Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Moment of Truth

The Moment of Truth
Originally featured in Throwrag #4, February 2008.

I was officially sworn into the United States Navy on October 15, 2002, over a year after the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, which actually had almost no bearing at all on my decision to join. I had grown up in a largely military family, and while most had been in the Marines, I had an uncle who had been a Naval Hero and innovator of naval weapon systems, and after retiring from the Navy, had become a civilian contractor and key designer of the Aegis weapons platforms, and later, Uncle Buddy and his Panamanian wife Amaya moved to central America where he died a few years later and we found out almost a decade after the fact. My mother and her family had some sort of rift that developed when I was a small child and I never really understood. Amaya and my sister Debra had been my primary babysitters in my youngest days, and I grew up knowing Spanish as well as English, only to forget Spanish after a few years of non-use. Mementos of Buddy’s naval career had remained around my grandmother’s house long after Buddy and Amaya had left our lives, and for many reasons, I always felt closer to that side of the Naval Department than the Semper Fidelis side, so after my first run at adulthood had proven unfruitful, it seemed the natural if not fateful choice that I would enter into the armed forces, and what better time than then? I had started the process earlier that summer, and only my aborted relationship with Solara distracted me from the goal of a life at sea, and one night after we broke up, Solara gave me a ride to work and I asked her, point blank, if there was any chance that we might get back together—she told me no, and the next day I called my recruiter, who I had rudely snubbed after Solara and I met, and we picked up where we had left off. It took several trips to MEPS to get myself physically cleared, and I still had to lie about a couple of medical problems to ensure my induction. After the induction ceremony, my recruiter—a newly stationed recruiter who had to do no lying or false promising to entice me into signing my contract—convinced me to stay one more night at MEPS so that I could take the Nuclear Power test. My ASVAB had been a nearly perfect score, and while I had done my best to explain to my recruiter that I was very non-scientifically inclined and likely to fail the test miserably, he persuaded me with a case of beer and the prospect of staying one more night in the hotel. The hotel reminded me being in some foreign country, since the only people around were US Service personnel or Intelligence Agents on various excursions, and at least eight different languages were being spoken in the lobby, with a lot of desperate last minute hedonism going on by the other inductees who were leaving for their basic training in the various branches the next day, living it up during one last night of freedom. My roommate the night before had been from Montgomery, and had brought over several of his local friends to smoke drugs and get drunk, despite my warning that he would probably fail his drug test the next day if he kept it up, which I am sure he did although I never saw him again after our rousing and departure from the hotel that morning at 4 a.m. The next night, drinking my free case of beer with my new roommate, a really tightly wound kid that reminded me of my young friend John-John Nittany, I explained to him the process he would undergo in choosing his job rating the next day if he was able to pass his physical. I had been inducted as a future Electronic Warfare Specialist, which I was told was much easier and not nearly as technological as it sounded, and a duty station promised to me of Pensacola, Florida. I was not at all expecting that I could pass the Nuclear Power test the next day. The change in rating, if I did pass the test, would get me an additional $10,000 of bonus money once I finished the two and a half years of Nuclear Power Training. Also, and more importantly, my recruiter promised me that I could leave in early December, instead of having to wait more than eight months for departure for boot camp if I was to remain in the job rating I was already in. The next day I accidentally passed the Nuclear Power test by two points, and was re-inducted as an outgoing Navy Nuke, which changed everything. All of a sudden every Naval person that came into contact with me on base suddenly treated me as a celebrity, and I was assured my career would be fantastically great and rewarding. I did not care, and internally my countdown clock started, waiting for that fateful day I could leave in early December for boot camp at Great Lakes, Illinois. Because I had moved back to my hometown from Auburn after the start of the recruiting process, I was no longer anywhere near my recruiting station, and was allowed to skip the weekly delayed entry classes that were supposed to prepare us for an easy transition into boot camp. I spent the next month and a half laying about, trying to get the last final touches on my writing project of the time, Maya, and arrange for it to be published under a pseudonym through Debra so that it would not endanger my Security Clearance, which, based on the amount of lies I had told my recruiter, and then, on my recruiters prompting, the US Government during my induction process, was likely to be a big problem later on. I had black marks in every single category I was told would be analyzed, and the smallest amount of digging by the FBI would no doubt reveal enough to get me tossed from the Nuclear Power Program, and possibly, a decent stint in Levinworth. I had been given a couple of books that I was told, since I was not going to the delayed entry classes, would at least inform me of all the pertinent information I was expected to know on arrival in Illinois. I maybe opened the books twice, and probably only looked at the pictures. The day I left the recruiting station for the hotel and one last early morning at MEPS before being flown to Illinois my mother asked the station leader why he wore a different color uniform than my recruiter, and he explained that he was a chief, and it dawned on me that, despite my four years of experience in Army JROTC, I had no idea what the rank structure was in the Navy, and I suddenly realized that maybe I should have paid attention to the book, if even for an entire hour at any point. I was flying very blind and only then did it become obvious.

