I started my time in the military on April 1995, that will be twenty years in thirteen days. I went from the Marine Corps Reserves to active duty in the U.S. Navy on my birthday, I believed I was making the best decision that I could. I was newly married with a daughter on the way; she’s eighteen, a senior and preparing for college next year.
This post isn’t about the beginning, it’s about the ending. I’ve gone through a lot in those twenty years. I lost a friend to a horrific helicopter crash (rest in peace Eddie), I watched an F-18 Hornet crash into the flight deck of the USS John F. Kennedy, not 30 feet away from me, I’ve fought fires, seen people commit suicide, stood helpless as I watched a young man goes through the worst thing I could think of at the time, and all I could do was be there for him. A lot of the time military service gets divided up into two camps: Those who saw combat and those who did not. I want to tell you that sometimes the support side can be just as tough. In the end, it wasn’t any of those things that hit me the hardest, it was something I have dealt with my whole life: belonging.
The last few months I have had to go through some bouts of glaring honesty, and this is one of them. I have never really felt like I’ve belonged. At times, small moments, I’ve felt the rush of companionship and knowing what it’s like to be a part of the team, but they’ve been just that, moments, fleeting and never with any permanence. The last three years, I think, have been the worst. At the end of my Naval career, when my peers are advancing to the rank of Chief Petty Officer (something I dearly desired, despite what I might say), I was past up every selection season for eight years.
I attempted, with great determination and enthusiasm, to become a Substance Abuse Counselor for the Navy (one of the hardest schools to graduate from). Despite being top of the class academically, I was dis-enrolled because I could not display the emotion they were looking for. It would be that point in my life, that I started to take a seriously hard look at what I was doing and where I was going. This left me heading to the USS Ronald Reagan for my last three years, and it would be this time that would prove the most challenging in spite of everything that I had experienced to date.
I went to this command with a strike already against me: a body weight failure in the bi-annual physical fitness assessment. Under the current rules, if you fail three of these within a four year period you are separated from active duty. In 2011, I failed my first, and immediately began to work to correct this deficiency. Not only did I change my dietary habits (for a second time in several years), I saw a nutritionist, hired a private fitness instructor and took classes outside of my military requirements. All of this, the most extreme measures aside from surgery, only brought me to just barely passing. When I arrived at the Reagan, the only thing that was taken into consideration was that I had failed once, and it meant I would be a problem for the command.
I continued everything I knew to do, I ate right, I worked out and I did my job. However, the weight still would not come off. In 2012, I had been diagnosed with Obstructive Sleep Apnea, a disorder that works hand in hand with several systems of the body. Because I was not getting enough quality sleep, and because of the stress that I was under at work, everything that I was doing to lose weight, was barely touching it. Prior to leaving my last command two medical doctors and my entire chain had agreed to give me a body composition assessment waiver because of these medical issues. When I arrived at the Reagan and gave this to them, I was, to my face, called a liar.
These first impressions, both mine and their’s, would set the stage for the next two years. In the spring of 2013 I asked for a second waiver, as the Navy had failed to provide me with the treatment for my disorder. The Senior Medical Officer for the command had me weighed (at the time I was 251 lbs). He told me that I was a liar, concerning my sleep apnea and difficulties gaining the treatment. The one phrase that has stuck with me to this day is, accompanied with a disgusted sneer, “How could you let yourself get this way?” I felt so ashamed that I walked out of his office. I had previously asked several chiefs in my department to assist me with speaking to him, but each one told me no.
The request for the waiver wasn’t so much to have the opportunity to continue my efforts and pass, but more that the Navy would have been required to send me to a Medical Review Board, where all of my issues would have been addressed and I would have been evaluated for further Naval service. This now left me failing a second physical fitness assessment. I was at my wits end. There were months of days where I went to work, did my job and went home. There were days when I felt like I couldn’t make it any further, and turned to the only solace on the ship: the chapel. Within those darkened walls of solitude, I could break down in tears and anxiety that had built up from the looks that people gave me, or the comments that they made. I could break until I had the strength to shore up my demeanor and go back to work.
I’m not telling you all of this because I want sympathy or advice, or anything from you. I am telling you all of this so that you understand that depression, negative body image, anxiety, and shame are not just things that women or children suffer. Men are just as affected as well. By the end of my time on the USS Ronald Reagan and in the US Navy, things had become so bad, that all I wanted was for it to end. There were days where I had to force myself into uniform and up the brow to work, because if I didn’t, I don’t think I could find the will to keep going on. I would not eat around other people because I felt ashamed by my weight and judged by the sailors around me.
To give an example, a sailor who worked for me had bought a box of girl scout cookies. He offered one to our chief, who accepted and began to eat it. The young sailor then offered me one, being kind. Before I could decline, I saw the chief reach out to stop him, shaking his head at the sailor and saying “No…” Instances like these built upon each other, brick-by-brick, laying a foundation of shame, guilt and anxiety.
February 13th, 2015 was a morning like any other. I got up at 5am, put on my uniform and drove to the ship. I began working at 6:15am (leaders always start the day an hour early or so I was always told). By 9:15am as I was going about my normal routine, I was approached by one of the senior chiefs in my department to talk. As we walked to his office, I tried to turn in my head what the nature of our discussion would be. When we reached the door, I had it nailed down. The message had come from Chief of Naval Personnel, Rear Admiral Bill Moran, that I was to be separated from Naval service within 10 days. On March 5th, 2015 that was what happened, leaving me with a career that had spanned 19 years, 2 months and 26 days per my DD214.
What is interesting about Admiral Moran are these words, as quoted from the Navy Times, “We run into sailors at all-hands calls who stand up and say, ‘I’m a three-time failure,’ and you look at them and go, ‘Pretty sharp. You look good in uniform. You don’t look overweight to me, at a distance,'” and this quote, “There’s no doubt that body shapes have changed in the decades since the Navy wrote its height and weight chart.” As you can see, even the man who ordered my separation doesn’t agree with what the Navy is doing.
As I write this it is 24 March, 2015, I have been a civilian for almost 20 days. I can say, without a doubt, that it has drastically improved my mental health. Without the constant judgement from my superiors, without the disgusted looks from my peers and the ever present guillotine blade of the physical fitness assessment hanging over my head, I am improving. So what exactly is the moral to this story? There isn’t one really, this is my “poison-pen” to the Navy, to the superiors who stood by and did nothing when I begged for their help, to those who turned their back on me when I needed it most. It is my thank you to everyone who stood by me, supported me, and helped me through this. It is a request, to anyone in the military, Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines, who feels like there is nothing out there, that it is hopeless, pointless and wants all of it to just end. There is hope.
If you feel this way, please contact one of the following resources: