Anything but a stereotypical (soon-to-be) veteran

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Even with more than 110,000 active duty military personnel in San Diego County, the unique lifestyles of and demands upon our men and women in uniform and their families are largely unknown to the general population. With less than one-half of one percent of the nation currently serving on in the military and roughly seven percent military veterans, this lack of awareness is not surprising.

Even with more than 110,000 active duty military personnel in San Diego County, the unique lifestyles of and demands upon our men and women in uniform and their families are largely unknown to the general population. With less than one-half of one percent of the nation currently serving on in the military and roughly seven percent military veterans, this lack of awareness is not surprising. Even after more than a decade of war and thousands of combat deaths, the military community is essentially unknown, even here in a “Navy town.” For those without personal knowledge, stereotypes likely abound. To debunk some of these stereotypes and generally inform, here’s the story of one soon-to-be veteran, Chief Petty Officer Paul Spears, United States Navy.

Across the table at the El Cajon Elks Lodge, Spears spoke of his entry into the Navy, notable moments from his career, the costs associated with his service, and a stereotype busting resume. At the beginning it was, “Like the old recruiting posters said, ‘Join the Navy and see the world,” he said. From Denison, Texas, a small town of around 24,000, Paul Michael Spears joined the U. S. Navy in June 1998, enlisting three or four days after beginning his senior year in high school on the delayed enlistment program, meaning he would not begin active duty until after graduating from high school. He chose the Navy because they travelled more than anyone else and his Marine Corps veteran father, “told me the Marine Corps made him crazy enough for both of us.” 

He wanted to go to college when he was ready and could afford it. Like so many others, the cost of higher education factored into the planning, and the college benefits one earns by honorably serving his/her country played into his ultimate decision to enlist. It is worth noting that Spears has taken significant advantage of the education opportunities while on active duty, earning both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. (Here is one busted stereotype: enlisted military personnel are uneducated.) And he is seriously considering going to law school after retiring from the Navy.

After returning home from signing the enlistment paperwork, Spears’ older sister handed him some Navy recruitment material she had received in the mail, telling him he needed it more than she did. To her surprise and that of his mother, he said he did not need it, because he had just enlisted. According to his recollection, his mother was less than thrilled at the announcement, telling him he had to finish high school. Calming her, he explained how he would not be shipping off to boot camp until after graduating from high school. 

He professes that during the time between signing up and graduating from high school, he had no regrets or concerns. Seeing what his friends were going through, with “all the headaches of applying for college” and “all the stress of whether they had been accepted,” he knew what he would be doing. Because of his delayed enlistments, senior year was not particularly stressful, so he was able to relax, work a couple of part-time jobs for pocket money, and enjoy his last year in high school.

Spears was asked to look at his rapidly closing career like an hourglass, as the grains of sand have almost run out. Grains colored red, white, and blue. The white grains were the average days, the average and unremarkable times. The blue grains were special, marking achievements or personally significant times or events. And the red grains denoted the tough times.

Recalling boot camp, he shared two specific memories, one a red grain of sand and the other a blue one. “A vivid boot camp memory was when I got the order to go see the chaplain and was then told my grandfather had died.” For the first time, he saw the company commanders “were human, they weren’t just the hard asses we knew them to be.” After the Chaplain had informed him, they called him in, referring to him by his first name, and gave him time and space to gather himself. Asking if he wanted to go home for the funeral, he explained to them how timing conspired against him, since his grandfather was being buried the next day. Speaking of this experience, now a Chief nearly 20 years later, it was clear Spears was speaking of the way Navy leaders supported him at a critical time. As he has undoubtedly supported his sailors in their own crises. The other vivid memory he recalls are the looks from his mother and sister when they attended his boot camp graduation, as they saw him in uniform for the first time.

Spears’ next vivid memory comes from his assignment to the Headquarters of 5th Fleet in Bahrain, where his specific job was as the Assistant to the 5th Fleet Operations Officer. On Sept. 11, 2001, he had been in a training class. Once class was over for the day, he returned to the command to check his email. While there, he saw a news report from New York on a projector screen across from his office. 

“We all remember the images,” he said. But at first, he thought someone was playing the popular 1974 movie, “The Towering Inferno” starring Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. It was a movie he had seen a couple of times and is one of his mother’s favorites. According to his recollection, it took him 15-20 seconds to recognize it was “real world and a skyscraper was on fire for some reason.” After seeing the second aircraft hit the other tower, he looked at the Assistant Operations Officer, predicting they would be in Force Protection Condition Delta (FP Con Delta) by the end of the day. The Assistant Operations Officer scoffed at the prediction.

