I joined the U.S. Air Force when I was 17, a senior in high school. I left for Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio about a month after I graduated. Young, naive, scared.
I knew nothing, then.
But I learned a lot, quickly. I thought so, anyway. At least, at the time.
Most of what I learned and thought about came during about two weeks of dark, unsettled nights on a lonely beach in the Mediterranean. No sounds, except for waves crashing into pristine sand.
Atop a mound that was a base shooting range. Just me and my M-16. A magazine in the chamber and eight 30-round clips around my waist.
Military basic training isn’t a time for personal expression, nor is it a place to express your emotions, nor, ultimately, find yourself. Physical training was part of Air Force boot camp, similar, from what I learned, to the Navy and Coast Guard, sans the elite units. The level of intensity was, and still is, relatively nothing compared to the Army or Marine Corps.
It was hard for me, a now-18-year-old ignorant kid who grew up in a small, quiet town just south of Pittsburgh. The TIs — training instructors — were unrelenting, unforgiving.
I remember one barracks inspection: Not a speck of dust, lockers arranged to military perfection. Underwear and T-shirts folded to the length of a dollar bill. The bed sheets and blankets so tight a fallen quarter could bounce six inches.
The TI looked around, yelled some profanities, and tossed it all — clothes, beds, boots — into a narrow aisle that separated one row of bunks — about 50 of them in all — from the next.
Not good enough. We cleaned up and prepared again, with a similar result, though with more vitriol. Do it again. So, we did it a third time.
For me, it was a mental ordeal, but one for which I am most thankful. One I’ll never forget.
The TI, a huge staff sergeant, had his reasons. Behind everything in military training are reasons and purpose. It just took me some time to figure out what they were.
I graduated basic training and was sent to an Army fort outside Indianapolis, where I became a military journalist. My first assignment was Strategic Air Command — “Peace through Strength” — headquarters at Offutt AFB near Omaha, Nebraska. I started as a reporter and eventually was promoted to editor of the Air Pulse, the 52-page weekly newspaper I also helped deliver around the massive base. SAC’s headquarters building included a subterranean room where the U.S. prepared for war. The generals at Offutt controlled our bombers and reconnaissance aircraft. Our vast nuclear arsenal.
I spent three years at Offutt and, through a weird set of circumstances, was assigned to Iraklion Air Station on the island of Crete in Greece, a communications post in the Aegean Sea. The most beautiful place in the world, though the base there is long gone. An unkempt wreck now, by all accounts.
At Iraklion I ran the base newspaper, first as the reporter and then as the editor. I hung out on the beaches, ran with tourists, drank, and ate. Things changed for me in spring 1986, when the U.S., under my favorite president — Ronald Reagan — bombed Libya and its terrorist leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi.
I was trained as a part-time security policeman and, with a couple dozen of my friends and fellow airmen, was armed and sent to patrol the base perimeter. We were the closest known U.S. military installation to Libya, just across the Mediterranean. A convenient place to attack.
For two weeks, on 12-hour shifts that mostly ran from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., we stood on the beach, or on other parts of the base.
Nothing happened, of course, but I had a lot of time to think. Not about myself, necessarily. In the scheme of things, I was mostly insignificant, save for my family and friends. Still am.
But I thought.
About Yorktown and Bunker Hill, New Orleans, Antietam, and Gettysburg. The Argonne, Iwo Jima, and Normandy. Yeah, those beaches. About Chosin and Hue City. Mogadishu and Fallujah.
So many battles. So much sacrifice. So much death. More than a million times over, and counting.
I thought about all of that then. I think about that now. I spent four years at The Fayetteville Observer, home to Fort Bragg and where my children, now headed to college, were born. Each night at the Observer we checked the Defense Department website, afraid each time of finding a new death. In Afghanistan or Iraq.
There, the reminders of sacrifice were painful, constant. Always with me.
It’s Memorial Day weekend, one day set aside to remember the fallen. But I remember them every day, ever since that spring night on a warm, star-filled beach. I’m not the only one, I know. American patriotism runs deep. As do the scars.