Tag Archives: military

Don’t Thank a Veteran

(This was originally published on my Facebook page as a “note” on November 9, 2012. I hope that all who read this will share it as far and wide as possible. Not for my glory or my readership numbers, but to help people understand what Veteran’s Day is like for active-duty military members. I left active duty in Nov 2015, but this message still represents my thoughts about Veteran’s Day.)

It happens to a lot of us in uniform. We are pumping gas or grabbing a household necessity in the grocery store. We happen to be in uniform because we are headed to or from work. It usually comes from nowhere and, at least for me, it usually takes a moment to realize the comment is aimed at me.

“Thank you for your service.”

What do I say to that? How should I respond? I never know the answer to this, thus I am usually uncomfortable for a moment and simply say “Thank you” in return. Sometimes that answer seems to welcome further probing like “what ship are you on?” or “where are you stationed?”

I try to be polite to any stranger who approaches me in public regardless of the topic at hand. This situation, though, perplexes me. I am not comfortable responding to “thank you” and “I appreciate your service” or any other acknowledgement of my military service in a public setting.

I do consider my brothers and sisters in arms to be heroes. I just don’t think of myself that way. I wouldn’t dare speak for them, but I am pretty sure they feel the same way. Most of us just see ourselves as regular people doing a job for extraordinary organizations. Nothing we do individually means anything in most cases. We work as a team.

If anyone needs a sincere “Thank you”, it is our families. It is our spouses and children and parents who stay behind and carry the weight of our household responsibilities without our help. They often take on multiple roles and learn new skills just to survive while we are away doing the nation’s business. They take on the burden of the pain and suffering when their hero is lost to the nation’s cause. They are the ones who are forced by circumstances out of their control to wonder all day every day if today will be the day they get the bad news. They are the ones who watch the nightly news with keen interest and hope that some recipe for world peace will be discovered, only to find out that it becomes more out of reach every day.

If anyone has earned a special “day” on the calendar, if anyone has earned a free meal at three dozen national chain restaurants, it is the family members of military personnel. Their sacrifice and dedication deserves all of the obligatory mentions I keep hearing tossed about on television commercials and news shows as Veteran’s Day approaches. I hear endless talking heads reminding me to “make sure I stop a military veteran and thank them for their service”.

Don’t thank me. Show me you appreciate my service by showing me you are dedicated to making America the greatest country on Earth with the way you conduct yourself and the way you help your neighbor. Show me my sacrifice is worth it by becoming an educated voter who knows and understands the issues and by not being someone who just watches an hour of network news every night to see how to vote. Reward my time away from my family by making sure they have a safe and comfortable community to live in. Do not steal their treasure by being a strain on government resources through negligence, laziness or disregard for the difference between right and wrong.

So to all of the people out there who think you need to take a moment to thank me for taking up arms in defense of your liberty, there is someone else who makes it possible for me to do what I do. There is someone else who needs your benevolence and your dedication to keeping America great. This Veteran’s Day, I will be off work. I will be taking time to think about those who came before me and acted as heroes so that when my time to serve came, it might be easier for me than it was for them. It is my job to carry on their tradition and continue their progress. It is my job. I am owed no gratitude for that. In doing that job, I am placing extraordinary strain on my family back home. I am taking something from them that cannot be replaced by a TV commentator calling me a hero. This Veteran’s Day, do not thank me.

If you want to thank someone, thank my wife and my son.

He's gonna know Daddy as a character on a screen.
He’s gonna know Daddy as a character on a screen.
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Thinker’s Block

It’s been a little while since I posted a new blog. Blame it on the Navy for the heavy workload while I have been producing this story or this website. Blame it on the college class I am taking. Blame it on me for trying to learn C++ by watching videos online.

I’ll blame it on “Thinker’s Block”. It can’t be writer’s block because I write all day every day. I write HTML, I write CSS, I write javaScript, I write feature stories, I even write silly notes to myself on small scraps of paper that I can’t find later when I need them. For my college course, I wrote instructions for polishing boots… Occasionally I even write people off, but I think that is a different type of writing. Either way, my writing certainly hasn’t been blocked.

