Category Archives: Military

What This Veteran Wants You to Know

Every year, I appreciate all my friends who wish me a Happy Veterans Day because they are kind enough to remember that I wasn’t always a boring, middle-aged suburban mom and part-time consultant. In my youth, I sailed upon the high seas aboard the Navy’s finest warships in search of adventure and glory. Or so I recall. It was a while ago.

Because it’s Veterans Day and everyone seems inclined to indulge us vets, please allow me to offer a few thoughts about the military to my civilian friends:

  1.  I hate the phrase, “boots on the ground.”

I don’t know why this grates on me so, but it’s like nails on a chalkboard whenever I hear it. Politicians and pundits like to pretend that anything short of thousands of soldiers advancing against the enemy isn’t really combat. Sorry folks, but creating no fly zones counts as an act of war. So does enforcing an embargo with destroyers or dropping bombs with unmanned aircraft. If it makes us uncomfortable to call it what it is, maybe we shouldn’t be doing it.

  1. Not all veterans are homeless, drug-addicted, or unemployed.

Some of us are pretty well adjusted, actually. I am totally for helping vets in need – I support several nonprofits that serve vets and I’m glad to do so. But some initiatives are just wacky. In Boston this year, the mayor had this crazy idea called Operation Thank a Vet, which involved volunteers knocking on veterans’ doors and “thanking them for their duty and sacrifice” while providing information on services and aid.

Our mayor grew up in Boston so he should be more familiar with the ways of your average New Englander. We loathe awkward chitchat with strangers who show up on our porch unannounced while the Patriots game is on. Just send me a Starbucks gift card via drone and stay off my property.

  1. Also, not all of us are male.

At first glance, this is a lovely picture of three brothers reconnecting at a WWII commemoration.

World War II veterans and brothers Tommy Mazzareilla (Marine Corps), left, Phil Mazzareilla (Navy), center, and Henry Mazzareilla (Army) enjoy the '40s music of the Liberty Belles at a 2005 commemoration of World War II at the Charlestown Navy Yard in 2005. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Wikimedia.org)

World War II veterans and brothers Tommy Mazzareilla (Marine Corps), left, Phil Mazzareilla (Navy), center, and Henry Mazzareilla (Army) enjoy the ’40s music of the Liberty Belles at a 2005 commemoration of World War II at the Charlestown Navy Yard in 2005. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Wikimedia.org)

But look closely and you’ll see that whoever was in charge of entertainment made certain assumptions about the audience. I wonder if any WAVES from WWII showed up to be “honored” by scantily clad pin-ups belting out patriotic tunes? I’m sure the show would take them right back to the 1940’s, when they served their country just like men except without military status or benefits. Good times.

  1. Navy SEALS are not like vampires.

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They may look un-naturally handsome and inexplicably strong, so Americans can be forgiven for thinking that “sending in special forces” means that everything is going to be okee dokey. We have all seen too many movies like Captain Phillips, Zero Dark Thirty, and Twilight, in which no situation is too impossible or too dangerous for the SEALS / vampires. The good guys always win.

SEALS may be some of the best-trained and best-prepared fighters we have, but I’m pretty sure they are mortal. And by the way, they count as “boots on the ground.”

  1. The best way to experience military life without living it is to read books by those who’ve been there.

This is my personal opinion as an avid reader. Some incredible literature has been inspired by military experiences. My highly-recommended favorites are:

And if you really want to know what life on an aircraft carrier is like, pick up Geoff Dyer’s Another Great Day At Sea. He’s a journalist who spent time aboard the USS George H.W. Bush and wrote a very accurate account of his time aboard.

One last bit of advice to my civilian friends on this Veterans Day: if you know me, you are welcome to knock on my door. Bring me a Starbucks or, if it’s after 5:00 pm, something stronger. You are welcome for my service.

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Testosterone: The Military’s Real Enemy

Two stories in the news this week made me impatient to see women holding more senior positions in the military, and not for the usual reasons. Sure, women have leadership skills and technical expertise, and deserve a shot at those jobs. But the biggest reason of all, and why we can’t wait any longer, is because of something women don’t have. Testosterone.

This pesky little hormone is a troublemaker. Its link to needless violence can be traced back to Cain and Abel (note they were brothers, not sisters). Ill-advised sexual encounters and venereal disease have plagued armies since the beginning of time. British soldiers during WWI were over five times more likely to be hospitalized for syphilis or gonorrhea than from trench foot, the war’s signature ailment.

In today’s military, testosterone is clouding the judgments of men who really should know better.

The first is Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr., the superintendent at the United States Military Academy. He recently defended the school’s boxing requirement despite overwhelming evidence about the downside of repeated blows to the head. That’s right – every male cadet who graduates from West Point must spend a semester receiving and delivering rounds of minor brain trauma. Concerned mothers and the school’s Board of Visitors (chaired by a woman) are pushing for change but meeting resistance. In fact, the superintendent is doubling down on his machismo by considering making female students take boxing, too, as they do at the US Naval Academy.

West Point has documented 97 concussions from boxing during the last three academic years. When students are unable to complete the course due to too many concussions, they are forced to repeat it later. If that seems perfectly rational, maybe you’ve had too many concussions.

The next example of testosterone run amok comes from Senator John McCain, speaking on the senate floor about recent developments in Syria. As a former naval aviator and chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he should know that while he may not like the fact that Russia is flying combat missions in Syria, it was actually a good thing that they alerted us to their actions so we could avoid an international incident or accidental loss of life.

With hormonally-fueled bravado, McCain said that rather than complying with the Russians’ request, we should tell them, “We fly anywhere we want to, when and how we want to, and you’d better stay out of the way.” Which sounds more like something one toddler would say to another than how seasoned diplomats should communicate.

This kind of provocation, if he really meant what he said, is reckless and dangerous. But it’s not unique among the men in charge of militaries. No doubt Vladimir Putin’s actions are being fueled by a similar level of testosterone (including his habit of posing shirtless).

Defenders of General Caslen and Senator McCain may argue that testosterone is vital to producing a combat-ready military, and that it makes men better fighters. Maybe. But female pilots and soldiers seem to do just fine with the amount they have.

I’ve personally seen examples of testosterone doing more harm than good. During my time in the navy I witnessed many promotions, happy occasions that should be celebrated with congratulatory handshakes but inexplicably involve a gauntlet of punches to the upper arm (where the new rank chevrons are worn). It wasn’t unheard of for a sailor to sustain pain and bruises so severe, they interfered with his ability to perform his duties.

Worst of all is the tradition of “blood wings” or “blood pinning,” where a newly-minted paratrooper receives his insignia by having the sharp pins of the new badge pounded into his chest muscle by his colleagues. This is considered an honor and a rite of passage.

Must we be content with a “boys will be boys,” philosophy, even when applied to people who should have become men long ago? I don’t think so. We need more women in the ranks and at the top, because the fairer sex seems less susceptible to hormonal fluctuations. Let that sink in for a while.

Jimmy Fallon’s Finger, Military Readiness, and Being Careful

July 21, 2015

Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon recently kicked off his monologue with a story about his finger – specifically, how he nearly lost it in a freak accident. His wedding ring caught on something as he tripped in his kitchen, resulting in an avulsion fracture of his ring finger.

Like all bizarre celebrity news, this story quickly diverted my attention from the highbrow content I usually consume. I read dozens of comments expressing surprise at the story, asking, “How weird is that?” and “Who’s ever heard of such a thing?”

But that’s not how my Navy friends reacted.

We had all heard of such a thing, because we remember a particularly gory workplace safety poster that featured a similar injury: The De-Gloving Poster.

It featured a larger-than-life-sized photo of a hand with all the skin on the ring finger missing, revealing a glistening mess of bone, muscle, and ligaments. The message was a not-so-subtle reminder that wearing a ring on board ship could land you the least desirable hand-modeling job in the world.

De-gloving was one of many hazards we faced at sea. While civilians are aware of the painfully obvious ones (getting shot at by the enemy), sailors receive ongoing warnings about a variety of outlandish accidents that have actually happened.

Military readiness depends on crews being prepared to fight, and no one can fight if he’s just been sucked headfirst into a spinning jet engine. The Navy has flight deck footage of this incident, and sure enough, the lucky sailor (he survived!) looked anything BUT ready to stand watch when the engine finally powered down and spit him out.

In no particular order, here are some other perils we strove to avoid:

  • Getting cut in half by synthetic line snap-back while handling mooring lines
  • Being swept away by a plane’s jet wash and plummeting into the sea
  • Asphyxiation due to not properly changing the O2 cartridge of your OBA (oxygen breathing apparatus) while fighting a fire
  • Being impaled by the shot line when standing in the wrong place during underway replenishment
  • Having a limb sliced off by an invisible but deadly 1200 psi steam leak
  • Walking into a spinning propeller blade
  • Sustaining an electric shock while working on a live system that wasn’t properly isolated and tagged off
  • Being crushed by improperly secured aircraft ordnance
  • Wearing the wrong uniform – the polyester one – which will melt and fuse onto your skin in the event of a fire

We were constantly reminded to be careful, and with good reason. The demographic profile of your standard-issue Navy sailor is a 19-year old male with no concept of his own mortality and a cocaine-like addiction to risk. The list of targeted potential dangers was different when we left the ship for liberty, but it wasn’t shorter:

  • Drinking too much cheap liquor
  • Fighting with complete strangers
  • Fighting with your drunken shipmates
  • Getting that full sleeve tattoo you’ve always wanted – even if the tattoo parlor looks totally legit and the price is tantalizingly cheap
  • Trusting a local who swears “this drug won’t stay in your system”
  • Challenging a humorless bouncer to “Come at me, bro!”
  • Trying to outrun the shore patrol or military police
  • Missing the liberty boat back to the ship
  • Passing out on the beach
  • Waking up on the beach without your pants, wallet, or military ID

I’m purposely leaving out an entire category of no-no’s for sailors that has to do with…um…let’s call it romance, because I’m too embarrassed to type some of the words. Suffice it to say that the Navy wants its sailors perpetually “at the ready,” not languishing in sickbay nursing a suspicious rash.

Alas, even the best attempts at readiness sometimes fail. Despite reels of safety videos and that unforgettably graphic de-gloving poster (I’ve been out of the Navy for nearly 20 years and I still can’t un-see it), stuff happens.

Sometimes being careful isn’t enough. Just ask Jimmy Fallon.

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This Veteran’s Dirty Little Secret

And so begins the annual Veterans Day marathon of back-slapping patriotic fervor: 24 hours of feel-good stories about veterans and their dedicated service.  Former soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines can reminisce about their good old days on active duty, and the rest of America will nearly burst from grateful appreciation.  But guess what?

I don’t miss it.

I’m glad to be a civilian.  There – I said it.  I did my time, paid my dues, walked down the gangplank for the last time and never looked back.  On this Veterans Day, I’m celebrating by remembering all the reasons I don’t miss being in the Navy.

The Unflattering Uniforms

Two words: Demi Moore.  She’s an ageless beauty who oozes sex appeal from every pore, but do you remember her in A Few Good Men?  She looked like an overgrown school boy with sausage legs.  If she couldn’t make dress whites look good, there was absolutely no hope for the rest of us.

Demi Moore in her whites

Demi Moore in her whites

Me in my whites

Me in my whites

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Am Not a Morning Person

Golden sunrise clouds and rising sun above sea , Atlantic Ocean

A little bit of my spirit died every time I had to get up before the sun.  What is the military obsession with starting everything at zero dark thirty? Early morning ops are apparently considered a selling point (see this US Army ad from 1981). My goal for the rest of my civilian life is to never again watch the sunrise (although I have to admit, they were pretty spectacular over the ocean…).

I Am Not a Middle of the Night Person, Either

Three a.m. is when I like to be sleeping, not sucking down gallons of super-strong coffee while staring at an empty, black sea or an empty, black radar screen (empty because even our sworn nautical enemies aren’t crazy enough to stay up all night).  My watch team and I did more between midnight and 6 am than most people do in a whole day, but apparently that wasn’t a considered a very compelling recruiting message.

