Two and half decades ago I joined the US Navy as a Seaman Recruit, the lowest of the low.
My story was fairly typical for those who joined in the early '80's, the economy sucked in western Michigan and I didn't want to spend the rest of my life working in some factory or some restaurant. I had taken a few classes at the local community college, but couldn't decide what I really wanted to do with my life, and I couldn't afford to go to a real college - even if I had had the grades or the inclination to go. I wanted adventure and to see the world, so I joined the Navy.
I liked it, a lot, loved it in point of fact. Over the years I worked my way up through the ranks. My career path was not exactly normal or recommended, but eventually I made it just about as far as it's possible to go and retired as a commissioned officer. I owe a lot to those senior experienced folks who went before me, those that helped me along the way (even when I neither recognized their help nor wanted it). When I put on the anchors of a Chief Petty Officer, I was strongly admonished to never forget where I had come from; it was pounded into my head by the Chief's Mess to always, always, help and look out for the Sailors below me, to help them exactly as I had been helped, to always pay it forward to the next generation - even if it meant putting my own career on the line. That lesson was driven home repeatedly and forcefully. Years later, when I put on the blue and gold bars of a Chief Warrant Officer, the lessons of the Chief's Mess were so deeply ingrained that they had become habit and I found myself teaching those same principles of honor, courage, duty, humility, and concern for the welfare of my people on a daily basis, in every action and word.
Today, that lesson remains a core part of my makeup: You never forget where you come from, You look out for your shipmates and you do it no matter the cost.
Which brings me to another Naval Officer, retired Captain and presidential candidate John McCain. On the face of things, McCain appears to be an admirable man, a graduate of the US Naval Academy, a POW who spent five and half years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton enduring severe torture and refusing release if those captured with him were not also repatriated. When he went into politics he quickly earned a reputation for his passion, temper and, outspokenness, characteristics he and I share - and I admire. He headed the investigation into the public perception of POW/MIAs remaining in Southeast Asia and despite popular belief and popular media (Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone not withstanding) he found there was no credibility to those rumors. He earned widespread derision from Vietnam veterans for his conclusions but held firm to his conviction and pushed for normalization of relations with our former enemies - something that has benefited both nations. He appears to be a man of courage and honor and strength of character. In the 2000 presidential elections, when I was still a registered Republican, I preferred him far more than his rival, George W.Bush. Today, on the face of things, McCain would appear to be the ideal candidate for a veteran like me.
As I said above, those of us who served as Navy Chiefs and Mustang officers (former Chiefs, commissioned to LDO or Warrant) are taught to never forget our origins in the lower ranks. And while McCain was never a Mustang, it is apparent to me that he also was taught this lesson somewhere along the line, unfortunately for McCain it means something entirely different. See, McCain is, at his core, the son of wealth and privilege. Both his father and grandfather were 4-star admirals, senior Naval officers, and as such McCain was given an appointment to the Naval Academy. He did well there, and was obviously worthy of the appointment, and later his naval commission. It is certainly true that he endured unfathomable hardship as a POW, and when he first appeared on the political stage I admit that I admired him for his in-your-face reminder of that fact. I deeply appreciated his slap-down of a reporter who in 1982 accused him of being a carpetbagger in the Arizona elections, to which McCain responded, "Listen, pal. I spent 22 years in the Navy. My father was in the Navy. My grandfather was in the Navy. We in the military service tend to move a lot. We have to live in all parts of the country, all parts of the world. I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi." It sounded good at the time, and it still does, but over the years I began to realize that McCain regards his status as a former POW as the ultimate trump card. His origins are anything but humble, and he consistently throws his weight behind power, privilege, and wealth using that trump card to give his actions weight and leverage. From his involvement in the Keating Five scandal to his whole hearted support of the Patriot Act and his stanch support of the current fiasco of a war, his actions consistently show a disregard for those less privileged.
But for me, the final nail in the coffin is his opposition to an updated and expanded GI bill. McCain never had to pay for his education - it was his birthright and entitlement.
He had no problem accepting a full-ride education paid for with tax dollars, but as for the rest of us in uniform - well, we're not worthy of such expense, no matter what our service or sacrifice - because see, John McCain was a POW in the Hanoi Hilton and the son of admirals and the rest of us, well, emphatically are not.
