Our family moved every three years during my formative years. We were in Yokosuka, Japan, when President Kennedy was shot and killed. It was a Boy Scout Jamboree day. Our troop produced a display on first aid, and I staffed the booth. My uniform was ironed and creased, and my merit badge sash had fifteen neatly aligned badges of various colors and designs. My pocket rank patch was for First Class scout, with an eagle, an American flag shield, and two stars. At the bottom, it read, ‘Be Prepared.’
“What do you do when someone has a seizure and is biting his tongue?” probed a wandering scout.
“You take your belt off and put it between his teeth,” I responded, thinking instinctively.
“Oh. That would work,” he responded, impressed. It surprised me I came up with an answer. It was not in my first aid book.
I made Eagle Scout at age fourteen. I loved scouting, as it got me out of a dysfunctional household and gave me a sense of accomplishment. When I had done all I could as a Boy Scout, I formed an Explorer Post. Keep the fun alive was my mantra then. I was curious about medicine, so I asked the military hospital in Pensacola, Florida, to sponsor our troop. We had access to the inner workings of hospital-based medical care. Then we moved again.
The family went to Belgium, and I went to a boarding school in Maryland. It was 1967, and I had decided to become a Navy SEAL. Reader’s Digest had published an article announcing the existence of this previously unknown secret organization. “Supercommandos of the Wetlands” had struck me straight in the heart. I would be a frogman. If joining the Navy was necessary to do that, then following in our family’s footsteps made sense. I would go to the Naval Academy, like Dad and Granddad.
At the Naval Academy, my grades were average. Graduation, not academic excellence, was the goal, but one class captured my imagination. I earned a 4.0 grade in biology and loved it. My professor enjoyed staying after class to help me revel in it more. This extra effort would factor into a future life decision.
I did not get one of the three slots for SEAL training offered to our Naval Academy class on Service Selection Night. Selection opportunities were based on class rank, and I was not high enough. The three available slots were gone when my number came up. I would need to drive a destroyer first. An older World War II-era destroyer, USS Hamner (DD-718), in San Francisco, awaited me. Launched in November 1945, she hid lots of ancient rust under her layers of grey paint.
I had thirty days of paid vacation to use before reporting, so I joined twelve classmates in Key West, Florida, for Underwater Swimmers School. We would all become Navy scuba divers. One of our instructors was a SEAL.
“Sir, you’re having too much fun here. Have you ever thought of becoming a Navy SEAL?” he queried. I smiled at the question.
Eighteen months later, in 1974, I began Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL school and graduated as one of eleven men out of the seventy that started. I was the senior officer remaining.
In 1978, the post-Vietnam war period, the military shrank, and funding evaporated. I explored other options and transferred to the Reserve Teams, so I could get an MBA and try my hand at business. I met the love of my life in her hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia, while starting my first business and going to school at James Madison University.
Three years later, we were married and moved to Washington, DC. I finished my degree and found a good job. We had a son eighteen months later. Three years after our son’s birth, I was accepted to medical school. Let the good times roll! Laissez les bon temps rouler. Jeri and the two kids came along for the ride.
As we were driving to our new adventure, I asked my wife why she had married me, and I honestly wanted to know the answer. We were starting over again. I reminded her that I had barely a nickel to my name when I proposed. Her answer tickles me to this day.
“I married you for your potential,” she responded with a smile.
This is a chapter from my book Swords and Saints A Doctor’s Journey.
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