Friendship Lights are Not Your Friends

friendship lightsI worked in the electrical division of an aircraft carrier on a Mediterranean deployment, and we had the unenviable task of rigging the friendship lights in every port.  While our shipmates headed out on liberty, we were untangling a thousand feet of electric light strings.  While our shipmates were drinking themselves silly in the nearest bar, we were replacing burned out light bulbs.  While our shipmates enjoyed the pleasures of a good meal, we were trying to get the strings of lights to stay lit on their riggings.  And when our shipmates were sleeping soundly after a wonderful night on the town, I was having anxiety dreams about the lights flickering off.

Good times.

My division rigging the friendship lights in the Med.  Notice the chief supervising with coffee mug in hand.

My division rigging the friendship lights in the Med. Notice chief at left, supervising with coffee mug in hand.

Water, Water, Every Where, Nor Any Drop To Drink

Samuel Taylor Coleridge pegged this one correctly – navy ships never have enough water.  I lived on an impressively complicated and fully-functioning city with a nuclear reactor below and an airport above, but despite being surrounded by the world’s oceans I went six months without ever completely rinsing my hair. In the best of times, the water was strictly rationed and difficult to coax from the nozzles of “navy showers.”  In the worst of times, the water was nonexistent.  Half the time, it inexplicably tasted and smelled like jet fuel. Every time I lose my keys or call one of my kids by the wrong name, I’m blaming the jet fuel.

I know I’m not the only veteran who’s happy to leave certain trappings of military life behind.  Many colleagues who attended the United States Naval Academy (which attracts more than a million tourists annually to its picturesque campus) admit that their favorite view of the school is “the one in my rear view mirror.”

United States Naval Academy

United States Naval Academy

On this Veterans Day, I hope my fellow veterans and former shipmates will join me in celebrating by sleeping in late, taking a LONG hot shower (maybe even a bath!), and drinking a beer while not worrying about burned out light bulbs or anything else.

They are the one thing I will always miss about my good old days on active duty.  Truth be told, I am bursting with grateful appreciation for their friendship and camaraderie.

Happy Veterans Day!

The Other Volunteer Army

Less than 1% of the US population currently serves in the active duty military or in the reserves.  Since the draft was discontinued in 1973, the all-volunteer military has stepped up while the rest of us focus on taking pictures of our food and wondering what Kim Kardashian is up to.

There’s another volunteer army in America that is manned by a dedicated group of heroes who work tirelessly while others sit idly by. It is fiercely and efficiently devoted to its mission.  In fact, this army raises 100% of its own budget and has zero issues with sexual harassment.

It’s your friendly neighborhood Parent Teacher Organization (PTO).

n-SCHOOL-DESKS-large570That’s right – somewhere in the bowels of your local elementary school AT THIS MOMENT, moms and dads are bravely squeezing into tiny seats and bumping their knees on tiny desks while being briefed on their next mission.

As someone who’s served as a volunteer in both the US military AND the PTO at two elementary schools, I can attest that these two armies are more similar than you might imagine.  Here’s how:

Recruiters Will Say Anything

uncle sam

“This job is simple.”  “The silent auction practically runs itself.”  “The volunteers are just waiting until the last minute to sign up.”  Lies – all lies!  Never believe the pitch, because once you sign on the dotted line it is all YOU.  An Army of One, so to speak.  Good luck!

Anyone Can Become a Four-Star General

You gotta love a meritocracy like this.  Your gender, your age, your PhD in quantum physics – none of it matters.  Everyone starts as a foot-soldier (a one hour shift at the ice cream table during the annual picnic) and anyone can become PTO President.  Really, anyone.  Anyone?  Do I see any hands?

You Will LOVE Leave and Liberty

Every once in a while, you get to breathe.  When the annual outdoor carnival (your biggest fundraiser!) has just closed and those menacing clouds never amounted to anything, when the last book fair register is turned off and the cash box turned over to the treasurer – a glass of wine awaits.  Kick back and unleash you inner drunken sailor – you’ve earned it.

group-of-young-women-exercising-in-a-gymPT (Physical Training) is a Must

Ever notice how some PTO’s promote Zumba classes, group yoga, or even boot-camp style workouts?  It’s not just so we’ll look better in our sweatpants;  this work requires muscle.  In my PTO years I have personally helped unload a semi-truck of unassembled playground equipment, moved a piano numerous times, and hauled Christmas trees around a sales lot.  All without spilling my latte.  Ooh-rah!