The Crisis Action Team (CAT) stood up and began 24-hour operations. As a Petty Officer Second Class, Spears had message release authority, meaning he could release messages in the name of the commander into the military communications system, a significant responsibility for a young man from Texas. (Another stereotype busted: junior enlisted military personnel do not have any real responsibilities.) According to Spears, later that day the Vice Admiral Commander of 5th Fleet came to him, in the absence of his own staff, and had him release the very message that put the entire 5th Fleet Area of Responsibility into Force Protection Condition Delta. Spears informed the Assistant Operations Officer, asking to collect a Coke, the result of their “friendly wager” that they would indeed be put into FP Con Delta. (Another busted stereotype: junior enlisted personnel do not understand the big picture. Spears’ prediction had been spot on.) Later, the nation’s forces were put into DefCon Three (Defense Condition Three), a level of readiness not seen in almost 40 years. Reflecting back on those times, Chief Spears said, “I remember thinking that this is why I joined. It’s getting real now.” 

He returned to San Diego and subsequently deployed with a helicopter detachment on the frigate USS Jarrett for six and one-half months, hitting ten ports in the Western Pacific and Middle East, from Pearl Harbor to Bahrain. From this second tour in San Diego, he recalls both a red grain of sand and a blue one. He lost his uncle, who had been like a second father, and met the lady who became his wife. They shipped out for his next assignment at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. (Another stereotype busted: sailors are only assigned to ships.) This was followed by a “forward deployed,” accompanied tour in Atsugi, Japan, meaning the service member is accompanied by his/her family. 

Two exceptional experiences occurred while at Atsugi. North Korea rattled it sabers again, so the ships headed out to sea. During the time the ships were deployed, some military families in Atsugi were anxious, with some very concerned they might be attacked, a unique aspect of life for military families living overseas. The second major event was the massive earthquake in Japan on March 11, 2011. This led to the voluntary evacuation of his family to San Diego, while his unit was relocated to Guam. More family separation, some planned and some unplanned. After eventually returning to the states, he was assigned to San Diego again.

Asked about the challenges faced in being selected for promotion to Chief Petty Officer, Spears referred to his first enlistment in the Navy saying all he saw were potbellied chiefs with crooked fingers from their coffee cup. And that was nothing to which he aspired. It was not until he had been a petty officer first class for some time that it became apparent how hard it was to make chief. Indeed, it took six years of eligibility before he was selected for chief. Smiling, he attributes the delay in being promoted to his speech impediment, which he defined as, “keeping me from shutting my mouth when it serves my better interest.” (Another stereotype busted: military promotions are often and guaranteed.)

He is now approaching the day he will begin terminal leave, the uniquely military process by which an active military member uses remaining days of annual leave at the end his career. In effect, he will be on active duty, but in a leave (vacation) status for an extended period. When asked what he will take from the Navy into the civilian world, Spears instantly replied, “Caring for the people who work for you.” 

Expanding, he explained that leadership is not some beautiful quote out of some book. It is being, “the leader that people will respect enough that they will do what I ask them to do, instead of what I tell them to do. If you can take that into the civilian workplace, that is why veterans are so valuable. If you have been in the military for 20 years, you have some leadership skills. As a senior enlisted over 200 people or a senior officer over 2000. You can take a group of people and have them pursue a common goal. You can affect positive change in people’s lives.”

Unfortunately, concurrent with planning his transition from active military duty to military retirement, Spears is also undergoing a divorce. A divorce attributed in large part to the cumulative stresses and negative impacts of military life. 

He explained that there really is no formal structure in which young married couples can express problems and discuss and learn to deal with the stresses unique to the military. With the nearest family members usually hundreds, if not thousands of miles away, arriving at a new duty station is a daunting challenge. The absence of “marriage mentoring,” particularly early in one’s career, is a shortcoming. 

Spears expressed the desire the military, and the Navy specifically, would do something more, referring to The Chaplains Religious Enrichment Development Operation program that offers free marriage enrichment retreats for couples. However, religious based programs may not be best for all, particularly the younger enlisted couples. In his view, if there had been something akin to “marriage mentoring” by folks five or so years older, different decisions might have been made by the family.

In his career, “Commands never really made a positive impact on my family until I made chief.” Those most at risk aren’t getting the proactive marriage mentoring needed to help weather the challenges of military life. These challenges are magnified for the young, junior enlisted husband-wife away from family with low pay, long hours, young children, and demanding schedules.

Not many families, other than military families, can speak of multiple moves, living in a foreign land under an implicit threat, experiencing a natural disaster resulting in rapid evacuation, multiple family separations, and cumulative stresses over many years. An enlisted sailor from a small town in Texas, with a southern accent, a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree in information systems, extensive technical skills, and vast leadership experience, he certainly does not fit a stereotype of an enlisted veteran. Yet many such veterans walk among us, with all too many blissfully ignorant, as Chief Petty Officer Spears might put it, of their neighbors’ service, sacrifices and accomplishments.