Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

Just Bob

Posted by Doug White under Personal

Veteran’s Day was this week and it was another good day to reflect on my time in the service so long ago. Nowadays, there are a lot of businesses who offer various specials to honor Veteran’s Day and this year was no exception. I always feel a touch guilty when I take advantage of those specials as I only served for four years – more than 20 years ago – and even then I never fought in a war. I don’t feel like I really deserve the same praise as people like my father do, because they fought and sacrificed in ways I’ll never be able to properly imagine.

But, I am honored by the things people say and do for me. This year was a little more emotional for me though. The reason why has to do with a man who I served with so long ago.

In my blogging and various writings, I’ve mentioned him before but not in super great detail. His name was Robert Bowens (or Bob) and he was one of the first Marines I met once I was assigned to my first duty station, Camp LeJeune, North Carolina.

I had come to Camp LeJeune from Camp Johnson, North Carolina, which is not very far at all. I had gone to Camp Johnson to be trained in my position as Administrative Clerk. After I completed my training I was then ordered to go to Camp LeJeune and serve in the Headquarters Battalion of 2nd Marine Division.

I was understandably nervous my first day there. I’d been through a lot already since joining the Marines. I’d survived Boot Camp which even now, twenty-six years later still serves as one of the toughest things I’d ever done. Then I went to admin school and essentially learned a trade. And now, I was going to be finally doing the job for real.

But, I was still 18. I didn’t feel like an adult. I felt like a little kid in big kid’s clothing. I was sure I would look that way to everyone too.

When I walked into the office where I would serve, Bob was one of the first people I met, like I mentioned before. I didn’t know him as Bob at the time, he was Sgt. Bowens to me. Despite the fact that there was a significant difference in rank, he put me at ease almost right away.

Sgt. Bowens was one of the friendliest, most affable Marines I’d ever met in my few short months of being a Marine. I can still hear his laugh today and it makes me smile. He welcomed me to the office and put me in front of the desk where I’d be working.

As silly as it may sound, I had a pretty visible reaction to having a desk. It made me feel really grown up. Which I know now is probably pretty ridiculous. Sgt. Bowens took it in stride, he didn’t make me feel stupid at all.

Time progressed but within a short period of time, things changed drastically for me. I was moved into a different position and would be working as an administrative assistant for the Naval chaplain of 2nd Marine Division.

This meant, I wouldn’t be working with Sgt. Bowens anymore but we all lived in the same barracks and so I saw him often. We quickly became friends. Another friend of mine, Herb Middlemass hung out with us as well, as did a friend of Bob’s, Dan (or Don? I can’t remember anymore.) Rose.

We spent a lot of time doing what most young people do, in college or in the military. We partied. A lot. I’m not sure how I feel about that now, a lot of time has passed, but it’s what we did. The Marines worked us hard, but when we were off, we partied hard.

It wasn’t too long before Bob had gotten out of the Marines, but still would come to the base and hang out with us from time to time. This is when I learned something about Bob that I hadn’t expected. He was gay.

Keep in mind, that this was in the late 1980’s. Things were WAY different than they are now. This was prior to the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ times of the Clinton years and so what this meant is that Bob had to keep his homosexuality a secret while he was in the Marine Corp or he would have been dishonorably discharged.

As far as how I felt about it? I didn’t really have a strong reaction to it one way or another. He was gay. I was not. I’ve been taught from my faith that homosexuality is a sin but I’ve also been taught that it’s not my place to judge. I’m not perfect at that, but with Bob, I just really didn’t care. He was Bob. He was my friend.

But, I worried about Bob. He had other problems in his life that I could see were having an affect on him. He drank too much. Way, way too much. He also had some issues with drugs. I was pretty young and I just simply didn’t have the experience or maturity to help him with that, if he’d even wanted my help.

It didn’t help that I also drank. I didn’t drink at the level he did, but I did drink and so that meant that when we were together, we were usually partying. My 21st birthday party was no exception.