 

 

Specialization is Encouraged

It’s not enough to be a grunt in today’s PTO: we need expertise, and if you have it, you will be heavily recruited.  Our organization is always looking for hospitality specialists who will make those famous crème de menthe brownies for everybake_sale_header function.  If you can draw beyond stick figures and/or know someone who owns a print shop, you’re the new marketing department.  If your garage contains a snow blower or a chain saw, welcome to a career in heavy equipment leasing.  And God help you if you know how to use QuickBooks, because you just became lifetime Treasurer.

Retirement Benefits are Great

You’ll receive 50% of your salary plus continue your health benefits for the rest of your life after 20 years of service.*

Everyone is Replaceable

Like in the real military, attrition is part of life in the PTO.  Kids graduate; parents move on. Difficult as it may be to believe, someone else will run the carwash and write the newsletter, and the earth will keep spinning on its axis.  The school bell will still ring.

Your Community Will Appreciate You and Recognize You With a Holiday and Parade

Actually, no.  This is only for the real military.  If only!

flags at parade

These Troops Deserve the Thanks of a Grateful Nation

IFSo thank a PTO parent today.  Unlike military heroes, they aren’t heavily decorated with medals and ribbons.  They don’t sport chevrons and gold braid.  They can be identified by the bags under their eyes, the venti cups of caffeine in in their hands, and the overflowing bags of school-related supplies spilling from their filthy minivans.

Thanks, fellow PTO parents.  I salute you!

 

 

*50% of nothing is nothing.  Anyway, no one has been known to remain sane after 20 years of PTO service.  Retirement will actually cost you more than being on active duty, because without all those parent socials you’ll be stuck buying your own wine.

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Who Supports the Troops?

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According to bumper stickers and political stump speeches, the answer is EVERYONE.

After all, even our disgracefully bumbling legislators moved quickly to ensure members of the active duty military continue to receive paychecks during the current government shutdown. 

But as time passes, it is becoming obvious that the government shutdown has unintended consequences (shocker!).  Bit by bit, the media is reporting heart-wrenching stories of Americans hurt by the lack of government services.  What if a hurricane hits the Gulf Coast and FEMA isn’t there to help?  What about the many sick patients being denied participation in clinical trials that represent their last hope for survival?

The mother lode of media sympathy rained down this morning on another group of Americans impacted by the shutdown: families of active duty troops who are killed in action.

Perhaps some members of congress have forgotten that we are at war – after all, they consume the same media as the rest of us and embedded reporters in Kabul aren’t exactly headlining the evening news.  So they might have missed hearing that on Sunday – 2 days ago – four US soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. 

After such a weekend, care to guess what the lead stories were on Monday morning’s Today show?

  1. A 9-yr-old boy in Minneapolis slipped by the TSA and a gate agent to board a flight to Las Vegas without a ticket
  2. The Olympic torch went out and was re-lit by a stranger in the crowd
  3. Miley Cyrus was “raunchy but hilarious” when she hosted Saturday Night Live

There were many other stories (the upcoming debt ceiling deadline, the capture of an Al Qaeda leader, the new Supreme Court term), but NOTHING about the war or the soldiers who died fighting it.

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Those soldiers made the news today because the government shutdown not only prevents their families from receiving death benefit payments (what an oxymoron – “death benefits”), but also keeps the families from traveling to Dover Air Force Base to pay their respects to the returning flag-draped coffins.

So that’s how the media dishes up this particular report from the front – selfless patriotism at its best, with a side of political BS.  At least we’re hearing about it.  These combat fatalities would have never made the news if not for the shutdown.  Politicians will pay attention to them for a nanosecond, each spinning last weekend’s violence to support the position of his or her party.  My fellow Americans:  take cover from the sound-bite shrapnel.

One party will surely demand that the other pass a special spending bill to pay for the death benefits that have now come due, and the other party will in turn demand a comprehensive funding bill that never should have been withheld in the first place.  And on and on we go.

