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.
I live in a tiny apartment in Clairemont, and every time I say I’m originally from Las Vegas, I hear an assortment of “Wow,” “Cool,” and “Ohhh.” People have their own perspectives on the City of Sin and what goes on there. Some abhor it. Most see it as a place to go and have fun. But for three years it was the place where I went to school, work, and football practice, the city that I called home. I still go there a lot on weekends. In the summer, at noon you can find me bodysurfing in the cool Pacific water at La Jolla Shores, but before nightfall I’m often 350 miles away in a place that feels like an oven. When I come back to San Diego and tell my friends I’ve spent the weekend in Vegas, I usually receive a knowing grin. Most think they’re in on the conspiracy; they assume I’ve been drinking, clubbing, and gambling. This is rarely the case. When I go to Vegas, it’s for my mom’s cooking and the comforts of home and old friends. I despise gambling. I let my fellow San Diegans assume what they want.
The night my UCSD friends and I arrive at the Strip, one of my friends and I stand anxiously at the entrance to an exclusive nightclub. An old connection is supposed to get us in without the $35 cover charge. Accidentally, I blow cigarette smoke in the face of a massive bouncer. “I can’t believe you just did that,” he complains. He rolls his eyes and angrily bars the way into the club with a velvet rope, then walks off shaking his head. When he returns, I offer him $20. He refuses it but let us in anyway.
Within the bowels of the massive casino, sexy young bodies gyrate to a catchy beat while the bass resonates inside half-full, $15 glasses of vodka and Red Bull. Relieved to be hassle-free, we set up base in the club. My wingman and I locate a pair of short-skirted beauties dancing solo and decide to begin our operation. The task is to find girls who will dance with us. Until this trip, I’d never bothered to go to clubs or shell out money for a hotel room on the Strip. I’d been content that tourists were pumping my city full of money. But I was missing out.
To accomplish the mission, we must rely on effective communication despite deafening dance music and intoxicating libations. Two gorgeous women let us press our crotches against their backsides for a song or two: this is called dancing. This kind of excess, luxury, and delirious sin is a big part of what makes Islamist extremists hate the West.
∗ ∗ ∗
In another desert halfway across the world, flesh-mutilating shrapnel screams through the hot, dry air, killing anything within a ten-foot radius and maiming anyone at the next level of proximity. U.S. soldiers attempt to control the perimeter and assess casualties after the deadly blast from a roadside improvised explosive device (IED). The ringing in their ears drowns out the hideous wailing of their dying counterparts.
But the cavalry is coming. Insurgents in the Middle East can’t see or hear them until it’s too late. The MQ-1 Predator drone, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), is a giant, remote-controlled airplane capable of decimating buildings with massive Hellfire missiles while easily targeting suspicious characters with infrared cameras, even in the middle of a dust storm. Sitting in a trailer at Creech Air Force Base, half an hour north of Las Vegas, members of the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron observe four bearded, robe-wearing men clustered on the side of a dirt road about an hour from Kabul. By using UAVs, pilots sit safely inside a metal, air-conditioned box, controlling a Predator drone almost 8000 miles away in a hostile war zone.
U.S. Special Forces operate in the desert, fighting enemies who look exactly like innocent villagers. The old man by the well in brown robes — he could have pounds of dynamite strapped to his chest. That piece of trash by the side of the road — it could be concealing a deadly, explosive surprise. The troops on the ground have no way of knowing a goat herder from a Taliban warlord. This is why intelligence is crucial. Predators play that vital role. Once a veteran F-15 pilot, my dad sits at the controls in his trailer, spying on the enemy.
“They got Zarqawi!” my mom told me one evening, back when I still lived in Vegas. “Your dad was involved with the mission, but he won’t tell you.” I’m used to this. My dad, who at the time was an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, would know the happenings in the Middle East weeks before the media. When I asked him about capturing al-Qaeda’s number-two man, I received the usual response: “I’m not at liberty to say.” It’s a joke between us. My dad can’t tell me anything that might threaten our troops or national security — this was before Wikileaks could tell me everything. Nonetheless, a grin from my father is usually all I need to confirm the facts. That evening, I hoped his lips would loosen as he worked on a gin and tonic at dinner. The grin got wider.
