Two weeks ago I wrote a column about receiving a solicitation in the mail to join the United States Navy. In the letter the Navy promised me training on the world’s most advanced equipment, a debt-free education, full benefits, outstanding medical coverage, a competitive edge in the civilian job market, and no “money hassles.”
Their words were enticing, and the small color photographs embedded in the letter provocative: a guy in a uniform saluting at me, and a couple of big battleships plowing confidently through a calm blue ocean.
Although I knew the Navy had made a mistake soliciting me, a 54-year-old woman with no interest in going to sea in a large boat, I did think quite a bit about the contents of their missive. Why did they assume I was someone with a “vision of college and success that is different than most people’s”?
How did they figure out I was a curious person “looking for something more”?
I thought about contacting someone who could give me insight into the Navy way of thinking, but I know only one individual currently in the military.
My cousin Sally is a lawyer in the U.S. Air Force, counsel to a United States general stationed in Turkey. She would be difficult to get in touch with, and her career has been somewhat unconventional. Before attending law school and signing up for military duty, she was an undercover cop specializing in prostitution and drug trafficking.
I thought about the people I knew who were retired military personnel: my father who was in the army for two years 62 years ago, my Aunt Dottie and Aunt Peggy who served during World War II, a cousin who was a helicopter gunner in Vietnam and another cousin who, at 43, is already retired and presently working for a civilian contractor in Afghanistan.
Not one of them had been in the Navy. Then I remembered a cousin-once-removed who had recently jumped ship in San Diego and was rumored to be a fashion model in Milan.
Obviously, I was not going to get in touch with him.
That left only one person for me to talk with: my neighbor, James, who served in the Navy for seven years during the 1960s. I caught up with him while he was taking a break from mowing his perfect lawn. I showed him the letter I had received from the Navy. He scanned it.
“What a bunch of bullshit,” he said.
“How’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a bunch of shit,” he repeated.
“You were in the Navy, right?”
“On a ship along the coast?”
“Hell no. They made us put on big boots, dropped us off on a beach and sent us marching.”
James raised his shirt and the white T-shirt underneath it to reveal a large scar across his belly.
“That’s what I brought back from Vietnam,” he said. “Stepped on a land mine, flew 15 feet up in the air and thought I was dead. But I don’t want to talk about it.”
We were silent for a moment. I was thinking about James flipping through 15 feet of jungle. James may have been thinking about his grass.
“Any thoughts on what a young kid receiving a letter like this should do?”
“Nothin’,” said James. “I didn’t know nothin’ ‘bout Vietnam when I joined the Navy. Didn’t know where it was, why I was sent there, or what we were fightin’ for. Same thing is goin’ on in Iraq right now. Nobody knows what the fight is about or why they’re there. I’d stay out of it if I was you.”
Then James went back to mowing his lawn and I returned to my house and Googled “Navy dead in Iraq.” Up came the following webpage: www.defendamerica.mil in which a list of “Fallen Warriors” emerged. I counted the names: 45 Navy personnel dead in and around Iraq between March 2003 and April 2, 2006; the oldest age 46, the youngest, only 20.›