If you’ve seen the the movie Captain America, you can probably visualize the opening scene where a scrawny Steve Rogers walks into a recruiting office and tries to enlist. That would have been me at 18, only a few inches shorter.
By early Spring of 2003 I had grown 6 inches, added 60 pounds, and shed the asthma on my own super soldier formula of Somatropin and Delatestryl (obtained legally via the Mayo Clinic). I had been designing websites for over 5 years. I was burned out – my personal muse was no longer easily accessible. I felt trapped because I wanted to put design behind me before I hated it, but I didn’t see another professional avenue open to me.
I spent the bulk of my evenings and weekends working on projects in the community and for the Minnesota Junior Chamber as their Public Relations Coordinator. I lived to make a difference in the world and I worked to pay my bills. I wanted a career that would allow me to do both.
One of my co-workers had returned from his service in the Air Force where he had been working on top secret projects he couldn’t tell us about, but he did talk about some of the benefit packages he received and the pay scale. It seemed pretty attractive, but I had never considered it in the past because I knew I would be a 4F with asthma.
That March, my parents had flown us (me, 2 of my brothers, and their wives) down to Mexico for a family vacation. It was during the time that the resolution on Iraq was supposed to come up for a vote at the UN and our troops were massed, waiting for insertion. I spent a good deal of time at the beach, partying on a boat (followed by singing loudly from the back of an open air taxi), and parasailing, but every morning and every evening, I was glued to CNN as tensions escalated. I watched leaders on both sides talking about whether the inspectors were doing a good job and right wing pundits insisting that we needed to go in there to stop the WMDs before they hit Israel.
Our family meals were on occasion animated as my father insisted that the Bush administration had completely valid intel on the WMDs and I insisted that the data was suspect, that we should be letting the inspectors do their job, and that President Bush should man up and send the resolution to the floor for a vote as he had emphatically said he would (but didn’t in the end).
As we marched closer to war, Senator Kerry and the rest of the Democrats CNN was trotting out for interviews started to back the president as they knew what was about to come and agreed that what was best for the men and women in uniform was a unified front at home. I was inspired by his speech and considered my own grandfather’s sacrifices during WWII. The idea of joining the US Navy as an officer started to run around in my head.
At about a week or 2 into Operation Iraqi Freedom, the patriotism and thought of being able to get paid to feel like I was making a difference kicked in and I walked into the recruiting office after a number of walk bys. I sat down and the recruiter got me a water and started to discuss my options. I told him that I wanted to be a naval officer (my co-worker had mentioned the pay gap between enlisted and officers and I didn’t want to sign on for a pay cut).
We talked about options and he seemed to think I would be a solid candidate so he started the paperwork. When he came to date of birth, it all fell apart. While I looked like I was in my early 20s, I was in my early 30s and was past the cut off point for officer candidates. We had a brief discussion wherein I let him know that I thought ageism had no place in government service and that I should be judged on character, intellect, and physicality, but he wouldn’t budge. He told me I could enlist, but by that point my temper was up and I walked out of the office with the bottled water in hand. It sat in my car for a number of years as a reminder of roads not traveled.
In our more enlightened age where we have eliminated “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, I would encourage the military to also consider a set of metrics for officer candidates that doesn’t discriminate based on age.
Photo: Collin Harvey via Compfight