How to be a Secret Squirrel in 27 years or less:
A journey of service to my country.
(Point of reference, I am not a secret squirrel.)
I grew up in a family that was deeply patriotic. My father served in both the Navy and the Airforce and I grew up knowing that I wasn’t going to be any different. Some of my youngest childhood memories were of me sitting in front of the TV at my grandparent’s house watching old BETA tapes of war movies. The Guns of Navarone, Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare were just some of the movies I watched over and over, never getting tired of them.
As a child I grew up with constant ear infections. These weren’t merely ear pain; they were a constant problem and often had me out of school for days on end. So much so that by the time I was 11 years old I had already been into surgery three times. By the time I was 13 my doctor had concluded that it was my tonsils that were at the root of all my problems and decided to have them removed. Sure enough, he was right. I never had another ear infection again. But the damage had already been done. I had developed so much scar tissue in my left ear that it had literally crushed those three little bones we hear about, the hammer, the anvil and the stirrup.
I’ll never forget leaving the doctor’s office in Tampa one afternoon and my mom making a comment in passing that this might prevent me from entering the military. I can still remember exactly where we were on I-275 near the Tampa Police Department. I instantly became defensive and angry. I had never considered the possibility that any of this would ever prevent me from entering the military. I was an athlete, extremely competitive and driven. I had no other plans for my life outside of the military so how could something as trivial as this be a problem? But with a severe loss of hearing in one ear that was exactly what I would be facing.
When I was 15 my parents had heard about a reconstructive surgery that was being done in cases like mine. The procedure involved removing a piece of your mastoid, a piece of the skull behind your ear, and reconstructing the little bones to be placed back into the ear. The procedure was a called a mastoidectomy and tympanoplasty. This surgery would be my fourth and final procedure not to mention my last hope at military service.
After receiving the surgery, I was told it would be a little bit of time for my hearing to come back to normal levels, if it even would. It took some time but before long my left ear was able to recover quite a bit. Overall, I went from a 30% hearing loss in my left ear to somewhere around 0-20% loss depending on the frequency range. Things were looking up!
Although I enjoyed sports and excelled in class, I really had a problem actually showing up to school. I once skipped 21 days in a row in my math class so I could hang out with my friends during their lunch period. It actually got so bad the teacher thought I had been disenrolled from school until she bumped into me. Oops… That was an awkward moment… But between skipping math, which ironically, I’ve always been good at, and skipping school entirely to hang out in the woods I ended up losing an entire year of school as a freshman and had to repeat almost every class.
But then came my stimulus. As a junior in high school we had moved to a new town for my Dad’s work. I had never seen a recruiter at my previous hillbilly high school and this new town was a booming metropolis comparatively speaking. We routinely had recruiters from every branch walking the halls of my new school during lunches. I have had dinner with Sean Connery and I can honestly tell you that I have never been star struck like I was when I saw the recruiters at my school. Along with the citified atmosphere this school had one thing my other one didn’t, a JROTC program.
As soon as I found out about JROTC I immediately enrolled. It was an Airforce program, which didn’t really fit into the image of snooping and pooping that I had created in my mind to follow, but hey, it was military, so I’d take it.
I absorbed everything I could about the military and before long I had excelled beyond what first year students were supposed to. The Chief Master Sergeant and Colonel who ran the program saw me as both a leader and a troublemaker, and often told me so. But they found that if they gave me a task it would be completed, albeit sometimes outside the guidelines of what we’d consider permissible. But that just wasn’t how my mind worked. Much like Captain Barbosa I often saw authority as “guidelines” rather than “rules”. When I get focused on something there is little that can be done to get me off track.
This became a very important trait when in 1992 I learned that despite my previous thoughts I actually had a chance to graduate on time, despite my freshman year transgressions. I went to my guidance counsellor and found out exactly what I needed to graduate. I sat down and figured out what classes I was in and what credits were needed and found that if I dropped a few of my more enjoyable classes like drafting, shop and one of my JROTC classes I could replace them with required classes and graduate early. But that wasn’t all. I also would be required to sign up for classes to be taken at a nighttime adult school during the school year. This meant no more sports. But as is so common the phrase on late night infomercials, “but wait, that’s not it”. I would also have to do the same thing during the summer for both daytime and nighttime classes. If I did all this, I would complete my schooling this year and be eligible to enlist at the age of 17. So that’s exactly what I did.
I was 17 years old when I walked into the Airforce recruiter’s office. I was assured by both my father (former Airforce crew chief on F-4’s) and my JROTC mentors that this was definitely going to be the branch for me. I was constantly fed lines about the retention rate and overall enjoyability of the lifestyle within the Airforce. But it really wasn’t what I was looking for. I tried looking into various Airforce Specialty Codes (AFSC) for jobs that would allow me to work in special operations. But this was before Al Gore invented the internet and my mentors were pushing me in other directions.