Command Master Chief, United States Navy, Retired
Atlantic Beach, Florida
My ship, the USS John L. Hall, a guided missile frigate, had just returned from Desert Storm to its base in Mayport, Florida. As my fellow sailors and I walked down the pier, the first thing I saw was a 500-foot inflatable Budweiser beer can.
What the hell is this? I thought to myself. We had no idea what was going on stateside while we were overseas, nor any idea of what kind of reception was awaiting us. Suddenly, it seemed, we were the flavor of the month.
A giant crowd of families and well-wishers was there to greet us, but this didn’t lift my spirits. I wanted no accolades or honors — I just wanted to get home. My master chief noticed my attitude.
“This reception is a lot better than the one I got when I returned from Vietnam,” he snapped. “So keep it to yourself.”
But after 12 years of service, I was sick of the Navy and thinking about getting out. I’d enlisted right after high school. Back in Chicago, I hadn’t been the greatest student, and I knew there was more out there beyond my own backyard. I wanted to see the world and get a different kind of education. I wanted to be somebody. I wanted to do some good. Besides, McDonald’s didn’t offer a retirement plan.
But now I was at a crossroads. The last nine months had been long ones. We’d been sitting in Haifa, Israel, waiting for our six-month tour to end when the problem in Kuwait unfolded. Suddenly we were on our way to the Gulf. We accompanied the first carrier in years to go through the Suez Canal — right into the Red Sea and on to the Persian Gulf for a three-month extension.
On the way home, however, I began to think about my career in the Navy and soon grew distraught. Although I was a chief petty officer, I was having trouble advancing. I wanted a higher rank — more power, more prestige — but I had been passed over twice for promotion. So I was arrogant. If I couldn’t advance, what was I staying in for? On top of all that, I was tired of leaving my family. I wasn’t getting to watch my three sons grow up. I even missed my second son’s birth. This would definitely be my final cruise.
Back at the pier, the carnival-like atmosphere raged on. Along with those welcoming our arrival were swarms of merchants, some with an arm slung around a sailor, all of them trying to make a buck. Above the crowd waved banners that read We Support Desert Storm.
I tore through the circus and made my way to the parking lot. Finally, I spotted my wife, Terri, standing by our car and grinning from ear to ear. Right away I felt a sense of calm.
My three boys — 11, 9, and 7 — were in the back seat, with their faces pressed against the rear window. The minute they saw me, they jumped out of the car and tackled me on the tarmac. I hardly recognized them — they’d grown so fast! We shared big hugs, though my youngest son was a bit hesitant. Like, Who is this guy?
As I slid into the driver’s seat, Terri announced, “We’re going to your mom and dad’s in Indiana.” This was good to hear. I hadn’t seen my parents in eight years, and hanging out with my three brothers again would also be great. Besides, I needed to go somewhere inland, far away from the water, far away from those mammoth gray ships.
Even though I felt good about making the trip to Indiana, I was troubled during most of the drive. As Terri and the kids slept through the night, I had plenty of time to think. What kind of a job could I get on the outside? The last civilian job I had was as a delivery boy for a medical supply store. I didn’t even know how to write a resume. But if I stayed in the Navy, didn’t I run the real risk of being killed in action? A glance at my sleeping sons in the rearview mirror drove home this awful thought.
My mind buzzing, I didn’t stop driving until we hit Chattanooga the next morning. Figuring this would be a good place to have breakfast, I pulled into a Burger King. It felt good to see the big orange and red sign. It was like a mecca to me. Overseas, they have American-style restaurants, but let’s face it, the food just doesn’t taste the same.
As my wife and kids groggily adjusted to the daylight, I walked inside and made my way to the counter. A teenaged girl stepped up to the cash register. She was tiny, with short brown hair, probably just out of high school. She took my order, and a few minutes later returned with my food. Just as I was reaching for my money, she spoke to me.
“Excuse me,” she said in a timid voice. “Did you just get back from the war?”
I was still wearing my uniform. My hat was on the back of my head, my tie was undone, and I had a five o’clock shadow: But despite my rumpled appearance, my full dress of medals was obvious.
“Yeah,” I grumbled, thrusting a twenty at her. I knew I was being an asshole, but I’d heard this routine before. Civilians always ask the same questions: “Are you a Navy Sea!?” “Did you kill anybody?” “Did you blow anything up?” I didn’t want to hear it, nor was I in any mood for small talk. I wanted to get my food, get out of there, and get home.
The young lady didn’t take offense at my rudeness. Instead, she gently rolled my fingers back around the twenty-dollar bill in my hand. Leaning over the counter and planting a small kiss on my knuckle, she looked up at me and stared for a second, as if she was memorizing my face. Then she spoke one word.
Did you ever feel like you suddenly owed the world an apology? That’s how I felt at that moment. Here was this kid who had no ulterior motive, no agenda, no business deal to offer me. And yet she bought my breakfast for me anyway. Her register would probably come up short for that shift, and she’d have to make up for it out of her own pocket. But that didn’t seem to matter to her. Unlike that throng back at the base, all of them jumping on the bandwagon, as if supporting the war was some sort of fad, this young lady’s gesture had come from the heart. She was letting me know that she felt safe, that she knew someone was watching over her. When she spoke that one word, I didn’t see just a girl expressing gratitude. I saw an entire nation saying “Thanks.”
I suddenly felt like the Grinch feels when he discovers what Christmas is all about. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I had a purpose being in the Navy. It wasn’t about money and rank or prestige. It was about raising the flag. We do what we do because no one else can or will do it. We fight so others can sleep at night. And I had forgotten that. So this sudden, unexpected expression of thanks from a total stranger hit me like a lightning bolt. I’d received many decorations over the years, but nothing could compare to the simple tribute she’d given me. It made me remember why I was here. It renewed my faith, not only in my military career, but in life, as well.
I was too choked up to respond to her. With a lump in my throat, and fighting like hell to get out of there before I started crying like a baby, I quickly made my way to the door. When I got back to the car, I discovered that the tears I thought I’d been holding back were now streaming down my cheeks.
“What happened,” Terri asked. “Are you okay?”
“You know,” I responded after a moment. “It really is true what they say.”
“What is?” Terri asked, confused.
I then planted a soft kiss on my wife’s forehead.
“Broiling does beat frying,” I said.
There was no way I could’ve talked about it right there. So I just drove out of the parking lot. A single word from someone I didn’t even know had transformed me. It changed my life, and my family’s. I knew that I would be wearing my Navy uniform for a long time to come.
As I looked for signs to get back onto the highway, the road ahead of me seemed very clear.
Copyright © 2006 Marlo Thomas