We had rented out a cabana at the beach at Camp LeJeune and had invited everybody I knew and several more that I didn’t. People were coming into this party all night long, it’s a wonder someone didn’t get arrested as things got a bit rowdy. Truth be told though, I think the Marines has an expectation of rowdiness with their soldiers, so who knows.

Anyway, the next day it was just my core group of friends, which included Herb and Bob and a few others. Bob had been drinking all morning and had decided to go to the main part of the beach. He’d walked into one of the buildings and upstairs to where they were playing “The Electric Slide”, a song that was pretty popular at the time. I had followed him.

I am a pretty bad dancer and even with the song having a specific way to dance to it, I looked pretty stupid. I stopped and watched him instead. Bob had issues, but one thing he could do is dance. I remember smiling, thinking how happy he looked, just being Bob.

After awhile we had gone downstairs and I lost track of Bob for a second. When I turned around, I found him surrounded by several Recon Marines. They looked threatening and Bob looked mad. “Aw, crap!” I thought running to him.

These Marines had correctly determined that Bob was gay, more than likely by the way he was dancing. They were saying things to him that I won’t repeat here and he was responding back in kind. I grabbed his arm, “Bob, dude, let’s go.” I tried to tell him.

One of the Recon Marines looked at me and said, “Don’t touch him, you might get something!”

I don’t remember what I said that day. Probably something like “He’s my friend, leave him alone!” Who knows. All I know was he made me mad, I yelled something at him and I thankfully survived. Recon Marines are not known for their weaknesses.

Not long after that, I received orders for Okinawa and I left Camp LeJeune for the last time. I wrote Bob some and when I got out of the Marines, I even spoke to him a couple times on the phone.

Unfortunately, as often happens, I lost contact with him. I’d tried to look him up several times but couldn’t find him.

As the internet grew in popularity and use, I would occasionally plug his name into a search and see if I could find him. I never had any success. I had a bad feeling he might not be alive, but I could never find out one way or another.

That is until about two weeks ago. I’d been thinking about him again and I plugged his name into Google once more. I found an obituary for a Robert Lyndell Bowens of Newport News, VA. He had died after fighting a long illness at a friend of his home, whose last name was Rose. He served in the Marines during the time that my friend Bob did.

It was him. I know this. I knew Bob was from Newport News, his friend’s last name was Rose, just like Sgt. Rose from the Marines and it showed that this Robert served in the Marines too. It’s him.

The problem? He died 18 years ago. That hit me harder than anything. He died four years after I got out of the Marines and I didn’t know. I had not gotten a chance to mourn him.

How do you mourn someone who’s been dead almost two decades? Someone I know told me that for me he hasn’t been dead for 18 years, he’s been dead for 2 weeks. That may be why it’s hitting me so hard.

I don’t know what would have happened if I’d kept in touch with him. He struggled with so much in his life. I’m not sure I was ever smart enough to help him with any of it. And sometimes, people just don’t want to be helped.

All I know was that this man took a fresh-faced kid from the Midwest and welcomed him into a scary part of his life. He became my friend when I needed one. I will always think of him with great fondness. I wish I had been with him at the end.

I was friends with Robert Lyndell Bowens. His life, as tough as it might have been, mattered. He mattered to me. And I will miss him.

Extraordinarily Ordinary

Posted by Doug White under Personal

I enjoy being around kids. Not always of course, they can be trying at times, but generally speaking I like spending time with them. My own daughters have been one of the best things that have ever happened in my life. I’ve loved watching them grow up and even though the teenage years have had their share of turmoil, I am not looking forward to the day where they each walk out that door on whatever path God puts them on.

Between my wife’s family and mine, I have eleven nieces and nephews, ranging in age from five to twenty-three, each of them unique and brimming with their own personalities. I have different relationships with each of them, but I care for them all very deeply.

I try very hard not to have a “favorite”. I love each of these kids and any time I spend with any of them is very special to me. But, I’m human and I have to admit, I do have one that I just seem to have a closer relationship to than the others. It’s my nephew Kyle.

I know that many will think that they know why I have a closer relationship with Kyle after the next four words. Kyle has Down’s Syndrome. “Well, of course, he’s your favorite, he’s handicapped.” you might think. And you may be right. Regardless, he and I are pretty close and I hope we always will be.

