We sat in the back of the speed boat, nine of us in rows of three, flying at nearly 40 knots (about 45 m.p.h.), the waves from the chilly, choppy sea splashing us as the boat bounced up and down across Norfolk Harbor. I love the water, even in chilly 40-degree weather, and was thoroughly enjoying myself, as were my colleagues. But she was wearing a big, wide grin and an expression of pure joy.
"I don’t know what the people I went to high school are doing right now," she said leaning over to me, "but they’re definitely not doing this."
Her name is Gabrielle, she’s 23, from central Massachusetts, five years out of high school, and proud to be an ensign in the United States Coast Guard. The boat was a Coast Guard SPEC-BTD, often used for drug interdiction, and Gabrielle was part of the team taking us out to sea for a demonstration.
That exercise was just one part of a weeklong program sponsored by the U.S. Secretary of Defense called the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference (JCOC). The only such program of its kind, the JCOC seeks to enhance public understanding of our nation’s defense by welcoming citizens from various walks of life (apparently, including baseball team owners) to directly observe and engage with our military. We participated in a wide variety of demonstrations, briefings, exercises and experiences. And, man, did it open my eyes.
For each of five days, we toured a different branch of our Armed Forces. Monday was the Marine Corps; Tuesday, the Navy; Wednesday, the Army; Thursday, the Air Force; and Friday, the Coast Guard.
Oh, we did lots of cool stuff, once-in-a-lifetime stuff. I flew in a Marine cargo plane to Quantico, rode in an Osprey helicopter, a tank, a Humvee, and a Navy hovercraft. I toured a naval destroyer, an aircraft carrier, a nuclear sub, a 270’ Coast Guard cutter, and a Coast Guard search and rescue helicopter. I simulated flying an Apache helicopter (I crashed, repeatedly), shot a Taser pistol (I hit the target), fired a variety of weapons (pistols, rifles, semi-automatic and automatic weapons), and nearly had my arm broken by a Marine martial arts instructor.
I did physical training with an Army major in the dark at 6 a.m. and, as he watched me answer his challenge by lifting a 240-pound barbell, he said, "Wow, you're stronger than you look." To which I replied, "I’m not sure how to take that, sir."
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We participated in high-level briefings. We received candid updates from admirals and generals on new technologies, readiness, and perceived threats from Russia and China which, in some areas, such as artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, are challenging both our traditional superiority and our ability both to deter war and ensure America’s security. And we discussed how haphazard funding and a flawed congressional budget process was doing more damage to our military’s readiness than any enemy ever could. This is especially true of the Coast Guard, which, as part of the Department of Homeland Security (not Defense), went unpaid during last year’s government shutdown.
But while the hands-on experiences and high-level briefings were riveting, the best part was the opportunity to interact with the young men and women of our Armed Forces, to learn about the lives and experiences of our troops. I was so impressed by their camaraderie; at a time when our nation is so divided politically, our troops remain united and dedicated to completing their specific mission. Time and again, I was moved by the incredible passion, commitment, sacrifice and love of country by the young people who so proudly serve our nation.
As one serviceman eloquently noted, "We are not amazing people, but we get to do amazing things every day." What’s more, while they don’t ignore the great risk that comes with their work (indeed, they do their best to minimize it), they also willingly accept it. That acceptance not only shapes their character, it promotes a positive, team-oriented culture.
Take Andrew, a stealth bomber pilot from Grand Rapids who, at 32, exudes "Top Gun" charisma as he carries himself with the quiet confidence of a skilled professional who has flown more than 100 sorties over various parts of the Middle East. I asked why he joined the Air Force, and he spoke of a deep-seated desire to serve — and defend — his country. To him, and to so many of our troops, leadership is a choice, not a rank or an award — and he chooses to lead.
That desire to serve, to lead, and to give back were repeated themes throughout my talks with both officers and enlisted personnel. To a person, they expressed a desire to be a part of something bigger, to be an integral part of a team, and to promote our nation and our values.
At a time when many jobseekers are purely transactional, these young people viewed their service in the Armed Forces through a very different lens. Instead of "what’s in it for me?" they were asking, "How can I do something meaningful with my life and come out a better person in the process?" For each, the answer was found in service.
I was so impressed. The character of these young men and women, their intelligence, competence, dedication, and initiative, is striking. They both inspired and uplifted those around them, me included. I left Norfolk and returned to the Quad Cities feeling more confident than ever both in our nation’s future and in the generation of millennials I’d just met.
They say they are not amazing people, but I respectfully disagree. As people go, the young men and women serving in our Armed Forces are pretty darn amazing. And they’re definitely doing amazing things — things their high school classmates could not even imagine — in service to our great nation. I could not be more proud.
Dave Heller is the owner of the Quad-Cities River Bandits. Voices of the Quad-Cities, a weekly column, appears on Tuesdays.