Almost In the Navy
“So we’ll try to get you into MEPS next week.”
“Either on Tuesday or Friday, but Tuesday is better. We need to stay on top of this if we want to get you commissioned by April or May.”
“Okay…That would be okay. …That’s fast.”
Somehow it’s still surprising when something I’ve aspired to for over a year now becomes a concrete reality. I’m so used to having big dreams – constructing buildings, planning cities, writing novels, traveling the world – and no expectation they’ll reach fruition. Joining the Navy is a big dream, but this time it just might happen.
The work of the military chaplain resonates with me stronger than the work of chaplains in other settings. What in my disposition and background leads me to contemplate military service? What karma is this, I wonder?
My father still tells stories of my grandfather’s service in North Africa during WWII. He died when I was fourteen following a long battle with Alzheimer’s. I remember him as a large, bald, genial man who enjoyed gadgets and electronics. He lived on the outskirts of their small Nebraska town so he could have a seventy-five foot radio tower in his backyard. My grandfather’s stories, often accompanied by photographs and post cards, revolved around building similar towers, flying as part of a bomber crew, and keeping a pet lion cub. There were no stories of combat, blood, or death, though we all knew they existed. Then there was Ivan, my grandfather’s older brother, who died in Europe. Ivan’s is an unknown story.
Otherwise, we were not a family inclined to the military. My uncle served in the National Guard before I was born. Others barely avoided the Vietnam draft. Despite the rural origins of most of my extended family and the higher rates of service from those areas, as far as I know, none of my cousins even contemplated enlisting.
Then I took a job, almost by chance, with the Military Science Department at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. I didn’t even know what the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) was. The rest of the staff was active duty Army, Army National Guard, or veterans employed by the Department of Defense or General Services Administration of the federal government. I was the only genuine University employee and the only real civilian. Not just any civilian, but a liberal, vegetarian, tree-hugging, pacifist, Buddhist civilian.
I had my doubts when I took the job, but it turned out to be a very positive experience. Although chaplaincy was not even on my radar at that time, it was obvious to me that these were good people doing a hard job to the best of their ability. They were deserving of care and support, so I gave them all I could, as a secretary and a person.
My only other knowledge of the military came from the tales told in popular culture. My mother’s favorite show then (as now) was MASH, about a military hospital during the Korean War. Another frequent guest on our television was Hogan’s Heroes, set in a WWII POW camp. Both were unlikely settings for comedies. Beyond that, were the dirt and blood depictions of movies like In Harm’s Way with John Wayne and modern films like Black Hawk Down. As horrible as they were, I always found something admirable in the capacity of human beings to endure and carry on, not just to fight and kill, but to protect and save the lives of those around them.
When I think about my influences I often wonder two things. First, am I strong enough for military service? Not only physically, but mentally and emotionally. If necessary, could I endure even a tiny bit of these trials and horrors long enough to help a single person? Could I be a voice of morality, compassion, and reason amid the trauma of combat and post traumatic stress disorder? Second, am I romanticizing this entire notion? Do I have a realistic idea of what military chaplaincy entails? For the first, I often have grave doubts. For the second, I know my expectations will inevitably fail to be realized in experience. This is a simple truism.
I’ve studied military chaplaincy to gain a better picture of the work. The more I read the more I know it is work I’m called to do. The more I doubt. The more I know it will be nothing like what I expect. But the more I know I have to try.