Sunday, November 14, 2010

Thanksgiving: My Job

I  figured this was an appropriate time to be particularly thankful for my job since this past Thursday was Veterans' Day. I put my uniform on for the first time since 23 Jul, and went to the Brentwood Veterans' Day Celebration that my local little community put on. There's a Veterans' Memorial about three blocks away from my house that the City of Brentwood built a few years ago. About forty people showed up at the ceremony, some coming back in from where they currently live to honor their fathers and brothers who had grown up in Brentwood, and whose names are on the memorial. I talked to a former DC2 who served on the TAMAROA back in the Viet Nam War era. He was proudly wearing a Coast Guard cap, so he was easy to recognize. He was also very proud of his son who is currently a Marine. The ceremony lasted about an hour, and was nicely put on for a community of about 2000 households in a major metropolitan area.

The guest of honor, besides all the politicians that showed up, was a Councilwoman's father. Unfortunately I don't remember his name, but he served in World War II in the 92nd Infantry Division of the US Army. He was a Buffalo Soldier. He talked briefly about growing up in Goldsboro, NC and being in Washington, DC visiting his sister on December 7, 1941. He went home and enlisted in the Army, rather than waiting for his draft number to be called. He was very candid about the racial tensions that dictated the division of the 92nd among three locations for training, and he joked a little about their unit's destination being super-secret, except for the fact that they were all learning Italian. He said, maybe they were going to Ethiopia, since they spoke a little Italian there. But they were in fact deployed to Italy, I think he said in 1942. During his time in the Army, he earned the rank of 2nd Lieutenant, and made it "safely" through the war. He wrapped up his remarks with a powerful message of trust and belief in his country. He said we made it through all those troubled times, reflecting back to the discriminations he faced, and we can see it through these tough economic times as well. Because the United States is such a great nation, made up of great people.

As  he was speaking, I was doing some quick math in my head, and realized he was at least 85, and probably closer to 90 years old. The only medal of the four that he proudly wore above his left breast pocket that I recognized was the Purple Heart. I was glad I went to the celebration in my community, but his remarks made it a truly memorable experience.

The next day, I put my uniform on again and set off to CG Headquarters to get weighed-in. I admit, I completely spaced on the fact that I was supposed to do it in October, and ended up getting the nasty-gram from my Program Manager that I needed to come in "as soon as possible" to get it done. Whoops.

It was the first time I've ridden the Metro in uniform. And maybe it's just me, but I felt like people stared a little bit, or at least didn't brush their eyes over me like just another body in the crowd. And maybe it's different for other, bigger people in uniform, but for a 5'2" pip-squeak, that uniform can make me feel more like I'm ten feet tall and bullet proof (to use a favorite Company Commander quote from boot camp). It's hard not to swagger a little when I wear it (I think it might be the steel-toed boots...they require a touch more leg movement so I don't drag my feet 'cause they're kinda heavy). Maybe I'm not only Just a Girl when I'm in uniform. Maybe it reminds me that I'm Just a Girl with sea stories, Just a Girl with shipmates, Just a Girl who's part of something bigger than herself. Just a Girl who can drive a ship. Just a Girl who has battled gremlins. Just a Girl who got pepper-sprayed, can shoot a gun, and knocked a guy on his ass practicing defensive techniques (sorry Cookie, it's just too good a visual image not to use).

I think it was a well-timed reminder that what I'm doing in school is important and will give me more tools to bring back to my service hopefully for the benefit of the Coast Guard. It's hard to remember that sometimes, stuck in statistics or microeconomics.

And, on top of those two experiences, I recently finished reading The Caine Mutiny, by Herman Wouk (Back Bay Books, 2003). My Aunt Linda gave it to me at my Change of Command this summer, and I really enjoyed it. I'm pretty sure the first time I was introduced to The Caine Mutiny was at OCS; but I quickly became more familiar with it since instructors show it at every single CG leadership training I've attended ever since. I always thought that Captain Queegs was the main part of the story, since I've never seen the movie all the way through. The leadership classes always just show the typhoon part, or the strawberry scene. Turns out the story is really about Willie Keith and his growing up.

I felt plenty of sympathy for Willie when he showed up at his ship, not knowing really what was going on, stumbling through figuring out where he belonged and what he was supposed to be doing. And as the realization that dawns on him that Queegs is not the same as his predecessor, Captain De Vriess. One of the truest quotes comes after the verdict has come through on the Court Martial; the current Captain of the CAINE is talking to Willie about the burden of command, "You can't understand command till you've had it. It's the loneliest, most oppressive job in the whole world...You're forever tettering along a tiny path of correct decisions and good luck that meanders through an infinite gloom of possible mistakes." (pg 499) Oh my goodness, how true is that!?

But my favorite parts of the book are at the end, where the last captain of the CAINE is philosophizing about his time aboard:
"[He] experienced the strange sensations of the first days of a new captain: a shrinking of his personal identity, and a stretching of his nerve ends to all the spaces and machinery of his ship. He was less free than before. He developed the apprehensive listening ears of a young mother; the ears listened on in his sleep; he never quite slept, not the way he had before. He had the sense of being reduced from an individual to a sort of brain of a composite animal, the crew and ship combined. The reward for these disturbing sensations came when he walked the decks. Power seemed to flow out of the plates into his body. The respectful demeanor of the officers and crew thrust him into a loneliness he had never known, but it wasn't a frigid loneliness. Through the transparent barrier of manners came the warming unspoken word that his men liked him and believed in him." (pg 520)
"He spent long night hours on the bridge when there was no need of it. The stars and the sea and the ship were slipping from his life...All the patterns fixed in his muscles, like the ability to find the speed indicator buttons in utter blackness, would fade. This very wheelhouse itself, familiar to him as his own body, would soon cease to exist. It was a little death toward which he was steaming." (pg 522)

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I miss being underway. I had a (non-Coast Guard) friend ask me today when I'd be getting back underway. We were talking about my getting a dog. I really want a dog, but I won't get any more pets until I'm out of the Coast Guard, and not deploying anymore. It's not fair to the pets to be shuffled all about when I get underway. I'll foster pets in the meantime, while I'm ashore. But I guess in the course of our conversation, I made it sound like I'd be going back out on a ship sometime in the near future. Imagine my chagrin at having to admit that it was actually going to be about four or five years before I get underway again.

And just so you guys don't think I'm just all about the underway thing...I am thankful for my job for a number of other reasons, many of them financial. The Coast Guard is sending me to school to learn something I probably should have majored in in the first place, back in the day. And I still get my salary. My job allows my mother to take advantage of the numerous and generous benefits of being a military dependent. And eventually I'll put on O4, and have something else to be thankful for. I've been hearing some stories from current CDRs that it took them 22 months to make LCDR from LT. I'm not there yet, but it's looking like it'll be pretty close for me.

And my job has introduced me to a lot of amazing people. One last recent episode: the day I was walking through the Metro in uniform, I happened to separately see two fellow Coasties I had served with previously. Now, it was at L'Enfant Station where the shuttle picks people up from the Metro FFT (for further transport) to the Headquarters Building, so it wasn't totally unusual to have plenny of Coasties wandering around. But, two? In one day? That's kinda cool. One was LT Beau Powers who I haven't seen since I left the D14 Command Center in 2006. We chatted for a few minutes as we walked to our respective trains. He's doing great things in the Command Center world. One more reason to be thankful for my job in the Coast Guard: it's such a small service, you can't help but run into the good people you served with again somewhere.


Anonymous said...

What a great post!

Just a Girl said...

Thanks Anonymous! It was an easy one to write :)