The Purple Heart license plate on my car makes the cops more sympathetic if I get caught.
“Do you know how fast you were going?”
“I’m not sure, Officer.”
“You were going 85 in a 65-mile-per-hour zone. But I notice you have Purple Heart plates. Your dad?”
“Yes, sir. He got bombed in Saudi Arabia.”
“I was in the Army for six years. Your dad’s a hero. Here’s your license and registration back. Try to slow down a little bit.”
“Yes, sir! Thank you, sir.”
The trick is knowing where the cops are. I expect them to be lurking at every freeway entrance and every town from Victorville to Barstow. But with the location of the fuzz known, it’s a simple matter of setting cruise control to 100 miles per hour. To save time, I try not to make any stops, and to make the trip go even quicker, I sometimes join a group of fast-moving cars: there’s safety in numbers.
Usually, I go up to Vegas to visit family and friends, but this particular trip I’m playing the role of tourist. Four of my UCSD friends and I are headed for the Strip, hoping to get lost in excess and revelry for a weekend. I sense the excitement my passengers feel and can’t help but join them. With my driving glasses on and attention focused on the rear-view mirrors, we journey along I–15 north, leaving La Jolla for the Nevada desert.
∗ ∗ ∗
If everything had gone according to plan, there’s a good chance that I’d be an ensign on a Navy ship bound for the Persian Gulf. I’d be getting a taste of what it’s really like over there. In 2007, I was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy after completing a highly involved application process that included a fitness test, the provision of recommendations, and interviews with congressional committees.
A Marine officer on Senator Reid’s panel asked: “Why do you think that you are the best candidate for a service academy?”
With a smile, I replied, “I want to serve my country and preserve the freedom that most people take for granted.”
I wasn’t lying, but my true motive was to get medical school comped.
Wearing a hand-me-down suit, I convinced the panels that I really wanted to go to a service academy, even when I hadn’t quite convinced myself. I wanted to get into the Air Force Academy and had been told I was a shoe-in because my dad is an alumnus.
I interviewed with a Navy captain, who, coincidentally, was also my mom’s dentist. She made brownies, which we ate as we discussed my future in the living room. He thought he was wasting his time with me because of the legacy. He knew that my grandpa taught cadets in Colorado Springs.
“It’s a shame we can’t have you in the Navy,” the captain said.
“What do you mean?”
“Your dad is an Air Force Academy alum,” he said, shaking his head.
The Air Force major I interviewed with was the only person who saw through my ruse. He could tell I was more interested in the free-college aspect than a career in the military.
The major said, “You want to go to the Air Force Academy because you desire a career as an officer, correct?”
I hesitated. “I want to go because I want to serve my country. I also want to be a military doctor.”
“What if you can’t be a doctor?” he asked. “Would you still want to owe eight years to the Air Force?”
Halfheartedly I replied, “I really want to be a doctor.”
Subsequently, I was turned down by the school in Colorado Springs. I did receive appointments to the Naval Academy, West Point, and the Merchant Marine Academy. A week after high school graduation in June 2007, I found myself with a shaved head, wearing a “white works echo” uniform, and sweating and worrying in the Maryland humidity. We would stand in the hallway holding our 12-pound rifles with our arms at 90 degrees from our bodies for hours, until there was a thin film of sweat covering the tile. In boot camp, you are no longer an individual. Once you enter the service, you give up your freedom, and you never truly appreciate freedom until it’s gone. That was perhaps the most important lesson I learned at the academy. After a few months of boot camp, I opted out of the U.S. Naval Acadamy because the Navy wanted a 15-to-18-year commitment for anyone entering the medical program. My dad flew out to Annapolis in his full-dress uniform and tried to convince me to stay.
“Just to the end of the summer, then decide,” he urged.
“No! I know I don’t want this. I know it right now.”
We argued for a couple of hours, and it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. In the end, I did what I wanted for myself, but I let my dad down. I didn’t speak with him for weeks after returning home to Las Vegas.
A little over a year later and I’m at the beach in La Jolla, feeling guilty that I got off so easy but also happy that I made my own decision. I’m a military brat. My dad did his 20 and both my grandpas served. It seems strange that I am at UCSD because it’s not what anyone expected. I’ve never been a quitter, but I was so focused on getting into an academy I didn’t think about the next step. I couldn’t see my life as compatible with strict rules and petty regulations. Being told where to look, when to talk, where to walk, and how to dress grated on my nerves more than I imagined. I wanted to bring the fight to the Middle East — it was personal — but I wasn’t willing to give up my rights to do it. Selfish? Maybe. But it wasn’t too late to gain control over my life. And so here I am in San Diego.