Kyle has been on my mind a lot in the last few weeks, specifically because the subject of Down’s Syndrome became a focus of a controversy recently. Richard Dawkins, scientist and author of a book disgustingly titled, “The God Delusion” came under fire for telling a woman – via Twitter – that the moral thing to do if she found out she was pregnant with a baby that had Down’s would be to abort it.

After being the receiver of quite a bit of understandable anger from people after this happened, he tried to justify his comments by arguing that he was talking about a fetus and not a person who is alive. Which even if I bought the argument that a fetus is not a person – and I don’t – his argument misses the point entirely.

Taking his argument at face value – if the “moral” thing to do is to abort a Down’s Syndrome baby, then the “immoral” thing to do is to allow it to be born. This indicates that he believes that all woman who don’t abort their Down’s Syndrome babies are by his definition, immoral. This isn’t just twisted logic, it’s flat out evil.

I remember when Kyle was born, in the spring of 2000. He was the second grand-kid on my side of the family, my oldest daughter being the first. My wife, daughter and I lived in Marshall, Minnesota at the time and drove to Lincoln, Nebraska so we could see this new baby that entered into our lives.

I remember going to my sister and her husband’s house that weekend and spending time holding Kyle and doing the traditional “oohing” and “aahing” everyone does over a newborn. Then, they sat us down, with my Mother, and shared the news. Kyle had Down’s Syndrome. I remember being in shock as I heard my brother-in-laws voice break. I’d never seen him that emotional before.

That night, I went to bed sad. I was sad for my sister. I was sad for her husband. But most of all, I was sad for Kyle. I had worked with mentally handicapped adults while in college. I saw the struggles they went through. I laid on my pillow and wondered what kind of life Kyle was going to have.

Not long after Kyle was born, he had to undergo heart surgery. Down’s Syndrome kids tend to have some issues with their hearts and Kyle was no exception. Fortunately, he pulled through that surgery very well and to this date, has not had any further serious health issues.

As the years went by, we’d come to Lincoln regularly and I quickly stopped worrying about what kind of life Kyle was going to have and started marveling at what a fantastic nephew I had. Incredibly outgoing, loving and so full of energy, he never stopped making me smile when I saw him. It’s an ongoing joke in the family, that although it’s been said that Down’s Syndrome people are very laid back and relaxed, that someone forgot to tell Kyle this! He is as energetic and playful as any of the other kids in the family.

Kyle is a very athletic young man. He’s played soccer, baseball and basketball and has held his own with kids very close to his age. He’s played in his school band for years and this year is a part of their marching band. He struggles to speak coherently, but he can read and write and academically is doing very well in school.

Kyle is not perfect. Having Down’s has not made Kyle faultless. He is at heart, a very typical boy. A perfect example happened recently. He took a picture of his sister, got onto his mother’s Facebook account and posted it, saying, “This is a picture of my stupid sister”. I bring this up, not to indicate that I think he did something awesome. I bring it up because it was sort of obnoxious, and if I would have had Facebook as a young boy, I probably would have done the exact same thing at some point. Because kids are wonderful and they can also be wonderfully obnoxious. Kyle is no exception to this. (For the record, his sister is far from stupid. But that’s a story for another day.)

I love this kid and although I don’t see him near often enough, I enjoy every minute I do with him. After the Richard Dawkins story, I had a strong urge to go visit my family in Lincoln and I hoped to get some quality time with Kyle. His brother was celebrating his birthday and wanted to go see a football movie. I’m not a big sports fan but I like movies so I went with them, their parents and another nephew of mine. Kyle sat next to me and I watched him, watching the movie. Which probably seems silly. But I watched him as the movie showed something he liked and how he would smile and silently clap. He got more out of that movie than anyone else in that theater. I’m sure of it.

Kyle is never going to be President. He’s not going to be super famous or become a neurosurgeon or something equally significant. However, neither am I. Kyle is going to be ordinary. Just like pretty much every one else I know and care about. This is not only ok, it’s absolutely wonderful. I hope I get to spend a lot of years watching him be ordinary. This would make me very happy. Kyle’s existence was not an “immoral” choice. It was the most moral thing that could have ever been done.

