Today’s featured image: a rainbow over Fort Collins. Spotted this beauty as I walked up the driveway after going hiking with a couple friends.
Last week, I convinced my parents to try watching Game of Thrones (again). Though I can’t see myself getting back into the series at this point, I know they enjoy such series, and it was one of the few that really pulled me in. However, I made the mistake of reading (actually, listening to) all the books, so now the show is rather unsatisfying.
But there was a great line in the first episode that I have remembered ever since the first time I was introduced to the show four years ago. As the Stark family entertains the guests of the king with a raucous feast in the great hall of Winterfell, the Stark bastard, John Snow, takes out his frustration of being an outcast on a straw enemy in the stable. The equally outcast dwarf of the Lannister family, Tyrion, brusquely (and rather drunkenly) makes his introduction to the bastard, calling John Snow “bastard” to his face, multiple times. The Imp knows how to get under a man’s skin, and John Snow is noticeably enraged. But his intentions are good. Tyrion is not picking a fight but recognizing a fellow outcast. He is teaching John Snow a valuable lesson. He then delivers this line that has stuck with me all these years:
“Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”
So, what am I? What pejorative could be slung against me? What failure ought I wear like armor?
Deserter. Runaway. Abdicator. Flake.
These terms can fairly be levied against me. Though it can surely be inferred from a careful perusal of the archive of this blog, I have never plainly and publicly told the story of my decision to request separation from active duty service. As I struggle with direction and the motivation to regain the traits I had incorporated into myself over the past three years, it is a good time to prove to myself that I have come to terms with this decision. Though my thought experiments of late have indicated that I did make the right decision, I can never truly know what would have happened had I chosen to stay.
Here is the rundown, in the plainest and sincerest terms:
It was late spring of 2014, and I had finally begun primary flight training at NAS Whiting Field, just outside of Pensacola, Florida. Though it had been a year since my graduation from the US Naval Academy, upon which I had accepted a five-year service obligation, I had only participated in intermittent training. The Navy was downsizing and short on funds for training. There was a surplus of young officers like me. Some of my friends on ships were doing made-up jobs because the captain had no real work for them. I used the time to think about life, ethics, politics, and purpose. When my real training finally started, I had come to fear the commitment that I had so excitedly signed under a few years earlier. Because I had chosen to go to flight school, my commitment would not be just the minimum five years. Upon completing flight school (still two years away), I would be indebted to the Navy for eight more years.
When my real training finally started, I had come to fear the commitment that I had so excitedly signed under a few years earlier. Because I had chosen to go to flight school, my commitment would not be just the minimum five years. Upon completing flight school (still two years away), I would be indebted to the Navy for eight more years. That meant that I would spend at least a decade in uniform, doing the bidding of US government, fighting their wars, supporting their agenda, spreading their message. By the time I could legally turn back on this decision, I would be 33 years old. For a 23-year-old, fresh out of college, 33 was deep into life, too far down the line to do the adventurous things young people ought to do. It felt as if that time would be taken from me, the most exciting years of my life sunken in drudgery, marred by the anxiety and stress of military service. What once had excited me now terrified me.
At the same time, my relationship was faltering. I had bought a house with my high school sweetheart and fiancee. We had started a proper life together. Two cars, a kitten and a puppy, a mortgage, full-time careers; on the surface, it was the ideal American life. Underneath, we were suffocating. She struggled with the adjustment, and I didn’t know how to help. She didn’t understand my obsessive tidiness around the house, and I didn’t understand her need for recovery after the stress of her own budding professional career. Our communication was strained, sex infrequent, and ideals in conflict. I began to think that we might be better off going our separate ways.
Little did we know, we had both been thinking the same. She told me one afternoon that she needed to go back to Colorado to see her family. She also told me that she didn’t know if she should come back. I tearfully agreed, grateful that she had the courage to say what I could not.
In all honesty, I can’t remember the order of events, but at just about the same time, I called a meeting with my flight class’s advisor, a senior lieutenant and flight instructor. I didn’t want to talk directly with my instructor for fear of giving him the impression that I was going to give up mid-flight. I told him that I was considering dropping out of flight school.
In the Navy, flight training is a voluntary option. If you don’t think you can hack it, you’re free to “drop on request” at any time, but there’s no going back from that decision. In normal times, a stack of papers summarizing your career called a “package” will be brought before a board of senior officers, who will decide what your new job will be. These were not normal times. That year, about three-quarters of those going before the board were being separated, i.e. released from active duty service. I knew this. It was an open door, and I decided to try my luck to go through it.