“I saw a fully armored Navy SEAL sprint 100 yards and tackle someone,” he said. “These guys are badasses.” This is the kind of thing my dad frequently sees through the electronic eyes of the MQ-1. The intelligence gathered by the UAVs helps the SEALs beat the snot out of terrorists with increased efficiency and decreased friendly casualties. Communication via satellite is slightly delayed for Predator pilots — it takes a little under ten seconds for operators to see what is happening — but this isn’t a problem because the MQ-1 flies high in the air and is mostly invisible. Troops on the ground are informed in less than a minute if the UAV spies anything suspicious.
Even though my dad can fly Predators from the outskirts of Vegas, he still has had to go to Iraq to help better integrate the Predators with the ground troops. These trips worry my family because he already has a Purple Heart.
When I was in elementary school, terrorists bombed a U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia. The Kobar Towers were torn apart by a semi truck packed full of explosives. It was my dad’s complex. We didn’t know for two weeks whether he was alive. We knew the building had been blown up and we knew Americans died. Later he told me, “There was a river of blood running down the stairs. Everyone was cut up.” A few minutes before detonation, he’d been on his way to the other tower for a briefing. He felt sick to his stomach so he went back to his room. That’s when the blast went off. Glass flew everywhere, slicing skin. His head and back lacerated from the shards, he had barely avoided death. A lot of people died in the conference room my dad should have been in — the blast affected that building more than the one where his room was. Nineteen U.S. Air Force personnel lost their lives as a result of the attack. That was more than 14 years ago, but there’s not a week that goes by where I don’t think about it. On his more recent stint in Iraq, his barracks were attacked again. Of course, he didn’t tell us this right away. He knew how much the Kobar Towers bombing had shaken us up, but a couple of weeks after his return to the States he casually said, “Yeah, they were shooting mortars at our base. Not a big deal.” A mortar can easily blow your head off.
I hate the people responsible for almost killing my dad. Those same bastards caused my family to lose our house after 9/11 because he was laid off from his airline pilot job. He went back to the Air Force. It’s unclear whether his motivation was to fight or to support his family. Most likely both.
I would enjoy shooting a few extremists, yet I’m happier improving myself academically and individually. No matter how many of them we kill, they will keep coming back. You can’t fight a war on religion because for extremists, beliefs overpower logic. I don’t think either my dad or I want revenge. We would rather do something positive for our family and country. My dad does this by gathering life-saving intelligence on the front lines. Once I get my UCSD degree, I’ll have a better opportunity to change lives as well. Maybe one day I can help veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder or create new medicines for combat injuries.
∗ ∗ ∗
My dad is now retired and will never have to go back to the sandbox again, I hope. He’s a military contractor for the company that makes the MQ-1. I still consider myself a Vegas person, but these days I appreciate my old city with a different perspective. Californians don’t pay much attention to the possible consequences of revelry in the desert, and I got caught up in that mindset during that weekend with my friends. In San Diego, you can’t drink on the beach or anywhere outdoors, while on the Strip you can stroll down the street sipping on a 40. The Strip is an entirely different world compared to the city proper. While there, I almost forgot that my old house was only 15 minutes away.
I found one of my San Diego friends wandering the casino floor at 5:30 in the morning. He was disheveled, clearly inebriated and happy.
“Man, I love this place,” he said.
“Where have you been?”
“I don’t even know how I got here, but I’m tired.” He started to laugh. I grinned because as a tourist he only knows half the story. Las Vegas Mayor and ex-mob defense lawyer Oscar Goodman says: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” But what happens in Afghanistan stays digitally recorded on the hard drives of Creech AFB computers.
I still wonder what kind of person I would be had I stayed at the U.S. Naval Academy. I certainly wouldn’t have as much debt as I do, and I would have never disappointed my dad. Maybe I would have had a chance to launch a cruise missile at some al-Qaeda members. Despite these occasional thoughts, I’m glad I’m in San Diego. It was the first major decision I made where I ignored the opinions of my loved ones, relying instead on freedom and personal choice.
After returning from the Vegas trip, one afternoon on my way home from school I got in the heinous 4:00 p.m. traffic on Genesee. I took a moment to reflect on the efforts of our military and how I might have been out there fighting with them. These men and women work to keep us safe while we play in the surf. They give up their freedom while we stretch our liberty to the limit in Las Vegas. I never take this for granted.