Today is Memorial Day in the United States. When I was growing up it was never very clear what the purpose of the day was. I don’t know if we didn’t talk about it in school or we did and it didn’t stick. Regardless, when I was growing up it seemed to be little more than one of two three-day weekends which bookended the Summer. It wasn’t till I was an adult that I came to understand what Memorial Day was about.
My Dad was in the Air Force when he was young. In his case I suspect it was less about service to the country than it was a way to get away from home. He wasn’t even 18 when he decided the service was going to be his plan. His Dad had to sign the paperwork to allow my Dad to join at 17. I suspect that there was enough friction at home that both my Dad and his Dad were happy to have a path that would take my Dad somewhere where they would try to teach him how to follow orders and maybe teach him a job.
He was eventually stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base outside Spokane, Washington where I was born. As I recall the story, he was basically a mechanic. He was also pretty averse to actually following orders. This is a recurring theme I’ve heard over the years. My Dad doesn’t like to be told what to do and that’s sort of the whole point of the military. He told stories of getting a stripe (a promotion) then losing it for bad behavior over and over again. But, he did his four years and at the end of that he left the military and I’m guessing both sides were happier for the decision.
My brother was also in the Air Force for four years before deciding to leave and do other things like raise a family, things that were made easier as a civilian.
Both of his two boys, my nephews Alex and Spencer, are currently in the Air Force and doing great. Alex is in Japan where he met and married his wife and is learning things which are important to the Air Force and will provide him real skills should he choose to leave the Air Force. Spencer has been trained in skills that are very useful both to the Air Force as well as capable of supporting him should he choose to leave and become a civilian. I’m very proud of both of them for their service and their choice to spend this time in the military.
My sister’s oldest son, my nephew Christopher is currently is the Air Force Reserves. This is a fairly recent development but I know he’s been through basic training and I’m looking forward to hearing about his experiences.
My best friend growing up, Mike, joined the military, specifically the Navy, right out of high school. He’s currently scheduled to retire (separate) in October of 2014 after a 30 year career in the military. In that time he rose through the enlisted ranks as a Navy Medic. Eventually he went to school in the Navy and completed a degree to become a Physician’s Assistant and then he went to Officer’s Candidate School in his early 40s and kicked ass and became an officer with the same rank as the kids in their early 20s who joined as officers from ROTC or the Naval Academy. In addition to those very laudable accomplishments, he’s married to his high school sweetheart and they’ve had three amazing kids and are a wonderful family, incredibly involved in each others activities and very supportive of each other. I’m ridiculously proud of Mike. He served in Desert Storm, has done multiple tours away from his family but I’m very happy he will soon be able to retire.
My step-son Zachary is currently enrolled at West Point as the United States Military Academy. He’s a very talented young man and he worked ridiculously hard to get himself there and he seems to be truly driven by a desire to serve and help others. He just completed his first year and while it was a great deal of hard work, he is in the right place for him at this time in his life.
His sister Zoe is also looking at military service and is working very hard to follow in her brother’s footsteps to West Point. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do, but we’ll do whatever we can to support her in her goals.
I tried to join the military when I was a Freshman in college. It didn’t end well.
I cannot tell you that I was driven by service, however. There were several friends of mine that first year in college who were part of Air Force ROTC and had landed full ride scholarships in exchange for four years of service. This seemed like a very good and reasonable trade as paying for college was going to be a struggle.
I took the tests and did very well. I’ve always done pretty well in standardized tests. I also figured I wouldn’t mind following orders. I don’t think I’ve got the same resistance to that that my Dad has.
In addition to the standardized tests, though, I also had to do other tests like physicals. Sadly, that’s what did me in, in the end. I have bad vision. Very bad vision. Like “legally blind without my glasses” bad vision. Turns out, as it was explained to me, they sort of expect that anyone coming in to the Air Force needs to be able to see well enough to defend themselves even without their glasses on. And, frankly, if a situation arose where I was both armed and without glasses, the odds of me shooting and hitting *ANYTHING* are slim but if I did, there’s an equal chance it could be a bad guy or a good guy.
That, as they sometimes say, is the official story. That’s the reason I was given by the Commander of the local ROTC office. But, I do have another theory why I was turned down.
The school year was months in session when I tried to join. It wasn’t unprecedented, but it was going to mean extra work catching up for me. My ROTC friends had been in Air Force history classes for a couple of months and if I was going to join, I would be in catch-up mode. Early in that process, I was told that I needed to meet with a lower ranked ROTC officer (but a real Air Force officer) to discuss my plan for catching up.
The first meeting was mid-day, something like 3pm mid-week. Unfortunately, I’d been up late the night before studying and I decided to take a nap in the early afternoon and I forgot to set my alarm. As a result I over-slept my first appointment with that ROTC officer. I did show up about 20 minutes late, but I’ve always felt that I burned a bridge at that point and that, eventually, was my undoing.
I think this because there were other kids who were in ROTC with vision that seemed as bad as mine. At least they had glasses that looked as thick as mine. So, I never was sure I bought the vision reason. Rather I suspect that I had a negative vote from that ROTC officer and that probably contributed to them deciding to not proceed with me.
So, I believe I torpedoed my own chances at a ROTC scholarship. Not consciously, though I couldn’t tell you why I didn’t take the time to set my alarm, but perhaps it was a sub-conscious decision. Or maybe it was just a stupid mistake.
In the end it all worked out. Yes, I graduated from school with a large pile of student debt, but I paid it off in five years or so and I certainly can’t complain about my career and the opportunities I’ve had as a result.
But, I will always wonder how my life might have been different if I’d set that alarm that day…
As a result, I don’t have any first hand experience serving my country as those in my family and my friends have. But, I have an immense amount of respect for their service and their decision to be part of the military in our country.
So, on this Memorial Day I want to thank those who have served and are serving and those who have given their lives in the service of our country. Thank you, all.
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