Where you sit is where you stand

Clichés abound when talking about perceptions coloring someone’s view, but the one I’ve always liked (and used too often) is: Where you sit is where you stand.

Since retiring from active duty, I’ve gotten more and more sensitive to the way the U.S. military is viewed, in the media and by people I’ve met.

During my 20 years of active duty, I saw public opinion reverse course completely from a post-Vietnam hangover of indifference to parades and cheering after Desert Storm.

These days the pendulum of public opinion has swung to the other side from when I enlisted, and mention of my military service is likely to earn a word of gratitude from complete strangers — something I am very uncomfortable with.

Previous readers of this blog can see this is going to be a different type of post. For that I apologize in advance, if you continue on.  What follows are some short snippets that come to my mind when I think about how the military is viewed.

Like all organizations that require approval to join, the military is its own society with a unique culture. In fact, as the “military” is composed of several different branches, there are multiple cultures existing under the general umbrella that is the Department of Defense.

It is important to remember that — again like other closed groups including sports teams, clubs and some corporations — comments, jokes and criticism originating from within a military culture are often unacceptable when coming from someone outside the group.

Such was the event which precipitated my current sensitivity, which I address in the final vignette.

 *  *  *  *

When I was a Petty Officer Third Class stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, my brother-in-law asked my wife and I to spend some time with a friend of his from medical school who was in town for a reason that today escapes me.

Like most military facilities in the days of the Reagan Buildup, Naval Base Norfolk in the early 1980s was a busy, bustling place.

On one side of the base was the Naval Station, with more than a dozen piers lined by warships of all types including submarines, amphibious vessels and aircraft carriers. Co-located with the Naval Station was a Naval Air Station which hosted logistic flights as well as helicopter squadrons.

On both sides — sea and air — were barracks, workshops, administrative buildings, medical and dental facilities, barber shops, gas stations, clubs, gyms, commissaries and exchanges, parade grounds and recreation areas with softball fields and basketball courts.

The Naval Base was a city unto itself, but even though I had only been stationed in Norfolk for a few years I suppose I’d become accustomed to the vast scale of it all. Taking my brother-in-law’s friend on a tour of the base reminded me of it.

She was nearly speechless during our driving tour. As a medical student this woman was obviously highly educated, but she professed to having no idea our Navy was so large. That a similar base existed in San Diego, and there were other facilities throughout the U.S. and overseas as well as ships and aviation squadrons deployed around the world, simply boggled her mind.

*  *  *  *

I told very few people that I had enlisted in the Navy. In my hometown high school — as there were in everyone else’s — there were circles of people such as jocks, farmers, band kids, etc. Regardless of the circle, very few people I grew up with saw enlisting in the military as a positive.

If you were smart and/or well-off you went to college, if you were a farmer you went to work with your father, and if you weren’t either you tried to find work in a factory or with the city. Your last option was the military.

I’m sure there were those who wanted to join up, but they generally kept those views to themselves — and even when they expressed them aloud everyone else took it as a sign of failure.

If anything, the view that military service was to be entered into only as a last resort was held even stronger by the students and faculty at the first college I attended (and was subsequently asked to leave after racking up a huge bill).

Perhaps lingering feelings of inadequacy stemming from where and when I grew up are the reasons why I’m uncomfortable today with being thanked for my military service. Perhaps not; I’m no psychologist.

But I do know this: Many of the same people expressing gratitude for my service today are the same age I am, which means they grew up during that period when resorting to military service was viewed — at least in my corner of the Midwest — as a failure.

Perhaps those people feel guilty for looking down their noses at the military.

*  *  *  *

I enjoyed watching the first few season of “The West Wing” TV show, but frequently found myself rolling my eyes at the way the military was depicted. I don’t know anything about the inner workings of Hollywood or how the military decides when or if to assign advisors to TV shows, but I suspect the Department of Defense’s relationship with the people running “West Wing” was rocky or non-existent.

One of the most egregious, and unfortunate, examples of these occurred in an episode in which the fictional President learned of the death of several Marines in a foreign country. The exact details escape me, but at the end of the episode the President goes to Andrews Air Force Base to meet the plane bearing the caskets of these Marines, and here is where I nearly quit watching the show entirely.

The ceremonial honor guard was comprised of Coast Guard personnel. I think even the plane carrying the caskets was a Coastie C-130. And even though the Coastie honor guard looked sharp in their dress uniforms, the fact of the matter is the U.S. Marine Corps would never, ever, allow another branch of the service to serve as the honor guard for the return of their dead to the United States.

Please understand I’m not knocking the Coast Guard, which at that time was part of the Department of Transportation, not Defense (perhaps the reason Coasties were chosen in the first place). It simply wouldn’t happen that way, and I know a few Marines who would’ve viewed it as an insult.

That is, if they watched the show.

*  *  *  *

While working part-time in the sports department of a medium-sized daily newspaper in Washington state, I applied for a full-time copy editor position “across the room” in the news section. My skill set wasn’t very strong, but one of the news editors allowed me to take a test that had been developed in-house, and he sat down afterwards with me to discuss my results (not great) and options.

Although he made it clear I was not qualified for the position, in that discussion the editor mentioned to me that he would have liked to have my military experience in the newsroom. To the best of his knowledge none of the copy editors or reporters currently on staff had ever served in the military, and that was not desirable in a city that hosted a military base like Naval Station Everett.

Although I wouldn’t be going to news, I offered to help out in any way possible when military-related issues came up, and the editor said he would mention it to his superiors.

Shortly after that conversation, I was approached by a senior editor, someone I had only seen around the building and never spoken to before. He asked a bit about what I worked on in sports, and then about my offer to help with military matters. In the course of our conversation he asked me if I thought Everett was a “Navy town.”

I thought about this for a bit. I’d served several tours in Norfolk, billed as the “World’s Largest Naval Base” as well as at smaller facilities in Georgia and Maine. In size and scope Everett was somewhere in between, but the feeling I got from dealing with civilians “out in town” was generally supportive but lukewarm.

“I’m not sure I would consider Everett to be much of a ‘Navy town,’” I replied, intending on following up with some reasons why I thought so.

But his reply brought a swift end to the conversation, and angered me more than I had been in a long time.

“What, not enough drug dealers, prostitutes and tattoo parlors for you?”

He said it with a smile and afterwards I came to the conclusion that he meant it as a joke. But at that moment in time I heard someone who had never served, and probably never considered serving, insult everyone I had served with and everything that I had spent my adult life doing.

*  *  *  *

That conversation with the senior editor is the point which marks my current sensitivity to public perceptions about the military. Since then I’ve engaged in back-and-forth conversations on Twitter and in person with people who blindly made statements that I didn’t feel were accurate. Asked if they had served, the answer has invariably been “no” followed by “but my good friend/relative/grandfather did.”

That’s good, I tell them, but not good enough to let inaccurate statements go unchallenged. Because I’m inside the circle, part of the group, and even if I don’t agree with every decision or action of the group, the membership I paid for gives me the leeway they don’t have.

Where you sit is where you stand.

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