At MEPS the morning of my flight I was entrusted with the service files of eleven other Navy Nukes who were transiting with me, and told by The Chief that it was my responsibility not only to ensure that all twelve of us made it through the three airports we would be passing through that day, but once we got to Great Lakes, to make sure that all of us made it through the first day without being sent immediately home. I was told that there was a point during our arrival phase called “The Moment of Truth”, and that they would take us all aside and hound us to admit any lies that we had made during our enrollment and induction process, and I was supposed to convince everyone with me to keep their mouth shut. I was severely hung over, so much so that I was confronted twice that morning by two different officials who were on the verge of ending my military career on the spot, and through some miracle I was able to make it as far as the airport and tie-on another good drunk, getting back up to mental speed and relieving the effects of the hang over. I almost lost two guys in the Montgomery Airport, and then another in the Atlanta Airport, and almost forgot the files in the airport lounge after a few more drinks and a cigarette in one of the smoking boothes that the kind people in Atlanta equip their concourses with. I forgot to eat in Baltimore because I had gotten beers instead with a couple of the other Nukes, and we had been promised a meal in Chicago once we got there, which turned out to be a lie. I was finally relieved of the files in Chicago, and miraculously got all of my stewards all the way to O’Hare with just a few minor incidents aside from the ones I caused on my own. Trying as hard as I could to keep everything quiet and not so obvious, my drunken exploits were already becoming the stuff of legend, which made me feel proud considering the just over two-hundred year history of the Navy for hedonism and reckless abandon. I was disappointed later to learn that the US Navy referred to itself internally as “The New Navy”, and at some point in the recent past had began a process of overhauling its image and traditions, which was spoiling the areas of drinking, womanizing, and foul language that had been the US Navy’s biggest selling points as far as I was concerned.

