In the fall of 1984, I headed to college and my favorite man stayed home to work on his family’s farm. There was nothing he would have rather done, than to go to school with me. Graduating Top 10 in his class, which was twice the size as mine, his Guidance Counselor failed him. He never entertained the thought that my future husband might like to go on to school. He figured that he was a farmer’s son, and a farmer he would be.
A few weeks later, my boyfriend and his cousin had a great idea. They would sneak to town and take their ASVAB’s, which is a military version of the SAT. My future husband scored very well, qualifying him for the Navy, while his cousin didn’t. It was not in their plan. They wanted to go together. Instead, he would go alone.
He came to school to break the news. It was a tearful day when I learned that my favorite man would head to Chicago, Illinois for training after the new year. He was afraid, but excited. He’d never left home before. In fact, my parents were the first ones to take him to one of our local cities located only an hour away.
In February of 1985, my future husband’s father took him to the bus station. It was an emotional day for all of us, but most especially, for his father. My husband said that his father chased the bus as it left the station, in tears. He was later found in the nearby graveyard beside the family farm, sitting on a gravestone, crying. It was where the family did their best thinking on a bad day.
When my future husband arrived at Boot camp, he loves to tell of his first experience. As soon as he got off the bus, he was told to “DROP!” He looked down, wondering what he dropped. He saw nothing. “Drop what?” he asked. The commanding officer thought he had a smart mouth, and It was then, that he began one of MANY push-ups. He was skinny, shy, quiet, and unprepared to be yelled at.
We had to wait about a month before the first call, and he could just make ONE, so he called his parents. He would call once a week as long as he hadn’t messed up throughout the week. He had to stand in line for his turn and he could talk for just 5 minutes. Other’s were waiting. I tried desperately to visit his family during the time that he might call, and often missed. I didn’t have a car, and relied on hitching a ride home with someone, borrowing a vehicle from my parents for the afternoon, only to hitch a ride back to school that evening.
During that time, we didn’t have cell phones. We had to rely on hard-line phones, and pay phones. In college, we had one phone on each floor. If the phone rang, someone nearby would answer and then yell for, or search for the recipient. It was both a blessing and a curse that I had one of the closest rooms.
After the first 3 months of Boot camp, he would call me when he could. He wasn’t able to receive phone calls, so I had to wait for him to contact me and that was tricky. He never knew when I’d be around, and he never knew when he’d have phone privileges. As a result, we relied on the US Mail Service.
We began our journey as pen pals, although we lived only eleven miles apart, and we continued to use writing as our primary form of communication. There was no such thing as texting or email, so we sent mail the old-fashioned way, with pen, paper, and stamps. It often took over a week to receive correspondence from one another. We LIVED for mail call. Both of us.
There are few pictures, since we had to use a camera and have them developed. It was an expensive and timely project, so the ones we have are special. One of my favorites is when my boyfriend came home on leave the first time. I waited anxiously at the airport with his parents. After everyone got off the plane, he was nowhere to be found. I was confused. Then I noticed someone with his parents. He had walked right past me and I didn’t even recognize him! He had a short hair cut and was 50 pounds heavier! He was all muscle!
My husband loved Boot camp. He said he’d never eaten so well, or so fast in all of his life. Every time he goofed up, usually as a result of talking too long on the phone with me, he dug holes and filled them back in. He said that every hole was worth it!
The best part was that he was able to take classes toward being a Navy corpsmen. He thrived on taking courses that challenged him, and as a result, graduated 2nd in his class of 600. It saddens me that no one was able to go to his graduation. He was one of the shorter members, so he carried the flag in front of the Division. He twirled a flag and guns in a routine that was performed at the graduation ceremony and he received a special award in front of a crowd, that did not include his family or friends. Although he offered to pay for his parents and I to go, his parents weren’t able to leave the farm, and therefore, I was not allowed to attend. I would have given anything to be there.
