I enlisted in the Navy as a Hospital Corpsman. I originally wanted to go in as an interpreter, complete with a year of training in Monterey, California, but my minor and expunged criminal record (self-admitted at MEPS, falling victim to a recruiter’s lies) prevented me from getting a Top Secret clearance. I was also borderline color blind, so either Corpsman was the only job open to me, or MEPS needed another couple Docs to send to the Fleet. I went to Boot Camp at Great Mistakes in July 1999, hating the humidity more than any other single thing. I went to A School at Great Lakes, too, graduating in January, hating the cold more than any other single thing. I went to Field Medical Service School in Camp Pendleton, California, then was assigned to 1st Maintenance Battalion. I applied for and was accepted to the Naval Academy, where I reported after spending a year calculating the minimum scores necessary to graduate from the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, Rhode Island. I did four years at Annapolis, studying English literature and philosophy, so I could become the Strike Officer (when I got a Top Secret clearance; take THAT, bureaucracy!) and Force Protection Officer in USS Princeton out of San Diego. Two deployments later I volunteered for a year in Iraq, assembling presentations for teleconferences and doing my best to stay hydrated (though I did forget my reflective belt on numerous occasions). As a reward for volunteering for Iraq I picked Hawaii for follow-on (and terminal) orders. I was the Officer-in-Charge of a barge, named the Mobile At-Sea Sensor (MATSS, not as cool as our call sign, “Godzilla”). I got out in March of 2012 and came home to Lafayette, Colorado. I’ve been pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing for the past two years and graduate in July, after which I’ll have to get a real job.
LOA: How do you reconcile the difference in gravity between what you did in the military and what you do as a civilian? Do you get restless?
There were many days that the gravity of my circumstances in uniform were nil. I spent that year in Iraq putting together PowerPoint presentations for generals and colonels; I also read 105 books that year. I was the Gun Liaison Officer on the bridge when two aircraft carriers and an amphibious assault ship and their escorts transited the Strait of Hormuz, the Iranian Navies right alongside the whole time. I don’t think the military is an occupation like any other, though it shares numerous characteristics (boredom, routine, monotony, finding or inventing fun) with office life. Right now I’m finishing up my MFA in Creative Writing from a “hippie Buddhist school” and plan on returning to the Navy, but as a civilian instructor. So which is more important? I’m not sure. Gravity is where we find it (and when I write this, scientists have just discovered gravity waves) or make it. Is it important to be the best student I can be? Was it important that I knew what the hell I was doing when I was on the bridge in the middle of the night? Absolutely, because we should always take our work seriously (but takes ourselves less seriously).
LOA: F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “All life is a process of breaking down.” How have you used these breakdowns (often of the body and the mind, and even the nerves) as a platform for rebirth?
Absolutely. Just like muscles tear under weight training (note to self: get back to the gym) and rebuild stronger, so too do our emotional and mental muscles. However, just like overexertion or misdirection can ruin our physical bodies, so too can aimless or purposeless suffering can damage our psyches/souls/chis/what-have-yous. I wouldn’t say I’ve “reinvented” myself (for aren’t we always in a process of reinvention?) since I got out of the Navy, but I have decided what to hold on to (fierce loyalty, humor in the face of adversity, willingness to commit) and what to let go of (dogmatic devotion to ideas and not people, quick reactions and tempers, hardheadedness), so yes. I’m building back from the breakdown today. What are you doing?
LOA: What is the most life-changing event you’ve participated in since getting home?
My mom recently passed away after a prolonged battle with a rare disease. There were many moments of learning and clarity, but the biggest thing I’ll keep from her passing came in her last few days. She had held on to some bitterness, anger, and resentment from an entire lifetime. She chose to give it all up so she could spend her last hours with love in her heart. What I realized is she didn’t forgive or forget those people who’d hurt her, she just chose to release the negative energy. I don’t believe being kind means being soft. In fact, I think we could focus more in our culture and military on balancing sthira (steadiness) and sukha (ease), two Sanskrit words that are central to the practice of yoga (and life in general). Long story short, we can love more and love harder and love fiercer, lose fear and embrace restraint, and still be warriors.
LOA: What do you miss about the military?
First off, the people (except for the blower-offers, the lay-abouts, the career-minded, the pretend warriors). Secondly, the travel (except for the year in Iraq, or the six weeks in a row spent staring at waves off Guam and playing variations of the Kevin Bacon Game). Thirdly, the sense of mission and accomplishment (except for participation in a poorly-defined and poorly-executed war/occupation/whatever-it-was, and the time I spent reading People magazine because there was literally nothing to do). Fourthly, someone kicking my butt to work out (okay, that one is an unqualified miss).
LOA: What do you NOT miss about the military?
LOA: When you reflect on your time in uniform, what moment, or event, comes back to you most often?
I focus on a couple of moments. Two of them in particular are when we were dead in the water (DIW; for non-SWO/non-Navy types, DIW is what you don’t want to be – no engines, no rudders, at the whims and mercy of the seas). Luckily both were pretty benign, though the second time I was on the MATSS barge being towed a thousand miles out from Hawaii, and the tugboat didn’t realize right away that the towline had parted. For some reason I love thinking about those moments when we were adrift, literally following wave and current and wind. Our engines silent, miles from land, it might have been what early transatlantic sailors felt when they reached the Horse Latitudes. I don’t know, it was kind of fun each time.
LOA: Do you discuss your time overseas with your civilian friends? How do they respond?
I puttered around for a few years after I got out. I traveled, worked at a movie theater (as a popcorn-maker, not even anything fancy), and thought about going back to school. I applied to and was accepted into an MFA program in Creative Writing at probably the most polar opposite place from my military life. Naropa University is a Buddhist-inspired school focused on therapy and the arts and has few if any connections to the military, beyond a few veterans using the GI Bill (necessary to pay for the massively expensive private education afforded at a place which requires their students to take yoga or some other contemplative practice). I’ve got nine other writers in my cohort, and not a single one of them has given anything other than a positive response to my time in uniform. In fact, I’ve challenged their assumptions (so they’ve told me) about people in the military, especially that an entity as large as the DOD will have every type of human represented. I’m not the type to bring up “war stories” willy-nilly, though I often tell the humorous stories and highlight the Kafkaesque absurdity of my time in Iraq. I reciprocate with interest in their life stories, since their lives are just as fascinating as mine. One friend spent years working hard and shitty jobs on her way through undergrad and her first grad degree and is always good for a story about the evils of the capitalist system; another comes from Ireland and is traveling the world, meeting people and working alongside them; a third believes unceasingly in the saving power of poetry, and that idea is starting to rub off on me.
I know there’s a gap between veterans and civilians, and a lot of it comes from a lack of awareness on the part of the majority who’ve never served in uniform. But there’s also a stubbornness on the part of many veterans, who don’t seem like they want to engage in any sort of real conversation with people who have questions and are at least willing to listen. In simpler terms, we need to be storytellers as much as we need to listen to others.
Travis Klempan enlisted in the Navy as a Hospital Corpsman. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 2006 and served as a Surface Warfare Officer until he left the Navy in 2012. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. His writing has appeared in Atticus Review, Ash & Bones, and Helix Syntax, and his poetry was included in Volume 4 of Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors. He is working on a novel about ghost stories in Iraq.