I’m heartbroken for the servicemen and woman who lost their lives this weekend, and for those who have been killed or injured in the 13 years (!) since the war in Afghanistan began.  The behavior of our political leaders is like salt in the wounds of this war: at best, they are forgetful and distracted; at worst, willfully negligent.

Meanwhile, the stalemate continues and our government supports no one.  Not me, not you, and not the troops.

On the plus side, Miley Cyrus is finally out of the news cycle.  For now.

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From Marines to the Air Force: Inside the Hierarchy of Military Fitness

The other night I attended a dinner party with a few fellow veterans and we began to reminisce.  As sailors and marines are wont to do, we eventually got around to mocking the Air Force (“the Air Farce,” “the Chair Force,” etc.).  We shared many laughs at the expense of our soft-bellied airmen brethren, with their pristine golf courses and fancy officers’ clubs.

But then I got to thinking…maybe I was employing more than a little revisionist history.

The truth is, much of the US military is not very fit. Forget the movies with buff, bulging heroes in uniform. Active duty soldiers, sailors and airmen don’t typically look like Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker” or Jake Gyllenhaal in “Jarhead.” The marines, well, maybe. I’m not looking to piss off any marines.

fit marines

Advice to writers is always to “write what you know,” so this isn’t a commentary on infantry troops, marines, or anyone who carries an 80-lb pack for miles and miles (I thought the army had invented trucks by now but hey, maybe it makes them feel more like real men to carry their own bedrolls). I’m writing about sailors, having been one and lived among them. And we were not a fit bunch.

A typical day in the life of a sailor unfolds thus: after a snooze in a warm bed, the mess decks await. There, in all its glory, lies a spread that wouldn’t look out of place on a Carnival cruise. Eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, grits, biscuits, toast, muffins, oatmeal with all the toppings – enough to feed thousands of strapping 18-year old men. Except that they aren’t “strapping.” They’re a bit soft around the middle from meals like this.

mess decks

These calories weren’t going to be worked off anytime soon.  A few jobs on the ship involved minimal exercise, like standing instead of sitting. The most active sailors were the ones with the least desirable jobs (like chipping and painting, which was only slightly better than sweeping and scrubbing).

sailors sweeping

Only one job on my frigate required physical strength: handling the ammunition rounds for the five-inch gun. They were indeed heavy. But let’s put this in perspective: I was a 5-foot 7-inch woman who weighed about 130 pounds, and I could carry them.

Nevertheless, we didn’t want to strain anyone – the brunt of this ammo-handling went to a gunner’s mate who was by far the biggest guy on the ship. He’d played division “something-that-was-not-1” football as a linebacker before landing this fine job. His branded, tattooed biceps were the size of my thighs.

You may be thinking, “So there WAS indeed someone physically fit on the ship!”  Sadly, no. This gentleman regularly failed the PRT (physical readiness test).  His massive frame was not made for running. Of course his actual JOB didn’t involve running and he managed it just fine, but rules are rules and everyone had to pass the PRT two times a year to maintain combat readiness.

prt

A bigger mockery of “readiness” would be hard to invent. The 275 members of our ship’s crew had a variety of jobs and we were very good at them. We could drive and maneuver the ship, maintain and repair its engines, track and prosecute enemy submarines, and serve as part of a carrier battle group. Somehow the powers that be imagined that we couldn’t properly do ANY of those things unless twice a year, we disembarked, headed to some nearby patch of grass, and counted how many push-ups and sit-ups we could complete in two minutes.

As if that indignity weren’t enough, we also had to RUN. A mile and a half. In the Navy, you need to be able to run fast about as much as you need to know how to land a back handspring. We could WALK the entire length of our ship in less than 60 seconds. But there we were, slogging out this minimal distance in the mid-day Texas sun. Thanks to the laughably low standards, most of us passed. A few didn’t.

The marines noticed our low standards and always called that portion of the PRT the “run / walk.”  On the sliding scale of military fitness, they proudly set the highest standard.  They ran a lot farther. They did many more push-ups.

We members of the regular Navy knew we were not worthy.

But at least we weren’t in the Air Force.

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