From Fear To Pride

Posted by Doug White under Military, Personal

After I completed boot camp, I was sent to Camp Johnson, North Carolina for admin school training and upon completion of that I was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina which is literally in the same city as Camp Johnson was.  It was not much of an event for me to move to one base from the other.

My first job was as an orders clerk for the Headquarters Battalion of the 2nd Marine Division.  I remember having what was probably a silly feeling of excitement when I was given my own desk in the office where I was to work.  I’d never worked in an office before and something about that desk made me feel … grown up.

About three months later, I took Christmas off to visit my family in Rapid City and when I came back to Camp Lejeune I was pulled aside and told I was no longer an orders clerk.  Fortunately it wasn’t because I had done anything wrong, rather they needed a Marine to serve as a Chaplain’s assistant for the Division Chaplain.

There I was again, just a few months after arriving at my first adult job now starting my second one.  I worked with a Navy enlisted man and the Division Chaplain – a Naval Captain – and his assistant chaplain – a Lieutenant Commander.

I enjoyed the job quite a bit; it was much more informal than I’d been used to since becoming a Marine.  This could be the reason I made the error I did not long afterwards.

One day I was asked to go over to the Headquarters Battalion and get some signatures from the new First Sergeant there.  I walked up to his office and knocked at the door and introduced myself, “Good morning, First Sergeant, I’m PFC White and…”

“What in God’s name do you think you’re doing!!??” a voice bellowed from the office.

“Um, uh…”  I looked in and saw one of the biggest men I’d ever seen in my life.  The Marine Corps mascot is a bulldog and I swear that day I saw that mascot come to life – at a good six and a half feet or so, snarling and ready to tear me from limb to limb.

“Marine, is that how you enter a First Sergeant’s office?  Like we’re some kind of buddies or something?!!”

“Uh, no sir…I mean, no First Sergeant….”

“Get out of my office and come back when you learn how to present yourself like a Marine!” the man bellowed.

I did exactly what he said.  I left.  However, what he said was not exactly how I interpreted it.  Apparently, he had meant for me to stay outside his office and eventually present myself properly.  I made no friends that day by leaving.

By the time I made it back to the Chaplain’s office, a call had been made and I had been ordered back to the First Sergeant’s office.  With a distinguishable gulp, I knocked on his door and when told to do so I walked in at attention and presented myself to him.

As one can imagine, several of the next minutes were filled with various profanities and loud yells to intimidate me and put me in my place.  Both objectives were accomplished.  I feared this man more than I probably ever feared my drill instructors at Boot Camp.

Which taking that into account made my next mistake even more stupid.  Several months later, we had a Chaplain from Great Britain come to Camp Lejeune on an exchange program.  Because I was the Division Chaplain’s assistant this meant I drove him around the base, I was there when this Chaplain arrived and I got to meet him, his wife and their two girls.

Not long after that I got the nerve up to ask this Chaplain’s daughter to go out with me and we began dating.  One day I decided I wanted to buy her some flowers from the local PX.  I drove there at lunch to do so – but I did this in the Division Chaplain van.  When I came out a few minutes later, the van was gone.

It turns out that using military vehicles for personal use is a big no-no.  Granted, this should have been something I understood but looking back at it now, I’m going to cut my nineteen year old self some slack.

The First Sergeant was not as kind.  It wasn’t long before I was once again standing in front of his door.  Fortunately, by this point, I was well aware of how he wished me to present myself and did so accordingly.

There was no pleasure to be found in the fact I remembered our earlier lesson together.  More profanities and loud yelling ensued.  The First Sergeant decided I needed to be taught a lesson.  I had requested time off as I had planned to take my girlfriend to visit a good friend of mine in Washington D.C.  That leave of absence was revoked and I spent that time on duty.

As reprimands go, despite how unfair I thought it was at that time, it was a rather tame punishment.  In fact, I was able to get time off later on and was able to take my girlfriend to Washington D.C. after all.  I was pretty lucky to be honest that more hadn’t been done.