But my thinking, well, it has been in the tank. Not the think tank, but the  old, rusted, busted tank you might find attached to a ’77 Ford Maverick in a junk yard. Does this happen to everyone, or just to me?

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It is quite disturbing because my thinking is my best feature. I have some nice features. My one, solid, thick eyebrow was once nominated for “Yard of the Month” honors by the town of Crossville, Alabama. I have a wonderful six pack. Well, actually it is just a five pack now because I drank one earlier, but it is still wonderful. I have gorgeous hair. For some reason it chooses to grow on my ears and in my nose, but it is as full and thick as the best heads of hair in Hollywood.

To go for more than a month without a thought worth sharing on WhatRingoThinks has been strange. Is it a sign of age? Exhaustion? Disease? Quite possibly it is a sign of the times. I don’t have to think anymore. I am told by the national media how I should think, I am told by social media how everyone else thinks and what they think of me, I am told by the man to work and not think, and I am told by my toddler that I am not who I think I am. He thinks I am a character named “Dog”, apparently there is a dog in the story of the Little Red Hen because he calls my wife “Little Red Hen”.

This week marks five years since I got on the bus and headed off to join the Navy. That is definitely something to think about. Maybe that will inspire some thought. I have fifteen months or so left to make the maximum amount of impact on the Navy, the war effort, the Sailors I work with and the organization I work for inside the Department of Defense.

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Perhaps that explains my loss of thought. The drastic change coming to my life in the coming months is hard to think about. It is exciting, scary, sad, happy, depressing, inspiring and, most of all, it is rife with uncertainty. It is often easier just to skip the thinking process and push on. Something is out there at the end of this Navy ride. I have no idea what.

That, folks, is something to think about.

 

 

Face to Face with a Demon from my Past

Navy boot camp was very difficult for me. In fact, it took a medical miracle for me to even complete my training and earn the chance to call myself a United States Sailor.

I spent two weeks at Great Lakes on crutches not knowing whether I was being sent home, surgery or possibly back to training. I was put in such a position by a motivated first class petty officer there named Moore.

Petty Officer Moore made my life especially difficult. About a week into training, he guaranteed me he would put me in crutches and out of his Navy.

He came very close to keeping that promise, and on the day I packed my seabag and left his division to report to the division where they keep the injured recruits, he took time to ridicule me in front of 70 other recruits and declared my injury to be fake and declared me to be a washed-up, useless waste of taxpayer money. He told me I would never make it to the fleet, and that even if I ever did, I would never amount to anything in the Navy.

I was fortunate to heal and return to training, but the bad memories of that Sailor haunted me for a long time. A still unexplained miracle saved my chance to be a Sailor. X-rays and CT scans showed multiple stress fractures and chipped bones in my hips and one knee. Two days before I was supposed to have surgery, a final CT scan found no trace of the damage, besides faint scarring.

The doctors at Great Lakes were befuddled and confused, but having no reason to keep me from training, sent me back to work. I was eventually nominated for honors by my division commanders and graduated only a week later than my original scheduled graduation.

When I reported to school in Maryland, old traces of the knee injury caused me significant pain during the three-mile runs three times per week. I was offered the chance to fall out of the runs, but every time it happened, I just remembered Petty Officer Moore. I remembered that smirk on his face when he was laughing at me on my crutches trying to balance my seabag on my back. I ran and ran.

I ran so much that eventually my knee just accepted things and by the time I reported to my first ship, I was regularly particpating in 5k runs. Physically, I had overcome boot camp and proven Moore wrong.

That brings me to the present. I no longer run 5k events, but I have stayed in shape and can perform the physical requirements for my age. Just today, I had to prove that again during the fall physical fitness assessment (PFA). The basic idea is we have to do as many push-ups and sit-ups as we can in two minutes and then we run a mile and a half.

I had been a little bit concerned with the run because it has been a while since I ran anywhere at all. But in the back of my mind, Petty Officer Moore. His ridicule and his brutality. If I needed more inspiration this morning, I had my upcoming transfer to shore duty, which would have been put on hold for at least six months if I failed any of the three portions of the PFA. The way I was looking at it, I was a mile and a half from shore duty.