From Boot camp, he entered A-School in Chicago. This was where the bulk of his training was academic. He loved it. He tells stories of studying on the beach, and having a contest to see who could get more tanned. He loved the lake that reminded him of home. In fact, somewhere in the sands of the Great Lakes, lies a man’s size 10 Navy ring that belongs to my favorite guy and should be in my jewelry box.
He started to come out of his shell. He made some good friends that he has never seen or heard from again. He often wonders what his roommate Tyler is doing today. He also became friends with a few bad influences, and it was there that he was introduced to alcohol. He learned to drive, and received a Navy driver’s license without having to take the exam. I heard a story or two of driving up one way streets by accident and police waking a judge for a midnight reprimand!
After A-School, he headed to the armpit of the world, Philadelphia PA. His first introduction to his new command was a gang fight that ended with one person getting thrown in front of a moving Subway. He learned very quickly to blend in when not on the job. He grew his hair out as long as the Navy would allow, pierced an ear, and wore a bandana. He learned what parts of the neighborhood to avoid when riding his bike or walking to work each day. It was a dangerous place to live. He lived off egg rolls, hotdogs, pizza and beer.
Although he never went to war, my husband performed jobs that will forever haunt him. He took his turn as a first responder on the ambulance, which left him traumatized. He worked in the ER, which he said was an improvement, because people were cleaned up a bit. It was so fast paced, that he didn’t have time to think until later. He said that his mission was to make people comfortable and to help. It was later that he would shake and cry. He worked in pediatrics, rocking crying babies who had lived through accidents and sickness. I’ll never forget a call one night, begging to adopt an orphaned boy, who later died in his arms. He worked in geriatrics, sitting with them as they declined. I’ll never forget hearing about a special woman with cirrhosis of the liver. The family took him in, brought him home for Easter dinner, and treated him like a son. The woman later died with my husband as the attending nurse on duty. He fought for the rights of others, when the Navy refused care for an elderly widow and sacrificed a rank when he punched the commanding officer, who was so rude to her. He later said it was all worth it because she got the care that she needed and deserved.
The hardest part was being separated from my favorite man. When others had their boyfriend’s nearby, mine was a long way away, serving his country and caring for the soldiers that kept our country safe. He was proud of his station, no matter how difficult it was to be so far from home. He was homesick, stuck in an area so different from his rural roots. He was sick most of the time that he served, right from the start. He joined in February and marched in the cold in his underwear during Boot camp. He developed pneumonia and remained sick most of his tour. He was mugged 3 times and nearly died, and battled an eating disorder and alcoholism, which eventually led to a heart attack at age 19, that left him temporarily paralyzed on one side.
When the Navy offered him full tuition toward medical school, or an early discharge, my husband chose to come home since I was pregnant with our son. (I have always felt guilty about that.) It was a tough transition. He went from a high-ranking position in the Navy, making decent money, to an entry-level position in a warehouse of a local car parts store, making less than minimum wage. There was no severance pay, no insurance, no GI Bill. He just came home as if he’d never been in the Navy at all.
When I look back, there was both good and bad to the two and a half years that he served in the US Navy. More than anything, I am thankful that he gained self-confidence, learned to stick up for what was important to him, and he was able to learn a trade that he was good at and proud of. Although he never followed through with his training in the civilian world, it was an education that no one could ever take from him. The kids and I have always been proud of him for that, and he has always been the “go-to” person for the family whenever nursing care was needed.
Today I am happy to say that our son serves in the US Navy as a Master at Arms (Military Police Officer), and nothing makes us prouder that he is following in his father’s footsteps. Although I wasn’t able to attend my husband’s Boot camp graduation, I was honored to attend my son’s. As I watched the flags and guns twirl, I imagined my sweet baby 25 years earlier. Although he isn’t in a war zone, my son’s job is to defend and protect the base that he is stationed at. The good news is that his immediate family is with him. The bad, is that he is away from his home and us.
So to my favorite Veterans, I say thank you. Not just on this day, but on all days. You, along with so many more, have sacrificed much to keep us safe, secure, and cared for. Because of your service, I can sleep well at night. May you feel appreciated on this special day, and all days.