20 years ago today I walked across the stage at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis and received my diploma and commissioning certificate from then Defense Secretary William Cohen. Tucked neatly inside the flap of the blue folder I’d been dreaming about for four years was a notice that I still had an outstanding library book. And that they, the United States Naval Academy, would be forwarding this delinquency onto my next command.
Go Navy…Beat Army…
That story doesn’t have much to do with the rest of what I have to say other than it’s one of a million stories my class could tell about the uniquely common experiences we’ve had. Unique in that they were our own. Common in that there was the sort of thread that binds them all together the way things really only can be when people are from the same place. Like brothers and sisters in a family. Like friends who grew up in a small town together only to drift away. The thread is never completely broken. It endures in its own way. In stories of library books. Or of war. And of all the beautiful and painful things in between.
The benchmark for a military career is 20 years. That’s how long one has to serve in order to retire and so that’s the date most of us carry in our heads when we start. What none of us could imagine, was where these 20 years would take us, how the world would change in the time that we served, and what it meant to have the responsibilities we would have as world history played out in front of. And often through us.
We applied to Annapolis when philosophical battlefield of the Cold War was still smoldering. As the 90’s progressed, the threat of war was as far off as it had been for America in generations. Our parent’s war, Vietnam, had been over for decades. The receding tide of communism made a repeat impossible. The first Gulf War exposed the type of domination Americans could expect to have against a world without an existential enemy. The Pax Americana was upon us.
Those that went in the years before us got a free education, saw the world a bit and then went on to mint money in the first dot com boom or trading off the growing economy it fed on Wall Street. And so many of us believed we would have a similar path.
We were wrong.
In October of 2000, while many of us were still completing training in whatever warfare school we’d selected, the USS Cole was attacked in the Yemeni harbor of Aden. A fellow 99er was onboard. He survived. Less than a year later, while on my first deployment to the Gulf, the 9/11 attacks rocked the world. The first shot in war came in by way of Tomahawk cruise missile from my ship. War was back; one that would last 18 of our first 20 years in service.
99ers took part in the airstrikes and ground war in Afghanistan in the years that followed. We were part of the invasion into Iraq as ground forces pushing west over the desert and as the air power that provided the “shock and awe” of 21st century warfare. We were at Fallujah, Haditha and Basra. One of the SEAL platoon commanders from the legendary TU Bruiser at the first battle of Ramadi was a 99er. One of the first Iraq Air Medals, with valor, was awarded to a 99er.
When our initial commitment of service was up, many of us separated into the teeth of the great recession. I worked for Merrill Lynch when it claimed bankruptcy and found shelter from the storm in the form of a recall to active duty and one more trip back to Iraq. Like me, many 99ers learned the lesson that if all else fails, there’s always the war.
By now, most of us are out. Many haven’t gone too far, staying attached to the military industrial complex that’s grown into the fabric of America over the decades of war. We’ve had people serve in the Obama and Trump administrations. We’ve had entrepreneurs start tech companies. Our brigade commander is an astronaut testing the next manned American flight vehicle.
During our time we’ve seen women allowed to serve on submarines and in infantry combat roles and in war zones where long dwell deployments make the distinction between support roles and combat the domain of policy and paperwork, not reality. We served through the end of “don’t ask don’t tell” and realized the true identity of some of our classmates and come to terms with the pain and fear in which they’d been living all along, and the part we, as a culture, played in it.
Somehow, we lost no one to direct combat. But we lost more than our share to the unbearable silence that came after.
Those that still serve have taken command of ships, fighter squadrons and SEAL Teams. And now they’re about to transfer into the unimaginable realm of major command and soon, dare I say, flag rank.
20 years is a long time. Perhaps these 20 years have been longer. What worlds we’ve seen this that day. What worlds there are yet to see. We were together 20 years ago today. All coals drawing heat from the same fire before we went off to the corners of the earth to watch it change. And to watch how it changed us.
Happy 20th 99. I hope you all are well.