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It wasn’t for you. When I called the recruiter our country was the farthest thing from my mind. I was focused on a hot little brunette I aimed to marry. My marketable skills were worth about five dollars an hour to even the most generous of employers, and I knew that was no way to make a life for my future bride. I met with a man in an impeccably white uniform for the most selfish of reasons. When I went to the entrance processing station it was just to see what the Navy had to offer me. I told myself there was no way I was joining that day, and if I did it would not be for more than two years, and I’d never, under any circumstances, go into submarines. I left that afternoon signed up for 8 years in the Strategic Weapons Systems Electronics program. I was going to be a Missile Technician. On submarines.
As the day approached for my departure in May of 1992 I balked. I struggled mightily with the decision I had made to give myself to service. I almost didn’t leave. At the last moment I drove my dad’s old ’72 Chevy truck the 120 miles needed to say goodbye to my love and abandoned myself to whatever lay before me. I flew to Illinois and endured the best and worst two months of my life. A grizzled old signalman called me (repeatedly) things I cannot repeat here. A little harpy of a yeoman helped me “celebrate” my birthday with sweat, tears (maybe a little vomit), and an amount physical conditioning that should have seen her court martialed. It took every last ounce of will I had to not choke the life out of her as I lay in a pool of my own fluids when she patted me on the head and chirped, “Happy birthday, Patrick.” But, Petty Officers Jones and Fowler saw something in me I did not know was there. They broke me down and reconstructed me. They took a chubby, sarcastic little boy and turned him into a man they could call shipmate. On July 4th they beamed as our company marched in our boot camp graduation. They did a work indescribable and thankless. They made sailors, sent us to the fleet, then did it again with the next company of little boys who needed to become men.
For the next sixteen months I went to schools. I learned about submarines. I learned about electronics. I learned about missiles. I arrived onboard USS Nevada at the end of 1993 full of myself. It was time to be remade again. I learned immediately how much I didn’t know. I was a NUB (non-useful body) and a FLOB (freeloading oxygen breather.) I was not yet a submariner. I had to prove myself to these men whose lives they would willingly place in my hands. They were merciless because they had to be. They would not allow to remain any fault of knowledge or skill that might hamper my ability to what was required when needed. Through many sleepless nights, many disheartening examinations, and even more tears, I finally was proven worthy. My dolphins were pinned on my chest, held fast not just by the frogs on the back, but by the trust and respect of my fellow submariners who had declared me to be one of their own.
For twelve more years I served. On USS Alaska and at the weapons facility I did my duty, stood my watches, cleaned bilges, and literally put out a fire or two. I kept myself mentally ready and drilled to do the unimaginable on behalf of the nation. Should it have been required, I would have unleashed “the power of God from the hands of man” against our enemies. Had you required it of me I would have done this. I would have done it knowing the boat would soon be sunk (you can’t hide a submarine that just launched a bunch of missiles.) I would have willingly consigned myself to Davy Jones’ locker knowing that I had done my part to protect the nation, or failing that, having sent a righteous vengeance raining unimaginable hell from the skies onto the heads of our enemies and making them pay with their lives for the lives they would have taken to incur this wrath.
I recount this to say that I was never a man capable of such patriotism and love. At 19 I was a selfish little brat concerned only with himself and his own lusts. In attempting to satiate them I stumbled haphazardly into the service. Unworthy as I was the nation accepted me. The Navy changed me. Those hard, hard company commanders started the process. My shipmates continued the work. You, my fellow citizens, by allowing this chubby, sarcastic little boy to serve you, completed the monumental task of making me a man and a patriot. I thank all my fellow veterans who served me as a citizen, and I thank them as brothers and sisters who accepted me into their exalted company. Mostly, I thank you all for allowing me the honor of serving you.