All of my adult life, I’ve worn the uniform of the United States Navy. Until today. After 24 years of combined active and reserve service, I officially retire from the United States Armed Forces today, July 1st, 2017. As you might imagine, it is with very mixed emotions.
My military service began with boot camp at RTC Orlando, Florida with Company 055. After graduating from boot camp, it was on to the Quartermaster ‘A’ School, also in Orlando, which in the Navy, means navigation. And at the end of that, a set of orders to my first command, the U.S.S. Arleigh Burke DDG-51, the namesake of her class, a guided missile Aegis destroyer. She was (and is) an amazing warship, and her crew was some of the finest human beings I had the great privilege of serving with. I remain in touch and close to many of that crew to this day.
While I was immensely proud of my ship, I was always motivated to see if I had the mental and physical toughness to qualify for an elite unit. I’d heard about the Navy’s Special Boat Teams, and had met someone who’d gone to, but not made it through selection. He’d described the discomforts and difficulties, all of which made me want to do it more. I submitted a request chit through my chain of command to apply for orders to SWCC selection (Special Warfare Combatant Craft Crewman), and after a little bargaining and begging, it was approved. I then had to go to a SWCC team in Little Creek, Virginia to be interviewed and to take a physical screening test (pushups, pull-ups, sit-ups, running, and swimming). While on the Arleigh Burke, I’d followed a strict daily regimen of 500 pushups, 500 sit-ups, along with about an hour of additional calisthenics to prepare myself. One day, while we were at sea, I received a call from a radioman while I was on the bridge, that my orders to SWCC school had been received. Since this particular radioman had served in the Special Warfare community previously, he knew what those orders meant (Thank you Woody!).
I arrived at the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California in the first few days of June, 1997. Here, I have to relate a funny story that was not at all funny at the time. The very first event that occurs when you arrive to SWCC selection is class formation and a dress whites inspection. Mind you, this inspection is brutal – we had been told by others who had endured it to be prepared – it would not be pleasant, so everyone went out and purchased brand new uniforms, ribbons, shoes, and had them starched to a cardboard-like perfection. You could slice meat with the sharpness of our creases. Just prior to inspection, we mustered for lunch at the chow hall. I didn’t want to risk getting so much as a crumb on my uniform, so I ate nothing. The sailor next to me took the risk of eating a full meal including French fries smothered in ketchup. I thought that was a terrible choice. At the end of the meal, a civilian employee came to our table to collect our plates. He took my clean plate, then reached over me to take away the plate of the sailor sitting next to me. As if in slow motion, I could see the plate turn precariously to one side, where gravity began pulling at the large glob of ketchup. The ketchup slid entirely free of the plate, hung momentarily in the air directly above my left thigh, then landed with a splash, complete with associated ketchup shrapnel droplets on the periphery, on my aforementioned left thigh. In that moment, I was certain that this civilian person had just signed my death warrant. My fellow SWCC candidates looked at me with a combination of pity and horror – like I was the captain of a sinking ship, watching as the sea was about to irretrievably envelope me for now and forever. Despite my best efforts at removing the offending bright red blob, I had now left to contend with a much larger pink area that nearly covered the entirety of my thigh. This was bad. Very, very bad.
We lined up in formation and waited for the insatiably carnivorous instructor staff to arrive and tear to shreds all of us well-dressed slabs of raw meat. The instructors were nearly as numerous as us SWCC candidates, so there was no threat of suffering from lack of very personalized attention. One after another, I could hear my fellow candidates endure the ravenous barks of Lead Instructor W as he identified such unforgivable offenses as a whisker missed in the process of shaving, or a hair that had the unmitigated audacity to creep out from under a blindingly white cover. Then, my turn came. Instructor W’s nose was less than an inch from mine – I suspect he had consumed a good deal of coffee without the benefit of brushing his teeth at any point thereafter, and scrutinized every pore on the skin of my face. He then took a step back and pointed to my now bright pink thigh. “What is that?”, to which I replied “Ketchup.” This didn’t appear to satisfy this line of inquiry. “Did this just happen?” said instructor W. “Yes.” I replied. Instructor W then very slowly, with a degree of intimidation I’ve not felt since, leaned in so that his mouth was next to my ear, and said, “I WILL see YOU later.”, which was not entirely dissimilar from that phrase being uttered to a death row prisoner by a hangman working intently on a noose.
Though selection was considerably more difficult than I’d prepared for, and despite many of my classmates choosing to DOR (Drop On Request) rather than endure another day of discomforts, I made it.
I received orders to my Team and quickly discovered that selection was actually the easy part – that life as a combat-ready SWCC only got tougher once you made it to your Team. I deployed thereafter to some unpleasant places, and served with some of the finest warriors this nation has ever produced.
At the end of my first SpecWar tour, for family reasons, I transitioned from active duty to reserve. Ironically, I deployed as much in the reserves as I did active duty. Shortly thereafter, the unspeakable savagery of 9/11 occurred. Since that time, I’ve deployed to such places as Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
On this closing day of my life as a Navy man, I am filled with gratitude, humility, and an indescribable pride for having been given the opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with men and women who live by a code of honor that, in my opinion, is increasingly rare.
The Navy Core Values: Honor, Courage, and Commitment – perhaps lofty-sounding words to those who haven’t witnessed them in action, who haven’t observed our nation’s finest living it to the letter, and who haven’t seen first hand the sacrifices made to personify those values. Each and every one of you who continues to defend me, my family, my freedom, and our way of life, may God Bless and keep you. I stand relieved – you’ve got the watch.