Thirty years ago, long before “Don’t ask don’t tell” I learned a valuable lesson. As an 18 year old kid one year in to a six year hitch with the Navy I was learning quite a few things. I was stretching my legs so to speak and working out his whole adult thing like every other young adult around the world; struggling to find myself and my way.
Life was good, Navy life was better. It agreed with me. The military had been good to several aunts and uncles, a few even made a career of it so I was thinking of making a career of the Navy. But like most kids at that age I didn’t have a clue beyond the next five years, the remainder of my hitch of course.
Between schools at the time and due to my mysterious typing abilities, a rare talent before the advent of PCs, I was assigned the duties of Battalion Yeoman. For those not familiar with military life this was a great assignment; while my peers and even more senior enlisted men were standing watch at all hours, policing the area around the barracks, or scrubbing the latrines I worked a weekday 0800 to 1700 (8AM to 5PM) desk job handling the seemingly never ending paperwork of military life needed to keep a battalion going. No dirty work or being woken up in the middle of the night for watch.
Over the course of several months sharing an office with the battalion commander, a Senior Chief twenty years older, I saw firsthand the old adage that NCOs (Non Commissioned Officers) were the backbone of the military. I learned a great deal from that Senior Chief, many of those lessons have stuck with me throughout my life.
Being an awkward observer in the room as countless sailors stood before the Senior Chief for ‘counseling’ sessions I saw for the first time that you didn’t have to belittle, insult, embarrass, or even raise your voice to make a point or drive home some much needed guidance; a lesson that my middle school gym teacher never seemed to have learned. A few well chosen and often soft spoken words from the Senior Chief carried a lot of weight; he very rarely had to raise his voice. Like any Chief his wrath was legendary and you didn’t want to be on the receiving end of it.
When I FUBAR’ed some paperwork to the point that a young officer called the Chief at 4:30 in the afternoon to scream, holler and cuss like the proverbial sailor about my incompetence, intelligence, and questionable lineage I learned the meaning of standing up for your subordinates and of keeping your cool. Throughout the ten minute ranting of the officer, every word of which I could hear from across the room, the Chief remained calm, cool, and collected. When he finally could get a word in edgewise he calmly explained to the officer that I’d done exactly as he’d instructed and if there was any fault or blame it was squarely on the Chief’s shoulders. Needless to say the officer stopped dead in his tracks with all of the wind gone from his sails.
Trying my best to pretend that I wasn’t listening in and to hide the rising angst that I was going to finally be on the receiving end of one of the Chief’s counseling sessions I didn’t even hear him hang up the phone. I nearly fell out of my chair when he calmly spoke after walking across the room to my desk with a copy of the report in hand, his only goal to work together to get things straightened out and call it a day. In the next hour or so it became obvious that this FUBAR was my doing and mine alone; I knew and the Chief knew it but he never said a word about fault or blame. He missed a few rounds at the NCO club that day helping me with that report and then delivering it personally as it was on the way to his quarters.
Through this and a hundred other little things I learned about respect in those few months, not the kind of respect that a kid has for adults but the respect that a young man has for another man. An older wiser man who’s been there and done that and has the scars and ribbons to show for it. It was that Senior Chief a Battalion Commander at NTC Great Lakes that made up my mind; if the Navy made men like him then it was my place and I was going to make a career of it.
Well it was about this time that I meet someone; I knew it wasn’t a passing thing this was one of those “It’s meant to be!” moments. The problem was that the Navy would never see it that way. The decision was easy; ending my Navy career was as simple as filling out some paperwork. It was the execution that had me worried, the idea of coming out to the Chief was unnerving to say the least. The militaries homophobia was legendary in the early 80’s; I’d seen it myself on a few occasions.
So there I was standing before the Senior Chief chit in hand finally having worked up the nerve to tell him and the world that I was gay. The most valuable lesson I learned from the Senior Chief came from his one word response; “SO?”