Update: something I want to point out here, McCain's very expensive education was granted before he ever served one day on active duty. He was given his education without proving his worth in any way - simply because his father and grandfather were admirals and he had the ear of his congressman. Those of us who would benefit from the expanded GI bill, have already proven our worth, we've already paid the bill. I myself served for over 20 years, I served in two wars, on six continents, and was decorated 13 times. I wrote US Navy warfighting doctrine that is still in use today, and has demonstratively saved lives and tax dollars. But, according to McCain, I and my shipmates are not worthy of the same education he was.
And McCain was, and is, no exception - many, not all but many, of those who 'win' appointments to the service academies are those who have similar backgrounds to John McCain, i.e. those who could have paid their own way through college without hardship, and don't.
Don't get me wrong here - some of the finest officers I have ever known are graduates of the US Naval academy, and McCain himself served admirably and honorably, but he could have afforded his own education. Sadly he seems to think that the rest of us can too.
McCain's chief beef seems to be that that the proposed GI Bill will cost, a lot. $25 billion over the next ten years. Let's put that in perspective, shall we? That's about $2.5 billion a year, or the cost of one, one, B-2 Spirit bomber - a super-dooper secret invisible stealth bomber designed to penetrate deep into the Soviet Union in the event that the Cold War ever returns. Unless the clock magically rolls back to the Reagan years, those planes have absolutely no purpose in the modern world (and yes, I am aware that they were used in Iraq, flying 36 hour long, round trip missions from the central United States because they are too highly sensitive to be based anywhere else. We used them because the Air Force thought they were really cool, not because we actually had a compelling need for them. By the time they showed up, Saddam's air defense grid was a smoking ruin and a grandmother in a Piper Cub could have made it to Baghdad and back. They had zero impact on our operations, other than to divert funds and resources that could have been better used elsewhere). But if you really want to put $2.5 billion a year in perspective, take a look at oil company subsidies. Between low to no cost leasing of public lands (which basically pays the public nothing for the loss of natural assets); to direct funding for exploration, extraction, and production (think you're only paying $4 per gallon? Think again); to the indirect subsidies for research, health, and transportation - and we're looking at federal layout of anywhere between $600 Billion and nearly $2 trillion per year (depending on who's figures you go with and what you categorize as a subsidy). Want to guess which way McCain voted on oil leasing reform or reduction of subsidies?
Quick question? What's going to pay a better return in the long run? Bombers with no missions and oil company subsidies? Or advanced education for a large segment of our population, who will then be able to get better jobs, earn higher wages, and pay more back in taxes? What will serve our country better? Padding the expense accounts of Exxon executives or creating a new generation educated veterans?
McCain is also concerned that if the GI Bill passes, well, military folks might actually, you know, take advantage of it. They might only do a single enlistment, then get out to pursue an education. McCain is afraid that retention will suffer as a result. Strangely though, he spent 22 years on active duty - after he got his taxpayer funded education. I paid for my education out my own pocket, but I stayed on active duty for a full decade after earning my degree and I can name hundreds of others who have done the same thing. But here's my question - say people do join up, serve the minimum time required and then get out to take advantage of the GI Bill, so what? Where's the downside of this? They did their time, the public got its pound of flesh out of them (and nowadays, likely a whole lot more). Look, hundreds of thousands of returning vets took advantage of the GI bill when they returned from WWII, and in those days it paid for nearly their whole education, and we call them 'The Greatest Generation.' They became doctors, and lawyers and teachers and scientists and engineers and they went on to much better lives than their parents. That's the beauty of education, it almost always pays far greater returns than the original investment. Education increases wealth, not decreases it. Education might end wars, or at least reduce them, instead of keeping us in Iraq for the next hundred years.
No, McCain has not forgotten where he came from. He remembers it every day. And he wants to make dammed sure those vets who weren't born into an academy education remember where they came from too - and he want's to make sure they stay there.
No John McCain will not be getting my vote.
Update x2: Guess who wasn't present for the Strategic Oil Reserve vote today?