These 20 Years

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.


A Sense of Honor

Jim Webb graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1968, 31 years before I did. He served in Vietnam as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps, was wounded twice and received two Purple Hearts. He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Silver Star and the Navy Cross, the second highest honor a Marine Corps Officer can receive behind only the Congressional Medal of Honor. He received that Navy Cross for leading an assault on three enemy bunkers that ultimately ended with him throwing himself in front of a grenade to save his men while continuing to return fire on the enemy. The citation reads like the script of a war movie. Because Jim Webb is a war hero. One of the most decorated to ever graduate from my school .

The novels he wrote told the story of his experiences like no one could. A Sense of Honor was near mandatory reading at Annapolis. And if you’re going to read one book on the Vietnam War, Fields of Fire might be it. His fictional accounts of nonfictional things were nothing short of brilliant. Critics of my writing have called what I’ve managed to put out a cheap copy of Webb’s style. I take any comparison, even derogatory, as a compliment.

Webb served as the Secretary of the Navy and the Assistant Secretary of Defense under Ronald Regan. He served one term as Senator from Virginia. He’s been a member of both the Democratic and Republican parties. And in 2016, he ran a brief and unsuccessful campaign for the presidency. He wrote and sponsored the post 9/11 GI bill that both my wife and I used to graduate from graduate school.

Today, Jim Webb was to be honored as a distinguished graduate of my alma mater. Two days ago, he declined the honor. Because there are people who don’t think that he deserves it.

In 1979, Webb wrote an article for the Washingtonian Magazine titled Women Can’t Fight. In it, he took to task the issue of women serving in combat by way of a focused criticism of the admission of women to the United States Naval Academy. Until a few classmates of mine reached out to me to see if I might support opposition for honoring him, I had no idea the article existed. But they did. Because they believe it had done great harm to them. So I read it.

It starts off classic Webb as he dispassionately paints the brutal picture of the reality of combat while contrasting his vulnerability through the impact it had on him and the men he served with and loved. It then transitions into a lesser version of his intellect where he cites the nature of the differences of men and women. And includes some anecdotal opinions of those enrolled at Annapolis and how they felt about it. And some more anecdote about how soft the school has gotten and what that means for its place in our society. And then he finishes with the typical approach of showing the negative impact it’s having on women. Because the argument isn’t about thinking less of women. It’s about caring for and protecting them. And understanding that this life wasn’t for them.

A woman is a certain type of thing. And combat is a certain type of thing. And they are two types of things not for each other.

The article has more than its fair share of troublingly anachronistic passages, even for forty years ago. I won’t cite them. You can read it yourself. And Webb’s motivation for writing it is something only he can tell you. Though I’d venture a guess that, based on the life he lived around the article, he wrote it because he cared about what was happening. And he believed what he said. He was the gritty war hero telling an increasingly sensitive and progressive society with a Democratic liberal government some hard, conservative truths. It’s a tone that should ring familiar to my generation of vets from Iraq and Afghanistan, none too pleased with more modern progressive leadership.

Admittedly, his decision not to accept the honor to avoid further controversy has relieved me of my conflicted burden to weigh in on what I think the Naval Academy Alumnae Association should do. As he has done in most parts of his life that matter to the public, Jim Webb acted selflessly with an eye towards the greater good. But that doesn’t mean there’s not something to weigh in on. Or no more questions to ask. Because there are.

How should we feel about Jim Webb’s contribution to America based on what he wrote as a 33-year old published author and veteran? Does he get a pass? Or is he no longer a person worthy of our appreciation at all? Or is it somewhere in between? And what if we refuse to allow ourselves the off-ramp that is the common notion that people are complicated and we therefore are allowed to dismiss their shortcomings by way of that particular disclaimer?  What does it all mean?

Well, the answer, for me, is oddly simple. We shouldn’t think anything about how we feel about Jim Webb. Because it doesn’t matter. And he’d likely be the first one to tell you that. What does matter is how we should act in instances where we’ve progressed to those societal inflection points where the fates of groups of people are to be decided by whether or not they should be included as equals in a society. The answer should always be assumed to be yes.

We wrote it down once. And we’ve fought hard to mean it ever since. If someone can do the job, and they want to do the job, and they do what is required of others to do the job, then they get to do the job. It’s not hard to accept. It’s only hard if you make it hard. And making it hard is a choice.

I’ve served in combat zones with all male units. And I’ve served in them with women too. Some women aren’t cut out for it. And neither are some men. But those that are, if they raise their hand, are every bit as worthy as I was.

Our history is full of the regrets of exclusion and absent from those of inclusion. I appreciate nearly everything Jim Webb has done on this planet as good and accretive to a life well lived in a society that’s better off for having him. And so I’d like to help him out and point to a time when someone used their power and influence to show that an entire race or sex or nation of origin could be effectively disqualified as capable, worthy or suited for participation in a portion of society, and that we were all better off for it. But I can’t. Because there aren’t any. Even if we keep trying to do it.

I shouldn’t expect that those hurt by what he wrote to be too forgiving. Nor should I expect that an institution that ignored what he said and has since graduated thousands of women who served honorably in peace and in war to honor him without explanation or consideration for those he hurt. That doesn’t mean I think any less of any of the good he did. That would be as disingenuous as ignoring perspectives of those he hurt.

History is a harsh judge of those who close the door on others. Even if they believed they were closing it for the good of those on both sides.

That’s the lesson here. That’s what matters.