Wednesday, October 15, 2008

In The Navy

Boot camp was a shock. As my recruiter foretold, I very quickly began to wonder whether I had made a huge mistake.

It started in January 1992 with a long day of processing in Oakland, California, followed by an evening flight to Orlando, Florida, and more long hours of processing. By the time I had been assigned to boot camp company 66 and finally climbed into my new bed (in an open hall with 80 or so others), it was almost sun up.

Our instructors came in shortly thereafter, banging garbage cans and shouting. Thus began a long, long week of haircuts, shots, bad food, more paperwork, folding clothes, and lots of marching. Then the weekly cycle started all over again.

Slowly, though, I got my sea legs. Key was meeting my good friend Marshall, who quickly became "Mars" to me. Mars stood out from the other guys in our company -- that is, he looked physically fit. No wonder. It turned out that Mars wanted to be a Navy SEAL, too. Not only that, but he was also slated to attend intelligence training school just as I was.

Mars was also a graduate of Florida State, with a degree in finance. We became fast friends and soon were spending the little free time we had -- usually after "lights out" -- doing as many sit-ups and push-ups as possible. And when our chance to volunteer for SEAL training came up, we both smoked the screening test (which was a 500 yard swim, push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, and a mile-and-a-half run).

As a result, Mars and I were then permitted to join other successful SEAL candidates for early morning workouts (usually starting at 4 a.m.) before our regular boot camp day began. At these early morning sessions, we were working out with two SEALs on base; until then, I was actually getting out of shape at boot camp. Our new schedule made for brutally long days.

Like anyone who joins the military and is later inclined to write about the experience, boot camp provides enough material for an entire book. For our purpose here, though, it's enough to say that after eight weeks in Orlando, I graduated from boot camp and was given two weeks leave before I was to report to intelligence training school. Thankfully, Elaine was able to come out to see my graduation from boot camp (where I received special recognition as that training cycle's "Iron Man").

Once back in California, Elaine and I spent a wonderful two weeks together. In April 1992, with leave over, though, I flew back East and reported to Naval Station, Dam Neck, Virginia. It would be my home for the next 16 weeks. At Navy intelligence training school, I would receive more personal freedom, but also face more of a mental challenge than I had faced at boot camp.

Students stayed in cubicle-like rooms arranged on an open floor of a multi-floor building on the base of Dam Neck. It was about a quarter mile away from the intelligence training center and each morning all the students attending would muster in the parking lot, form up by class, and march over to school.

The weekdays were work like. Upon arrival, I was assigned to a new class that was forming up. We then had classes all day, starting with typing lessons those first few weeks. After class, on most days, we were free. A few days a week, though, we were required -- as a class -- to work out together. In Navy-speak, it was called "PT" or physical training.

On our first day of group PT, Mars (who had just arrived) and I assembled out in an empty parking lot near our dorm building, along with the other students from our class. No one looked terribly happy to be there, and while Mars and I were itching to work out as usual, we would have preferred to do our own thing.

The group exercises were led by a more senior student and, as expected, weren't particularly challenging. So, I began to take stock of the others in our class. Most were just going through the motions and a few -- sensing correctly that the student leading the exercises had no real authority -- openly sat around joking and shooting the shit. There was one guy, though, who was different.

He was positioned behind and to my left. The first thing that I noticed about him was his attire. Unlike the rest of us "booters" -- who were wearing the boot camp issued PT outfit -- this guy was wearing dark blue running shorts and a "blue and gold" t-shirt. Blue and golds were issued to folks in the Navy dive communities (divers, EOD, and SEALs).

The second thing I noticed about the guy working out behind me was his look. He was a serious person. That much was obvious. He had intent brown eyes and longish -- at least compared to the rest of us -- brown hair. He also performed the exercises like Mars and I did: with precision and focus.

After the calisthenics, we were to do a two-mile run, taking a paved path to the southern end of the base, then out onto the base's private beach, where we would run back north, eventually ending back at our dorm building.

I didn't know the route that first time, so I hung back a little, just behind the leaders. Once we hit the beach, though, I put the hammer down and soon found myself running north on the hard packed sand by myself. Not knowing exactly where to turn off the beach, I eased the pace up just slightly and was surprised when the guy in the blue and gold t-shirt overtook me without a word.

I matched him stride for stride for the remaining quarter-mile, as we both silently pushed the pace, each of us trying to drop the other. But it was a draw. As we stretched later, Bob introduced himself to me.

Bob was not a SEAL, he said, but he wanted to be. He had worked as a Seabee and had served in Gulf War I. But, he had never received any advanced technical training and thus had decided to re-enlist for the opportunity to attend intelligence training school and, hopefully, become a SEAL.

Bob was to become a lifelong friend and the closest friend I made in the Navy.

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