all went back over to the MEPS station, did our paperwork, then we just stood around and played pool and talked and stuff. They finally called all the people who were going to boot camp, and took us over to the airport in Jackson. We flew on Northwest up to Memphis, and then we changed planes for O'Hare. I fell asleep on the plane to Chicago, so I missed the food and was pretty hungry and cold by the time we got to Chicago.
Schely Rasco, who thought air traffic control sounded interesting, also arrived at Chicago's O'Hare Airport that afternoon. It had been her first flight. Adding to her nervousness, the recruiters in Kansas City had placed her in charge of a detachment of seven other recruits. The plane was crowded, and she wasn't able to sit with anyone she'd met at the military entry processing station. She was among the last to leave the airplane, and by the time she did so, the others had lined up outside the gate, and saluted her. Laughing, they set off to find the United Services Organization (USO) center.
Excerpted from Honor, Courage, Commitment by J.F. Leahy. Copyright © 2002 by J.F. Leahy. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.