June 9th was the 45th anniversary of my graduation from Coast Guard Officer Candidate School. In dress whites, I sat in the hot sun with about 100 fellow OC's, soon to be commissioned as ensigns, and waited for our names to be called so we could walk across the stage.
My journey to that point was not a straight line. The Vietnam War and the military draft shaped politics and the thinking of every young American male during those years. They certainly shaped mine. When my birthday came up as number 29 in the 1969 draft lottery, I knew I would either serve in the military or try to find a way to dodge the draft. I talked to peers who opted to join the National Guard or the Reserves, thinking weekend soldiering and summer camps would be better than dodging bullets on the other side of the world. I talked to a friend who had served a tour in Vietnam. I became convinced that the Vietnam War was a horrible and tragic foreign policy mistake, a mistake that young men like me would have to pay for. I participated in some anti-war demonstrations and wrote a letter to my congressman after the invasion of Laos. But the draft number still hung over my head.
I was called for my draft physical and passed, despite my complaints about knee pain and a heart murmur the doctor detected. They were considered NCD, "Not Considered Disqualifying." As I walked across campus the day after passing my physical, I stopped at a table set up by a Coast Guard officer recruiting for OCS. I submitted the application and was selected for interviews and another physical, this one in Norfolk, Va. I passed again and was told I'd be called for the next OCS class in the fall. Meanwhile, Congress had let the draft law expire and couldn't get together on the wording for a new draft law. That kept the draft board off my back long enough for me to complete the Coast Guard application. On the day that I drove to Greensboro to be sworn in to the Coast Guard Reserves, pending admission to OCS, Congress passed a new draft law.
I found OCS uncomfortable and oppressive with officers barking orders and laying traps for little errors that could wash you out. But I gave up my stubborn independent streak and submitted to the reshaping of discipline, teamwork and order. By the end of the four-month school, I had a new set of habits: Everything in its proper place, jobs done right the first time, serious attention to detail, promptness, respect for authority, teamwork and discipline, always discipline.
I won the assignment I had asked for, as a correspondent for the Enlisted Personnel Division at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The job was simple and easy. I took over responsibility for answering letters from members of Congress and the public about Coast Guard enlisted assignments, often from mothers who wanted their sons posted closer to home. As a journalism and English major, I could knock out stacks of letters every day, tasks that had been torture for crusty sailors in the office.
In our three years in D.C., we grew accustomed to the traffic and visited the museums, monuments, parks and highlights of the capital. I considered requesting that I be "integrated" into the regular Coast Guard but decided I wanted to get back to small towns, to journalism and to more certainty for my small family.
I look back now on my Coast Guard days with some nostalgia. We had some very good times and got to know some good people and at least one truly outstanding officer whose skills and abilities still shape my thinking about management and leadership.
In the beginning the Coast Guard was my way of avoiding the jungles of Vietnam. In the end, it became a major shaper of my world view, my self discipline and my respect for those who defend our nation.
It was one of the most fortuitous segments of my life.