When I saw "Ender's Game" in the theater it brought back a lot of memories and feelings from my days in the US Navy. Especially my experiences in bootcamp. It was kind of disturbing. However, as I watched the film I did remember one experience that I was particularly proud of and I'd like to share it here. This was written while I was still in the Navy toward the end of my enlistment...
March 25 of 1998 marked my five-year-anniversary of being in the Navy. As I’ve prepared for the end of my active enlistment, I’ve been looking back at the last five years, trying to see what it is that I’ve accomplished in the Navy. Certainly a great deal of personal growth, though that’s the kind of thing that’s difficult to measure on an evaluation “brag sheet.” I can’t say that I’ve turned too many heads professionally either. Though I do sincerely try to be a professional when it comes to work, I can’t seem to suppress the urge to take an assignment and put my own little Puente spin on it. Such as writing movie reviews in lieu of division news reports or ending briefings with jokes instead of formal dismissals. When asked why I joined the Navy in the first place, I can honestly say that it was a decision based on reasons economical, educational, political and even philosophical. I needed a job, an education, proof to myself (and potential voters should I someday run for elected office) that I’m a patriot and... a strange need to understand conformity. Well, after five years of living and working in an environment where conformity is the rule in almost every aspect of our lives, I’ve come to the understanding that I know what conformity is and I’m really not all that impressed with it. Oh, sure, there are a few things I’ll take with me, but, for the most part, I need to go back into the real world and be as different as I possibly can because that’s the only way I’m going to accomplish the other things I’ve set out to do.
If I had to look back at my military “career” and try to determine exactly when my finest hour was, I can’t say it was when I became a petty officer. I remember going through “Petty Officer Indoctrination” and being told that it was the first of two major events in any sailor’s career (along with becoming a chief). But anyone with drive, dedication and, in some cases, patience, can become a petty officer. Is it the ribbons I wear? Yeah, right. I’m lucky enough to join the Navy while there were still American troops in the Persian Gulf so I’ve “earned” the National Defense Ribbon. I happened to be stationed at a Naval Security Group Activity at the right time so I “earned” a Joint Meritorious Unit Award. I managed to last three years without going to Captain’s Mast (UCMJ Article 15)... That’s not counting how many times I was threatened with it, but it’s what’s on paper that counts, so I “earned” a Navy Good Conduct Medal. No, I have to say that in the last five years that I’ve been in the Navy, my finest hour was in Boot Camp. It wasn’t anything obvious, like graduating, though I’m glad I did. Actually, it was something that occurred in the briefest of moments. It happened while my company was being “cycled.”
I don’t remember what it was. But we screwed up somehow. It wasn’t the first time it had happened, but it was the first time that I didn’t let it get to me. Our Company Commanders decided to cycle us. Cycling is the act of performing calisthenics to within an inch of one’s life. And as if that wasn’t enough, other Company Commanders in the division were invited to join in. They threw everything in the book at us. Jumping jacks, eight count body builders, push-ups and sit-ups... but not ordinary sit-ups. They devised a sort of “Team Sit-up.” We all had to lock our legs together and formed a wave of human bodies. As the recruit to your left came down from his sit-up, you were going up. When you went down, the recruit to your right went up. There were probably eighty recruits on the floor. I imagine that, were we able to see ourselves (and actually do the exercise properly), we might have looked like some strange ciliated, two-toned blue, microorganism.
Well, it didn’t take long for me to get winded. I was having a heck of a time on one particular set of sit-ups and I made the mistake of making eye contact with one of our visiting company commanders. He saw me struggling and, like a hyena going after its wounded prey, he walked right to me and bent down looking at me like a bug he was about to squash. And there I was, looking at him upside down as I struggled to get that next sit-up.
“You better get up there, recruit!” he said.
“I’m trying,” said I, struggling before him.
“Well, I don’t think you’re trying hard enough!”
From that moment, time seemed to stop–or at least slow down–so that I might comprehend what he had just said to me and formulate a response. In that instant, I knew exactly what he expected to hear. The words any struggling youth might utter in a time of stress like this one. The words, “I can’t.” True or not, they sounded pathetic and hopeless. And, quite frankly, I didnt want to give this man the pleasure. Somehow, he was enjoying this and I knew that I had to do something to take the fun out of it for him. It has never been my style to offer a conventional answer when an unconventional one will do. I looked straight into the eyes of this man and said, at the top of my lungs so that everyone in that compartment could hear it, “Then I’ll try harder!”
The room literally fell silent. Few were aware of the exchange that had occurred, since most were occupied with their own efforts, but all were aware of my contribution to the little talk between myself and this senior petty officer. The look on his face was priceless and words could never do justice to the emotion that I could see in his persona. It was first a look of shock followed by one of utter disgust. He had no response to what I had said. If I had cried, “I can’t,” as he expected me to, I’m sure he could have come up with something. “It figures,” perhaps, or “Then what are you doing here?” But there simply was no comeback to “I’ll try harder.” So he did the only thing he could think of. He walked away... angry. I called his bluff and he knew it. In our war of words, though I was the one struggling on the floor even after he left, I had emerged the victor. And he knew that as well.
And that was my finest hour.