Now 48 years ago, 03 December 1969 was a rite of passage for me, which is forever imprinted into my memory. The day was cold, snow was falling that afternoon as a cadre of ‘now-military’ young men — destined for all branches of service — flew from a small, regional airport in West Virginia to another regional airport in Ohio. Others went on to designated cities near their respective boot camp locations. I was headed to O’Hare, Chicago. The final leg of the flight wasn’t long, but dusk had already descended on the ‘Windy City’ when we touched down. A bus completed the last few miles to Great Lakes Naval Training Center.
After several weeks of ‘holding-company’ dead time (not counted toward completion of training), I was finally assigned to Company 976, a ‘state-flag’ company for the remainder of the time in boot camp. For those unfamiliar with the term, the state-flag company were those guys who each carried and presented an in-formation display of every state flag of this Nation for boot camp graduation ceremonies. We marched for a goodly number of other company graduations from U.S. Navy boot camp. Eventually, it was at last our turn, during early March 1970, to march in formation for our own graduation. Nearly four years later, I was a naval veteran of the Vietnam-era conflict, and ready to return to college.
In between those dates, 03 December 1969 and 25 November 1973, I was privileged to become assigned to the Naval Communications training facility (called an ‘A’ school) in Pensacola, Florida, where I became a competent cryptographic, teletype operator for the Naval Security Group. I later spent twenty-six months as a tele-communicator in south Florida. Those were the days during the height of the Cold War, when all activities of Castro’s Cuba were thoroughly monitored. Relying on electronic surveillance and over-flight aircraft, we were able, in that (mostly) pre-satellite era, to tell when a Cuban citizen packed a pickup truck with goods to drive to another location on the island. For years afterward, I stopped reading newspapers for ‘news’, courtesy of the Miami Herald, which routinely ran 72-point, bold-italic headlines reading: “Secret Soviet Troop Buildup in Cuba”. While it may have been a secret to the reporters at the Herald and much of the U.S., it was not a secret to us. We knew, fully well, every activity on the island. We knew every radio operator in Cuba, along with their usual broadcast frequencies, times of log-on and log-off. If NSA is now interested in everyone’s Internet usage, it was interested in everyone’s radio-wave usage — world-wide — in those days.
After the time in south Florida, I was eventually attached to the aircraft carrier, USS America (CV-66), a sister ship to the USS John F. Kennedy, and spent the remainder of my enlistment sailing in circles in the Gulf of Tonkin (look it up, kids) monitoring Southeast Asian electronic data; and finally returned to Norfolk, Virginia, homeport of the vessel. By the time of my discharge, at Thanksgiving time in 1973, I had circumnavigated our planet.
I still call friends the shipmates whom I knew, from boot camp time to my discharge. We amazingly keep in touch, occasionally, in social media. Our lives became intertwined, inexorably, through the experience of military service. Although I do not know their take on the process, I have never felt any particularly-engaging distinction in having served in the military. I usually twinge with statement that say, “Veterans deserve _______.” I fully agree with the words of [late] writer, veteran and television commentator, Andy Rooney, who said in a memoir entitled, Not That You Asked…:
“Except for the men who were disabled, to whom it owes everything it can give, our country owes veterans nothing. We got what was coming to us, a free country.”*
Now, more than ever before, it is critical that this Nation remains free. Happy almost-golden anniversary, shipmates.
* Andrew A. Rooney, p. viii, Random House, New York