Why Did I Join The Military?

People tend to join the military either because they had a father who was “too good” (or overbearing), and they want to keep one into adulthood, or because they had a father that was “too bad” (or absent), and they hope to find a better one. My dad was both.

I was raised a “military brat,” adopted by a US Navy Chief Petty Officer. He retired from active duty when I was in the seventh grade. A decorated combat veteran, who joined the Navy when he was only 17 years old, he had served in World War II and Vietnam. He had lost half of his crew when his carrier, the USS BUNKER HILL, was struck in its main flight deck by two kamikazes in WWII.

Throughout my childhood, my father would deploy for many months at a time. I never understood why he would choose to be away from his family so much for so long. He said that he loved “being underway and part of a team.” I think he simply loved being in the Navy. He was proud to serve his country and to wear the uniform. Welcoming back his returning ships and attending award ceremonies as a child, I remember being very proud of him.

Retiring to his home state of Kentucky, my father often seemed frustrated and unhappy after leaving the Navy. He was still a Navy Chief even after he hung up his military uniform. I had missed him while growing up, and I had wanted him to not leave home again, but I had trouble connecting with him.

His salty advice seemed crude. “Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one.” “You all are like a bunch of sea gulls. All you do is eat, shit, and squawk.” Where did he learn all this? I could not help but wonder, did he ever miss me when he was gone?

One day, at the ripe age of 16, while watching a documentary on television about Vietnam, I proudly announced to my father that I didn’t understand why it was such a big deal to be a conscientious objector. I told him that if I didn’t believe in a war, I would probably think of doing the same as they had. Why would I go to a war I didn’t support? He flatly replied, “Get the hell out of my house!” Even with the hubris of youth, I knew that was not the time to debate.

I became the first in my family to attend college, attending Western Kentucky University (WKU) on a War Orphan’s Scholarship. Since my father had received 100 % service connected disability through the Veterans Administration, I qualified.

Not knowing much about majors or degrees, I took courses that interested me. When I ended up at the top of my classes, I was encouraged to consider “premed.” I completed my undergrad with two degrees in 4 years, a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Biophysics along with Bachelor of Science in Biology and Chemistry.

Although I was accepted early decision to University of Kentucky, I was not sure how I would pay for medical school. I applied and was selected for the Navy Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP). If accepted, it would obligate me to 4 years of active duty service after completion of training. Student loans were my other option.

My father had not appeared very supportive of me becoming a doctor. He once asked, “Why would you want to be in school all your life to have a job where your mistakes were dead people?” When I asked my father if I should take the HPSP scholarship, he told me, “The Navy was good to me, son. Now that you are a man, you will have to make that decision for yourself.”

I decided to join the Navy. My dad had a hard time concealing his pride when he saw me repeat the oath of a commissioned officer at the Louisville recruiting station.

Never did I plan a career in the Navy. I would do my payback and return to the civilian world. Never did I think of combat deployment. After all, we were not at war in 1982. Nor did I consider deployment with ground forces. I was joining the Navy.

My father told me the best thing about the Navy was, “You have a warm, clean place to sleep every night. If you lose it, you lose everything, not like the poor bastards in the Army or Marines.” He spoke from experience at the Deckplates.

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