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One day soon, I will put on my dress blue uniform for the last time in the active duty service of my country. I am First Class Petty Officer in the United States Navy. I am only a link in a chain of sailors that have passed their knowledge to the men who came after them.
Generations of men have put their skill and faith in their shipmates to the test against the elements, and earned their salt from the sea. As one of these men, I have circled the world and have tasted the brackish spray from almost every ocean. I have stood on the shores of 21 countries, and seen the Southern Cross as well as the Northern Lights from the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. I have fought beside my shipmates to put out a fire at sea, and held one of my shipmates in my arms as he sobbed for tragic loss at home. I have seen good men die because some small attention to detail was overlooked, and spent countless hours working to ensure we accomplished our mission.
On the day of my retirement, I will put on my dress blues. You may see them and think of their namesake Crackerjacks, or remember old pictures of sailors returning home from war. To me, they have greater meaning.
As I put on the trousers, I will remember that the flair of the bell bottoms, antiquated in today’s Navy, are there to commemorate those sailors who went before me, who once had to roll up their pants when dragging a small boat to shore. I will remember that the thirteen buttons, each with an anchor engraved on their ebony surface, represent the first thirteen colonies that founded my nation.
When I put on my dress blue jumper, and feel the rough wool fabric drape over me, I will look in the mirror and remember. My left sleeve is embroidered with three gold chevrons at the shoulder, indicating my rank as a First Class Petty officer. Each chevron represents my expertise and knowledge of my rate in the Navy. The white eagle sitting atop the patch with its wings spread, it looks toward my heart to remind me to follow my heart in every thing I do for my nation.
As I pull the hem of my jumper, cinching it down tight to my shoulders, I will feel the pins that fasten bars of ribbons to my uniform pressing against my chest. Four rows of ribbons will be scattered with brass and bronze stars, neatly arranged with military precision. Like a display of old-fashioned hard candies, their meanings are indecipherable to those who have never served their nation. To my fellow service members, they tell a story of my career. Each one represents a sea story, an accomplishment, a milestone, or a badge of honor earned by my shipmates and me.
Above the block of ribbons rests a set of silver wings that represent years of aviation warfare experience. I have qualified to wear these wings, because of what I was taught by my leaders. These wings tell the sailors who follow in our wake that we who wear them are the harbingers of knowledge, and to seek our counsel.
One day, I will fasten the cuffs of my uniform for the last time. Slipping the polished button through the eye, I will glimpse the one thing on my uniform that is not within regulations, symbolic of my rebellion and my hubris. Sewn into the cuffs, but only visible when they are rolled over my wrist is brightly colored embroidery. The left wrist is circled by a red Chinese dragon. The right has a pair of bluebirds and Neptune himself.
My liberty cuffs honor those Old Salts, who in their day could not imagine the navy of my era. I honor those men who built, through their bravado, the reputation of sailors which is so at odds with the modern image the Navy is trying desperately to create. I honor the tattooed, beer-drinking brawlers who served freedom so fiercely. I wear liberty cuffs to remind myself, and those who see them, that once men were as hard and steely as their ships. This is a badge of respect to remember that once these were required to help those who kept the public order who was on liberty, and who was on watch. I wear them to honor our grandfathers, and their fathers before them.
As I button my cuff, I will see the band of gold on my left hand, its surface marred and scuffed through years of wear. Like many other wedding bands, this is a representation of love. Unlike most though, this ring represents my wife’s service to our country. This is her willingness to kill the spiders, mow the yards, and raise the children without me. This is her demonstration that she understands the call to duty. It represents years of loneliness, when she yearned for my touch and I was not there. It represents birthdays, holidays and anniversaries missed and lost forever. It represents her sleepless nights of worry in an empty bed. It represents the hope that I would be able to call her today, or wishing I would write. It also represents her watching my ship come in countless times, standing on her toes, eyes straining to pick me out of the ranks of men lining the flight deck. Her heart searching for that moment when she first sees me, and she knows I’m home safe. It’s countless arguments before I leave, and countless kisses when I come home. My wedding ring, like many others, represents the hardest job the Navy has to offer.
One day, I will look in the mirror and see myself wearing my service dress blues for the last time. I will inspect them, and ensure the knot on my tie is straight and properly positioned. I will inspect myself and critique myself so that my image will properly represent the Navy that has been my home for so long.
The sleeve on my left forearm will be adorned with five golden stripes. I will see them in the mirror, and remember what each of them represents. The first, and closest to my wrist, represents my first four years in the navy, when I was young and learning from those who came before me. It will remind me that every job is vital, no matter how trivial or unimportant it may seem. I spent these first four years doing the worst jobs which are delegated to the newest sailors. While my shipmates were defending Kuwait, I was back here cleaning heads, washing jets, standing watch on the flight line at night, and learning the basics of my rate.
The second gold stripe on my sleeve represents my second four years of service, and reminds me of friends long since removed. This stripe represents my advancement from Petty Officer Third Class to Petty Officer Second Class, and long periods at sea aboard the USS Independence and the USS Kitty Hawk while stationed in Japan. This was my first time in my life that I learned about the cultures of other nations and expanded my view of the world. In this time I learned to appreciate all that my nation has to offer and how lucky we are as a people of the world. I will remember the bonds I made with my fellow sailors, as well as the good and bad times we had together.
The third gold stripe to me represents the culmination of honorable service because this stripe authorized me to wear gold embroidery instead of red. This stripe tells every sailor who sees me that I have served my country with honor. This stripe also reminds me of when I became a Petty Officer First Class, as well as my becoming the “old guy”, without my consent.
My heart will ache when I remember that it was during this time that my nation came under attack, and so many of my fellow servicemen started down a path that would end their lives. It reminds me of the changing times and the closure of Naval bases because it was in the time of this stripe that I was tasked to help close Naval Station Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico.
My fourth gold stripe will remind me of the peak of my service to my nation. I earned this stripe while leading men in honoring what my nation demanded of us. I earned this stripe by passing on knowledge and emphasizing that no job is too small or unimportant. This stripe reminds me of the lives of thousands of my Marine and Soldier brethren in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia who were directly protected because of my efforts along side my sailors. I will think of the men and women who came home because of what we did aboard the Nimitz and the Eisenhower. I will know in my heart that somewhere in America, a man or a woman will be there to watch their son or daughter get married because of what we did.
My fifth gold stripe will be the most painful. It will signify twenty years of service to my nation, and the close of a career. It will signify my transition from being a sailor in the United States Navy, to a citizen of the country I served with dedication. It will represent the close a chapter in my life which demanded years away from my family at home, while giving me a new family at sea.
One day I will put on my uniform for the last time. One day my nation will need my service in other ways, the scope of which I can’t imagine at this time. One day I will look in the mirror at my salt-weathered face and see all of the experiences of my life in the Navy etched on my skin. One day, I will listen as my friends tell stories of my service and we will revel in what once was. Some day, I will no longer follow the countless sailors who went before me to the sea in service of their nation. Today, however, is not that day. Today, I still defend my country, and stand with my shipmates to haul the lines of freedom. Today I am a United States Sailor and this is not the last day I will wear this uniform.
Note: This was written in 2009. I have since retired from active duty on 31 March 2011.