After three hours of stressful, hungry delays at O’Hare waiting for the charter buses taking us and the assembled mass of other recruits to Great Lakes, and the half-hour silent bus ride where we filled out a quality control questionnaire on our recruiting experience, we arrived at Great Lakes and within minutes I was among the first to get berated for some minor infraction probably due to relaxed reaction timing. We were stripped naked and deprived of all of our worldly possessions, given our new Naval possession, and brought into a large classroom and told to put our heads down and wait. It was well after midnight at this point, and even without a day spent on a roller coaster of excitement and drastic drinking, I had been up since 4 a.m. and exhausted, and just as I was about to fall into a mild cat-nap, we were awakened again to take our drug tests, and after this process, which took much longer than it should have because a couple of recruits fearfully circled the room, drinking water from the water fountains mounted on each wall, expecting perhaps that a few more minutes and a gallon of water might ensure their passing the drug test, a Chief came into the room and started screaming at us to own up to all the lies we had told to get to where we were at. We were told that the US Navy is based on Honor, Courage, and Commitment, and that lying was not the way to enter into that grand tradition. I was unconcerned, as I had been told by the recruiters that it was already too late to change my story, and that The Moment of Truth only caught idiots or people who did not really want to be there. After this Chief screamed at us for a little while longer he left the room and then another Chief came in and nicely pleaded with us to just give in, that the FBI, Homeland Security, and the NSA would quickly unravel our lies if we persisted with them, and if we gave in now, we could surely save and repair whatever damage had been done. He reasoned with us that all recruiters want is to reach their quotas and did not care for us as individuals, and that they routinely did the wrong thing and made mistakes during our induction process, and now was the time to come clean. Not a single person had budged, and I was certain that this was just a legal formality that was supposed to somehow discharge someone somewhere of some accountability. Just as I was sure that the process was going to be over, that the Good-Chief, Bad-Chief routine had reached it’s maximum extension, a hand near the front of the room went up. Within a matter of moments ten people had raised their hands and stood up and said that they needed to reveal things that they had been dishonest about during their enrollment process. I was astounded and terribly amused, trying hard not to laugh out loud, when one of the Navy Nuke’s I had herded like sheep from Alabama raised his hand, and my stomach turned. I felt that it might reflect negatively on me with my recruiting station to let one of my charges blow his Moment of Truth, but I had no idea how I could help him now that he had stepped into the crossfire. Then another of my Nuke’s raised his hand, and another, and another, and before I knew it every single one of the Nuke’s I had travelled with from Alabama was standing in the aisle, awaiting their fates as liars. I suddenly became afraid that perhaps it had rested on me to relay the message from our recruiting station Chief to the rest of my travelling companions that we should keep our mouth shut during the Moment of Truth, and I remember my recruiter telling me after my induction ceremony in October specifically that any misrepresentations of facts that I had made with or without his knowledge should be stuck to by the letter, and that it was too late and too dangerous to change course from that point forward. No matter the gentle and soft-spoken nature of this chief’s voice who stood before us, eliciting even more recruits into admitting their dishonesty, I was not convinced that horrible ramifications were not directly around the corner. I considered my options—I had an entire closet, amoire, and cabinet of skeletons that I had no desire to revisit or reveal, but was equally afraid of somehow letting my Nuclear Charges from Alabama slip from my grasp. I felt personally responsible for them, as if I was an extension of our recruiting station, and in a flash decided to raise my hand. I needed to see what was going to happen, and was directed to line-up against the wall with the rest of the liars, and after a few more minutes the sea of raising hands subsided, and more than a third of the room was now lined up around two walls, and we were directed through a maze of hallways deeper into the building, into a narrow hallway where a chief asked us who was nukes, and a few more hands other than my group raised their hands, and we were put at the front of the line. I remained at the rear of this group as I had been the last nuke to join in the fray, and one by one each was taken into an office, and as each came out and was taken back to the room we had just recently vacated, I became a little more relieved that perhaps it was all going to work out. I ran through my laundry list of secrets and decided upon the most unctuous to admit to, and after all the other nukes had gone in and came back out, their faces relaxed with relieved anxiety, and I was finally brought into office. The chief introduced himself as a former Nuclear Electronics Technician, my desired job rating, and told me to sit down.

“Okay, in what way were you dishonest with us in your induction process,” he asked, staring into my eyes, looking for the subtlest signs of deception. My mind raced for a moment, I considered perhaps laying it all out on the table and seeing where the pieces might fall. I was not entirely enthused about the Naval Nuclear Program, and perhaps I would be re rated back to something decidedly easier. Then I remembered the $15,000 on the line.

“I still owe Auburn University something like $900,” I said, “They asked me if I had any outstanding debts and I thought I would have it taken care of by now but I couldn’t get it all paid down.”

“So no past drug use, legal problems, or anti-government associations?” He asked, and I said no, lying on all three points. “Okay, well, we are just going to forget this little conversation—it would be more trouble for us to go back and alter your paperwork, and let’s face it, you are a Nuke—you are special, and while you shouldn't take this as a license to be unethical or dishonest in any further way during your career—in fact you’ll be held to a higher standard than any other enlisted person in the military, let’s not put a wrinkle on your career before it even starts. So, your recruiter was not at all aware of this situation, or enticed you into lying during your induction process?”

“No, sir,” I said, and was quickly reminded not to refer to him as “sir”, that a chief was a chief and a petty officer was a petty officer, and I wondered other than uniform color, how I was supposed to know the difference since all the ranks looked the same to me at this point. I was lying again on this point, as my recruiter had told me his theory, which was “No equals Naval Opportunity”. When I had told my recruiter and station chief early in my recruiting phase that I had until just recently smoked pot, they both took me outside, as if their offices were wired for sound, and told me that I was to never admit that to anyone ever again, a policy I stuck to throughout my Naval Career, never even joining in the “back in the day” conversations that were so prevalent during our down-time at boot camp and later Nuke School.

Then the Nuke Chief told me something that has echoed in my mind every since at crucial times, “The lies you might have told to get you to this point must forever be buried, your new life begins today, you are being born with a clean slate, and just hope that nothing you thought was dead comes back to haunt you later.”