My wife asked recently why I applied for a commission in the U.S. Navy when I had already spent two years in the Army. Good question.
After all, I had served my country honorably during the end of the Korean War era as a combat medic in Germany. The war was over, but someone still had to patch up GIs who got run over by taxicabs in Paris or who drank too much German beer before getting astride a notoriously hot German motorcycle.
Besides, I had gotten my degree, had worked through the ranks as a reporter and editor for a small daily newspaper and had just been hired by The Associated Press to help cover statewide news.
Why would I want to rejoin the military? Especially since hostilities were building at an alarming rate in Vietnam?
As I said, good question. Maybe I wasn’t sure I wanted a career with the AP. The bureau chief there worked 80 hours a week and had already had two heart attacks. He was only 40.
Or maybe I was enticed by the exciting description of Navy life presented by the local recruiter. Master Chief Young was one of the first “super chiefs” in the navy. He and his family had been around the world. Give it three years, he said, and I could do the same. Besides, the Navy needs trained photojournalists.
The Navy kept Chief Young’s promise. I saw a lot. I saw the South China Sea from the deck of a vintage World War II destroyer when the Chinese took over the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu. They plotted our every move, and two black box special officers on our ship plotted theirs.
I saw the abject poverty that ruled the city streets in Taiwan. And the human trafficking that operated under the radar in the Philippines. I also feasted on the warm hospitality of the people and the indescribable beauty of both countries.
A year later, assigned to the Naval Photographic Center in Washington, D.C., I found myself in charge of the White House photo lab. It didn’t matter that I never met the president and never set foot inside the White House. John F. Kennedy was our nation’s leader – a Navy man like us. That was enough.
Then, my photo crew and I got the tragic assignment to document our president’s funeral. That was more than I had signed up for, and I left the Navy shortly after.
Chief Young was right. I stretched three years into four, and I saw a lot. Most of it was good. All of it was important. None will I ever forget.
Maybe that was why I joined the Navy.