Thursday, November 6, 2008
Life Begins Anew
It was Elaine on the phone from San Jose. Though Hell Week was over for me, I was still in San Diego awaiting orders to a new duty station. I had another three years of active duty to serve in the Navy. Without a doubt, I would be sent out to the fleet.
In the meantime, I would get some time off for Thanksgiving (1992). I planned to meet Elaine in Santa Monica for the holiday and told her not to worry. We'd talk again then and figure out what to do. After I hung up the phone, though, I felt sure there was only one option.
Elaine and I had been together about two-and-a-half years to that point. I had originally planned on proposing to her in April 1993 -- when Class 187 was due to graduate from BUD/S. That dream -- becoming a SEAL -- was dead now, however, with my inability to withstand the cold of Hell Week.
While I was still at the BUD/S compound in Coronado, I was no longer in SEAL training. Instead, I was assigned to X-Division with all the other quitters. Unfortunately, Bob didn't make it through Hell Week either. Unlike me, Bob wasn't blessed with good running mechanics and was prone to knee problems. When he blew his knee out some time on day two of Hell Week and began to fall behind, the instructors showed no mercy. He could either keep up with the class or drop, they told him. (Mars, my first friend in the Navy from boot camp, classed-up with Class 188. As I recall, they had a brutal winter Hell Week held on San Clemente island. I don't remember the details of his experience, but Mars, too, failed to make it through.)
Being in X-Division was like being an ex-disciple around a bunch of disciples in the Center. Most of guys still in SEAL training -- but not all -- simply would not talk to you. In X-Division, you were damaged goods, pariahs from the elite SEAL community that just a few short weeks ago you were a part of. It was a shocking experience, and for some the shock was worse than it was for others. Having gone through it with the Center, though, made the experience for me a little easier -- though no more pleasant -- to deal with.
After spending Thanksgiving with Elaine, I returned to San Diego and bought an engagement ring. Shortly thereafter, Bob received his new orders to report for shore duty in Rota, Spain. As I recall, "Don" and his wife had pulled some strings for him, which no doubt benefited both the Navy and Bob. Bob's first language was Spanish and his mother owned a home in Rota. He was elated. Things would be different for me.
I was headed for the fleet. "They're going to send you to the biggest, baddest aircraft carrier in the fleet," Bob would rib me every day. And sure enough, that's exactly what "they" did. About a week after Bob received his orders to Spain, I received mine to Bremerton, Washington: then-home port for the USS Nimitz. I was going to spend my remaining three years aboard a seagoing warship. "Haze gray and underway," Bob laughed.
Thankfully, with my new orders also came another 30 days of leave. In December 1992, I flew to San Jose to stay with Elaine. As soon as we stepped into the door of her apartment, I proposed (pulling the ring box out of one of my rolled-up socks, she likes to remind me now). The plan was to get married right away, before I flew up to Washington to report to my ship. At my dad's request, Judge Robert Ahern -- a Navy vet himself -- agreed to officiate the ceremony in his chambers just before New Years.
With that, our immediate families -- including Jeevan and Nirbachita, who were both still in the Center -- gathered in San Jose on short notice. After a short, sweet, and dignified ceremony, Elaine and I were married.
Just a few nights later, I was walking alone down the cold and wet waterfront of Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in my blues toward the hulking ship that was to be my home for the next three years.