At the time, I didn’t understand what I was really seeking, but I knew that there was something in my life that was missing. I had grown up with a clear vision of myself in uniform. I had spent the most formative years of my life engaged (though not always faithfully) to one woman who, I believed, would be my partner for the rest of my life. Based on all I had heard from my parents, friends, and teachers, this was exactly right.
But there is a fundamental flaw in this life plan: I knew nothing of the world outside my sheltered upper-middle-class American life except what I had seen in books, images, and the occasional family holiday. I knew nothing of the world or its people, who they were, who I was.
I struggled to articulate this sentiment, but I could feel it. As I explained to my class advisor and later to my instructor and the squadron commander, I felt that I needed to see the world from outside the military machine, on my own, as an individual. Even as I said the words (especially as I said them), it felt like a cop-out, an excuse, like giving up. I knew that it sounded like I was simply giving in to the stress of flight training, and it didn’t make sense to my instructor. I was doing well. I had easily coasted through ground school, receiving perfect or near-perfect scores on every exam. I was weeks ahead of many of my classmates in learning my emergency procedures. Though I was far from ready to take the aircraft alone, by my fourth flight, I was handling nearly all the flight planning, radio calls, and navigation on my own. Landings were still giving me trouble, but my hours of nightly rehearsal was paying off. My instructor didn’t understand, and he was very disappointed, but I knew it in my bones, on a level that words could not yet express.
I crafted a statement to submit to the commanding officer. In it, I did my best to express the need to experience the world, but I also acknowledged that I understood the commitment that I had agreed to. I wrote sincerely that I would serve to the best of my ability in whatever capacity the Navy needed me to for the remainder of my five-year term, but I could not face the fear of a decade of naval aviation.
When I was pulled out of flight training, I was reassigned to the student services office to handle the paperwork of all the aviator hopefuls coming through after me. As I processed names of friends, classmates, and fellow USNA alumni who had graduated a year after me, I started to waver. I began to look into other options. I knew I couldn’t go back to flight training, and I didn’t want to, but I also didn’t want to live with the regret of reneging on my agreement. I found the Aviation Engineering Duty Officer (AEDO) training command on the other side of the training wing’s parking lot. It seemed to be a nice compromise. I could apply my aerospace engineering degree, serve my commitment, but be free in half the time. I started collecting letters of recommendation
I started collecting letters of recommendation for my package. Three of my favorite professors at the Naval Academy (and one from my exchange at the Air Force Academy) penned the kindest words about my competence in engineering, my intelligence, and my character. One of them was Captain Robert Niewoehner, a living legend in the test flight community. He was the chief test pilot for the development of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, an aircraft that has become the backbone of the Navy’s airborne strategy. He was also my instructor for my two favorite classes. His words would almost certainly get me anywhere I wanted to go.
Unfortunately, where I wanted to go did not involve wearing a uniform, not a flight suit, not even utilities. The day before the package was due, I dropped it on my supervisor’s desk to be sent off first thing in the morning. That night, I sat in my slowly emptying house, alone on the floor by the couch that had become my bed since Luisa left and I could not bring myself to sleep in our bed. In the silence, a sudden rush hit me, and I pulled my computer to my knees to type out a new cover sheet for my package.
I couldn’t go halfway. I would be torn. I couldn’t serve with the lingering sensation of “What if…?” I had already pulled the trigger to get myself out of my service obligation, and I was going to ask for it boldly. I restated my willingness to remain in service if ordered to do so, but it was not my first choice. I arrived early that morning. My supervisor had not yet arrived. I replaced the form that had placed AEDO in the top slot with an identical piece of paper that shifted my preferences down, putting “Separation” in its stead. I removed the letters of recommendation and ran them through the shredder. I laid the envelope back on the desk, just as it had been but to carry an entirely different message.
There were no classes coming through that morning, and the briefing room was empty. Having stepped out of the office to leave my colleague to suffer the boredom alone, I sat in the dark, empty room with a scrawled message on the notepad before me. After perhaps the twentieth time rehearsing the message, I dialed the saved number of my former instructor and mentor. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever done, but it was the right thing to do. He deserved to hear it directly that I would not be passing on his letter of recommendation and that I would be asking for the Navy to forgive me of my commitment.
