I joined the Navy in 1985 at barely 18. I actually joined at 17, with my parents’ (reluctant) permission. When I was 17 I couldn’t WAIT to leave Richmond, Virginia. I chose the service (Navy), the job (Aviation Ordnanceman), and the duty station (Whidbey Island, Washington) precisely because it afforded me the opportunity to get as fuck-all far away from Richmond as I could get.
And get away I did. I went everywhere. You name it. Asia, South Pacific, Africa, Europe, the Mediterranean, Pacific, Atlantic, Middle East. You name the continent, I visited it. Did I have fun along the way? You bet your ass I did. With some of the greatest friends a guy could ever hope to make.
So when we pulled into Pearl Harbor for a couple of weeks of fun in the sun in Hawaii, for me, it was business as usual. Of course we’ll make a show of things. We’ll all get into our dress whites, and “man the rails” standing on the flight deck to make the Aircraft Carrier look even more majestic than it already does. We slowly make our way into the harbor to where we’ll ultimately dock. I knew that “manning the rails” was a time-honored tradition for all US Navy ships entering the harbor, and I really didn’t give it a second thought.
Then I see it.
It’s the USS Arizona. I’m sure you’ve heard of it, and I had too. I knew what happened at Pearl Harbor. I was, after all, in the Navy, right?
I just didn’t realize what it meant. Until that moment.
As the ship slowly passed the final resting place of 1,102 sailors killed on December 7, 1941, I saluted and it hit me.
“They were just like me.”
They were. They were kids. Boys. Sons, Fathers, Brothers. They all had someone back home they loved and who loved them. They all had a job to do, and when called upon, they did it, and ultimately sacrificed their lives for their country.
From that moment on, I wasn’t just some 19 year old asshole who got as far away from his shit-hole home as he could hope to get. I was a sailor, in the United States Navy.
So today, I think about all of them. I think about the kids right now who are getting planes ready to launch on some flight deck someplace in the middle of the Indian Ocean, sitting on Gonzo Station waiting for their next port. Writing letters to family members who miss them. This day is theirs.