When I reached the halfway point, the old knee trouble started up. All I could think of was shore duty and boot camp. During the second half of the run, I walked at times. I calculated just how much I could walk and still pass and I was taking advantage of each chance to walk a few steps. The last 100 yards I ran harder than at any time in the last three years and I passed with 40 seconds to spare.

And then it happened. As I was walking around near the parking area trying to recover from the run, I caught a stare coming from the driver’s seat of a car parked near the finish line. A familiar face smiled at me and the man spoke.

“Don’t I know you?”

Sitting there at MY finish line, out of 313,000 Sailors in the Navy, sat Chief Petty Officer Moore (Recently promoted to Chief and reassigned to a ship a few piers down from my ship).

It took me a minute to recognize him, but then he smirked and I immediately remembered him.

“Yes, you do. You sure do know me. The knee healed up just fine,” I said.

“Glad to hear it,” he said.

“Remember what you told me, that I would never make it,” I asked him, doubting he would remember, although he had remembered my face.

“Yes, I do remember that. You were in division 331, right?”

“That’s right. Now I serve on USS HARRY S. TRUMAN. I am Mass Communication Specialist Second Class (Surface Warfare) David Cothran. And, so far, I have made it. I have been wanting to tell you that for a long time.”

He laughed and we parted ways. In all of that, I had forgotten just what that passing score meant to me. It means I will report to shore duty without delay once the time comes. It means I can reenlist in the Navy next week for three more years. It means that my wife and son will soon be living with me again. It means that my days at sea are numbered and few, and that my days playing father and husband are drawing near with no more obstacles.

For just a moment, facing that demon and declaring victory was more important than anything else. But it was just a moment. The moment was mine. I waited three long years for it.

Fair winds and following seas Chief Petty Officer Moore. Thank you for the extra inspiration. I needed it when I started the day.

But we’re not ON a ship!

But We’re not on a Ship!

Perhaps nothing bothers me as much as that phrase. It usually comes about when I am trying to explain to a Sailor who has never been to a ship why they should do something a certain way.

“You need to accomplish task A before you start task B because on a ship, the situation will require it”

“But we’re not on a ship, this is shore duty, and this is easier”

Easier? Was boot camp “easier” than whatever you were doing before the Navy?

Easier? Is it “easier” to leave your family for an eight-month deployment on a ship or an eight-month deployment to the desert?

If the Navy was easy, it would be a pretty lousy place to work. In fact, I would estimate that if it was an easy job, our ranks would be littered with the laziest elements of our society rather than being filled with the very special group of volunteers who make it the finest naval fighting force in the world.

There is solid reasoning for applying sea-going concepts to shore based tasks. In fact, the Navy teaches this from day one. In boot camp, your barracks is called a ship. The mop is a swab and the floor is the deck. You sleep in a rack. You enter the building (ship) through the quarterdeck. You eat on the mess decks.

In “A” schools throughout the Navy, similar concepts are applied. A young Sailor’s vernacular will make a nautical shift from which it will likely never change, regardless of the length of their career. Many elderly Navy veterans of fewer than five years total service still use the “head”, go upstairs using a ”ladder” and correct verbal miscues with “belay my last”.

Why all the land-based focus on ship life?

To me, and I suspect to the folks who write Navy training doctrine, it is a matter of readiness. There are so many soul-deep transformations a Sailor must make from their first day assigned to a ship. It is not like anything else they will ever deal with. The very core of their decision-making processes will be flipped on its axis.  Their resolve, courage, commitment, professionalism and even integrity will be challenged more than they ever thought possible. To make those burdens easier to bear, a Sailor must understand the fundamental points of ship life before ever crossing the brow.

Good habits of communication, work ethic, procedure and discipline need to be second nature to a Sailor reporting to a ship for the first time. There will be no time to learn these things on the fly.

A good example, and indeed the example that inspired this note, is my observation of the excessive use of email as a primary source of communication for Sailors who have not experienced life on a ship.