His reaction was exactly what I ought to have expected: disappointed. I sat rigidly, head on my hand, choking back the tears as he lectured on the value of commitment and integrity, on how he could no longer trust me to do what I said I would do. I agreed quietly and accepted my deserved scolding, but the deed was done; the decision had already been submitted. That was our last correspondence.
The discussion with my parents was surprisingly easier. I actually could not tell them directly that I had asked for separation. I wrote them a letter detailing my need to go be a typical twenty-something for a while. Given their fervent support and beaming pride at all I had done in uniform and their proud announcements of my plans for patriotic glory, I imagined that they would also be disappointed in my decision. Their support, though, never faltered. In fact, they were a bit relieved. They trusted that I would continue to make them proud in whatever goal I decided to pursue. It has been a driving factor in my ensuing success. I know that whatever path I choose, it is my devotion to doing it to the best of my ability that makes them proud.
The Navy was also very gracious. Not only did they grant my request for separation (as they did for most of the others that month), they allowed me to remain on their payroll until the end of the year. I worked a few days a week at the student services office. The other days, I worked to figure out what the hell I was going to do next.
I considered becoming a software engineer. I had gotten into programming in my engineering education, and I knew it was a lucrative, portable career. I considered culinary arts; I had recently taught myself to cook and loved the idea of one day running my own kitchen. I tossed around the idea of putting my writing to work as a journalist.
Whatever I would do, it had to be completely different. I wanted nothing to do with the Navy or airplanes. I didn’t really even want to stay in the US. I started looking for graduate schools in Europe to study international affairs, but my engineering degree wasn’t helping. I had picked up an obsession with Czechia, and I had even begun learning Czech.
And then the advertising got me:
“Have you ever dreamed of walking the cobblestone streets of Prague on your way to work each morning?”
Yes, actually. I dream of that every single day.
By the end of the week, I had taken advantage of the military discount to start in the next class to get my Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certificate. It didn’t take me straight to Prague, but Seoul was a good place to start. They offered me a good contract with about the highest salary a first-year teacher could expect, and it was about as far away from the USA as I could get.
I still remember the feeling of stepping into my first class in the run-down KeonDae branch of the SDA language schools. I was nervous but excited. I did exactly what my military training had taught me: pretend like I know what I’m doing. It worked. I quickly fell into the role. My history as a grammar-nazi came in handy as my students challenged me on the endless and arbitrary complexity of the English language. I loved the feeling of helping students learn what they wanted to learn.
But let’s face it: it doesn’t take much to be a passable English teacher. It was fun, but it wasn’t my passion. I had started working toward other careers. I had begun blogging for the recruiting company that got me hired. I took online classes in journalism and academic writing. I continued the search for graduate programs to bolster my background, hoping that the blogging and freelance writing would be enough to complement my technical background.
And then I woke up. I had been scrolling through a list of master’s programs in the Europe. Once caught my eye just before I stepped off the train: Renewable Energy Engineering.
How had I never thought of that? I get so enraged when people deny man’s role in climate change. I have a perfect background to develop such technologies. This is a cause with truly global consequences.
As I walked home, I became infected by the idea. It would come to define me. Yes, that’s an Inception reference, and that’s exactly how it felt. Thinking through the requirements of such a career path and discussing it with my good friend T’ew (who just visited me and my family in Colorado over the past few days) brought me to the obvious realization that this effort to run away from everything that had once defined me was a fool’s errand. Not only was it impossible, but it was the most cowardly way to handle the shame of having left the Navy.
The American taxpayer had invested upwards of $300,000 in my college education that had instilled in my not only academic prowess but also values of integrity and teamwork, skills like public speaking and organization, and non-cognitive traits like confidence and willingness to fail. I could never repay them for this investment, but that wasn’t the point. I wasn’t supposed to repay them. I was supposed to use what I had been given.
Military service may not have been the best way for me to utilize these skills and attributes, but it was up to me to find another way.
I’ll continue this story later, but I need to get to bed right now. My life starts again tomorrow. I’ve been struggling with the motivation to do things right recently. I’ve struggled to maintain the focus on why I do what I do, mainly because I haven’t had much to do to remind of that purpose. I’ve been slowly scrapping together things to do, but rebuilding a life is a slow process, and I’m young and impatient. I’ve decided that I’m going to use what time I have in Fort Collins to build the local chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a non-profit organization that works to encourage Congress to implement a revenue-neutral carbon fee and dividend policy. Tomorrow, I need to prepare a presentation for a fellow environmental group.