We should all gain a better understanding of those who serve

We should all gain a better understanding of those who serve
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The 6-foot, 2-inch Marine was no match for the determined 6-year-old boy.

The Marine was temporarily keeping visitors off an AAV — a 29-ton assault amphibious vehicle built to transport 21 combat troops through the ocean, up a beach and across hostile terrain — save for the determined 6-year-old. The boy was just not going to be denied the AAV driver’s seat.   

We were aboard the USS Arlington, one of the Navy’s massive “gator” ships during this year’s Fleet Week in New York. Only after three attempts was the Marine finally able to deposit the child in his mother’s arms. The kid looked a little heartbroken; all his mom could do was give a “What do you expect?” shrug.

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And so it went the Saturday before Memorial Day as the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard hosted thousands of civilians aboard visiting ships and at community events during this 30th annual Fleet Week.

 

The most obvious purpose of Fleet Week is to give civilians a hands-on look at the military’s tools-of-the-trade. For an hour, however, the 10-foot-high AAV was temporarily off limits. A teenage boy had banged his knee on one of the armored surfaces and was being attended to by members of the Arlington’s 17-person medical team. (All turned out well.)

That mishap highlighted Fleet Week’s other, equally important purpose: to acquaint the public with the people who serve us in uniform. It is a public that happily supports and respects the military, but is growing more distant and isolated from it.  

The medical department’s senior enlisted sailor, Chief Petty Officer Robert Flores, has been in the Navy since 2000; he joined soon after graduating from high school in Los Angeles. And he is proud of his people, the ship’s facilities, and his team’s ability to serve the 400 men and women of the Arlington’s crew, the 500 combat Marines who embark with them and the occasional visitor with a bruised knee.

In Chief Flores’s triage room, with its eight fully-equipped treatment stations anchored by giant oxygen tanks, a seven-foot by three-foot, waist-high horizontal hatch led to a 10-foot-square stainless steel room with high-pressure hoses, drains in the deck, and a rolling metal table.

“This is our decontamination space,” Chief Flores explained. “If a Marine or sailor is injured and exposed to chemical or biological agents, we can get them from a stretcher on the flight deck into the triage room in a matter of minutes.” Although Chief Flores’ medical (and dental) department could handle the normal needs of small village, they train regularly for the abnormal: the special needs of people in combat.

He wound up joining the Navy, he said, because “my father told me stories about his experiences in the navy — the Mexican navy — and they sounded fascinating.” Eventually, the call of the U.S. Navy became irresistible to young Flores.  

On the bridge, I met Lt. (junior grade) Tim Abruzzo, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy a year earlier. He does the job of a division officer: oversees the 22 sailors who run and fix the sophisticated electronic gear in the Combat Information Center. (The CIC assess all threats — from ships, aircraft, submarine, satellites and other intelligence sources — so that the captain can take appropriate defense or offensive action.) How much does he really understand about how things work?

“I recognize when something isn’t working correctly,” he said. “And it is up to the chief or one of the first classmen to really fix it, and train the others to fix it. My job is really to take care of my people so that they can perform at their best.”

He stays in touch with a few friends from high school, but confided that they “respect what I do, but don’t really understand it. The same with my parents.”

On the flight deck, in the hangar, and in the well deck, civilian visitors and their military hosts shared similar conversations all day. Young sailors or Marines confided how they wound up enlisting; many said their parents had not served in the military but their grandfathers had. Military service, it seems, has skipped a generation recently.

Most of the hundreds of people lined up to board the Arlington that day were families with young children, not yet teenagers. How many of these kids will follow paths similar to Chief Flores’s or LTJG Abruzzo’s and volunteer to serve in harm’s way?

Few Americans choose to serve in our all-volunteer military: only about 0.4 percent of citizens (and legal residents) currently wear the uniform, and the 22 million living veterans represents about 7 percent of the population. Significantly, too few Americans have contact with those who do serve. Events such as Fleet Week help, to a limited degree.

It behooves us a nation to reacquaint ourselves with those who serve to protect us — not just during Fleet Week, but every week of every year.

Steve Cohen is an attorney at PollockCohen in New York and a former member of the board of directors of the United States Naval Institute.