I can count on one hand the times I emailed a task directly to a subordinate or a peer on a ship. It just isn’t practical. The chance that they can get to a computer at all is questionable at times, not to mention the constant lack of internet/email access. The fact that their common access card will be regularly locked out of the system just adds to the chances that an important email has only a small chance of getting read before a task deadlines.

Instead, I relied on myfeet.com. All of us did. It wasn’t always easy, as the person you need to talk to is never just standing beside you when you need to task them. They are, by default, almost always somewhere inconvenient (smoke deck, mess decks, head, berthing, flight deck, top of the 0-10 level taking photos). It does not matter. They must be tracked down and the message must be delivered. Right Now.

My observation with email is that the “fire and forget” nature of it leads to tasks going undone, and hurts accountability.

The other thing it hurts is leadership. Leadership at sea REQUIRES face-to-face tasking. It REQUIRES leaders and subordinates to have complete, concise communication. The ship itself survives on that very principle. Getting into the habit of communicating with your leaders, subordinates and peers strictly by email is robbing you of a chance to develop and perfect the skill of face-to-face communication.

Sure, I understand that it does not matter all that much if you send someone an email telling them what time you will be finished with a job, rather than walk over and tell them. Apply the same concept on a ship during a medical emergency, fire, flood or other critical evolution and things can get ugly in a hurry. Think those things are rare and don’t happen to folks in your rate?

I responded to two floods (real ones), two fires, three toxic gas leaks, two accidental deaths and a suicide. In an 18-month period of time. I am a Mass Communication Specialist, not a Damage Controlman.

Email is one thing. I could mention many others: lack of common courtesy, lack of initiative, laziness, lack of enthusiasm, poor attitude, etc.

“But we’re not on a ship. Ill make that adjustment when I get there. Let me enjoy shore duty.”

Shipmate, your shore duty is made possible by the brave men and women who are being forced to do the things I am asking of you. The least you can do is make sure you do all you can to prepare to relieve them properly.

Kitchens

This was originally written during a period of time in which I was living alone in Hampton, Va., while my family was back in Alabama. 

The kitchen in my apartment is not unlike most other apartment kitchens. It is 12 feet long and six feet wide, with appliances and cabinets taking up all but about three feet of floor space. The cabinets are a cheap veneer and many of the doors hang slightly crooked thanks to years of wear. The counter space is used up with a coffee pot, kitchen accessories and a few dirty glasses scattered about.

The room itself is dimly lit. A single fluorescent bulb shines from an unattractive fixture in the ceiling. Despite this, the room has a few bright spots for me. Photos of my son and pieces of his artwork decorate my refrigerator door. On most days, there is emptiness behind the door, but the door itself is fulfilling. A cute frame bearing the words “Live, Laugh and Love” sits on the counter and holds three photos showing my son in the womb, my wife’s belly during her pregnancy and a photo of the two of us taken some years ago.

Standing in this lonely place, 700 miles from my family, gives me a feeling of deep melancholy. Watching my son grow up on Skype and email and hearing the soft coo of my wife’s voice and then losing it to a bad cellular connection have become devastating realities of my chosen profession. Time in this kitchen reminds me of these things. It also gives me a chance to think about things I am truly thankful for.

My situation is not unique. Military men and women around the world have apartments and kitchens that look just like mine. Many of them, however, have only memories of the families to which they once belonged. The years of military life have taken the ultimate toll for a lot of them, and in an odd bit of irony, they envy my pain.

I look at the signs of wear on my fingers as they grasp a glass of warm bourbon and I regret that I cannot slow time enough to ensure that I have the youth to enjoy backyard football with my son when he is older. I regret that opportunities for intimacy and passion with my wife pass each day and are lost forever.

Standing here in my kitchen, surrounded by a leaky faucet and a noisy refrigerator, I still cling to hope and optimism.  Even with all of the problems facing our great nation, I still see a faint glimmer of Ronald Reagan’s “Shining city on a hill”. I see boundless opportunity for my son through his hard work and dedication to success. I see America, offering liberty to all who seek it, refuge to those who need it, and opportunity to those who will seize it. I see two rocking chairs, laughter and tears for my wife and myself many years from now when we remember these days apart. I see these things. I see them all from my dimly-lit kitchen.