That makes the final thing I did the stupidest thing of all.  Another young female Marine had been moved into the Chaplain’s office.  I have to be honest; I didn’t like her at all.  She outranked me slightly – for most of the time we were the same rank but she was the senior of the two of us – and honestly I probably was threatened by that a bit.  Again, I was nineteen.

She and I had a lot of issues for the next year or so and I did not show her the respect she deserved.  It didn’t help though that she was pretty incompetent at our job.  That doesn’t excuse what I did however.

One day we were filling out performance reports for the Chaplain’s that worked under the Division Chaplain and she kept doing them incorrectly.  In the arrogance that comes so quickly to the young I made a big production of showing her how she was doing them wrong.

The assistant Chaplain at that time had finally seen enough.  He contacted Headquarters Battalion and asked to have me removed from the Division Chaplain’s office.  I had been, in essence, fired.

I was embarrassed and frustrated.  I knew I was good at what I did and I lost this job because of someone else’s incompetence.  That’s at least what I told myself at the time.  In truth, I lost it because I didn’t know how to work within the system.  I was trying too hard to fight it.

I expected to find myself before the First Sergeant again to be once more hit with more profanities and loud yelling.  Surprisingly that didn’t happen.  I was moved into the Logistics office for the Division and not much else was said of what happened.

I have to admit, I think being put into that job was a good thing and I actually enjoyed what I did.  We were responsible for keeping track of things the various units in the Division needed such as food, ammunition, etc.  I worked for a Gunnery Sergeant who was quiet and firm but pretty good to work with.

One day I was walking to my office when I saw the First Sergeant headed my way.  He was coming right towards me with a determined look in his eye.  I quickly thought back over the last few days and couldn’t think of anything I had done wrong!  What was he going to say to me?

He stopped right in front of me, “White!  I see you haven’t signed up for the football team we’ve put together.”

“Uh, um…well, First Sergeant, I’m really not a football player,” I began.

“White!  Did you hear me?  I see you haven’t signed up for the football team we’ve put together!”

“Well, uh, First Sergeant would you like me to sign up for it?”

“That would be fantastic White!  I’ll see you at practice!” With that he turned and left.

I stood there dumbfounded.  What the heck just happened? I guess I had just joined a football team, a MARINE football team, having never played a day of football in my life.  “I’m going to die.” I whispered to myself.

The next several days were brutal.  I practiced with fellow Marines who took this game of football, one I never understood and never thought made any sense, very seriously.  I would go back to my barracks after practice bruised and in pain but feeling something I hadn’t in awhile.

What I felt was that I once again belonged to this group known as Marines.  I wasn’t an outsider, I wasn’t a failure, I was just like them.

Silly as that might sound it was confirmed one night after practice when the First Sergeant took me aside and complimented me.  What he told me was irrelevant.  This man had spent every one of our encounters together yelling at me for something or another.  This time he was telling me I was doing well.  I felt a swell of pride that I hadn’t felt in a really long time.

Unfortunately we never got a chance to play any football games.  Not long after that, a dictator in Iraq decided to invade Kuwait and the world changed for everyone I knew.  My unit was in preparation mode to go to the Gulf.

I didn’t go with them.  I had orders to go to Okinawa and so I watched as many people I knew began the steps to go to war.  No one knew how long we’d be there or how serious the war would be.  We just knew we were going.  That would include a certain First Sergeant who terrified me so.

I don’t know what happened to the First Sergeant.  Considering how the first Gulf War turned out, I’m sure he was fine and continued on in his career as a Marine.  But I wonder about him sometimes.  I wonder if he continued to first terrify and then essentially instill pride into other Marines such as he did to me so long ago.

As for myself, I can’t honestly say I am happy I experienced all that I did under him.  I can say that I see now, twenty-five years later, that it served a purpose.  I made silly, dumb mistakes as a young Marine and I deserved every consequence I received as a result.  But what I also needed, and I like to think he knew it those last few days before all changed, was to feel like I was still part of this group I had joined.  If that’s the case, he definitely accomplished his mission.