As a Navy reservist assigned to a Marine Corps unit, my annual training requirement – AKA “summer camp” – usually meant going with my Shock Trauma Platoon to some foreign country to stand by while a Marine rifle company carried out a live fire exercise with the military from the host country. It was always interesting. The travel was exotic, but the living conditions left a lot to be desired. Sleeping on the ground in some malaria-infested jungle just didn’t hold the appeal it once did. So after returning to my reserve unit after my last deployment to Iraq, I decided it was time to move over to the “real” Navy, “the blue side.”
Weekend drills now consist of working in an ER at Bethesda Naval Hospital and annual training will be more of the same. Not as exciting as the Marines, but I’m much less likely to come home with a scorpion in my back pack.
To my surprise, when it came time to do my two-week summer training, I wasn’t really needed at Bethesda. Then a friend and fellow reservist suggested that I check about helping out at some of the naval hospitals overseas. “We can do that?” I emailed somewhat incredulously. Yep, they were always looking for help, was the reply.
One thing led to another and soon I was exchanging emails with the ED director of Naval Hospital Okinawa. I got pretty excited thinking about working in a sleepy ER and going diving on the weekends. I was surprised to find that I could even bring my wife. I only had to pay her air fare. And even that could be free if she wanted to fly “space available” on a military flight. It looked like a done deal.
“How would you like to go to the western Pacific for a few weeks this summer,” I asked my surprised wife.
“You’re not the cruise type,” she said, cocking her head inquisitively. “What are you talking about.” After some explanation, she began to share my enthusiasm. “Hey, we can stay the whole month if they need you that long,” she offered with mounting excitement.
Then the operations officer in charge of Navy Medicine East called me. “I’m sorry, Sir,” she said after a brief explanation of who she was and her responsibilities. “But I can’t approve your AT in Okinawa.” I was deflated. I knew it had been too good to be true. “Would you be interested in going to Naples, Italy? They need help there, too, and that hospital is my responsibility.”
“I guess so,” I said with fake disappointment. I enjoyed the chance to pull one over on my wife. I watched her expression fall as I told her the trip to Japan was off. Then she slapped me playfully when I told her that we were going to Italy instead.
It took a bit to close up the house and farm out the dog for a month. But when the day to leave arrived we were both excited, like little kids headed off to summer camp. I flew through Paris on a ticket bought by the Navy. She flew through Madrid on a frequent flier ticket. When we met up again in the Naples airport it felt like we were on a second honeymoon.
Naples was as we had been warned: filthy and congested. But we didn’t care. We were on an adventure. But to our surprise, the base surrounding the hospital was pristine. We were provided with a fully-furnished studio apartment and a car. The library, chapel, health club, pool, and shopping were within an easy walk. While it was hot and steamy back in
Annapolis, Naples was warm and dry, with cloudless skies. The surrounding mountains, including Mt. Vesuvius, made the base look like a southern California resort.
“Do you think you can tough this out for a month,” my wife mocked after we had settled into our quarters.
“It’s a tough job, but…”
“I know, somebody’s got to do it.”
The next day I began meeting the staff at the hospital. I found them to be unusually friendly and welcoming. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. And after finding that I was a reservist on TAD – temporary active duty – everyone had a suggestion for something to do or see on our days off. They drew maps to local restaurants, gave times for ferries to the island of Capri, and driving directions to the famed seaside village of Positano.
When I started my first clinical shifts it was the same story. There were more than a few bureaucratic hang ups – this was after all, the US Navy. The computer system used a DOS-like program called MUMPS to order meds from an after-hours dispensary in the ED. It was slow and frustrating. But the corpsmen more than made up for it with their helpfulness and eagerness to learn. The case load was light, no more than a patient each hour. It seemed like everyone on base exercised regularly and did exactly as their doctor told them. I saw no drug addicts or drunks. I didn’t know what to think of this ER. The best part was when the corpsmen called me out to the front desk to see a patient with a minor problem or just a question. If they didn’t need to be seen or could be handled with simple advice, they left, willingly, with no paperwork. I was dumbfounded. It seemed that I had found a place where common sense prevailed.
On my first days off we jumped in the car and headed south to Positano. Winding through narrow roads that hugged the cliffs, I pulled the side view mirrors in several times to let trucks and larger cars squeak past. The road offered an unbelievable vista of the Mediterranean. I would have stopped numerous times, just to stare, but there was seldom any place to park. So I had to be satisfied with terrorizing my wife by gazing into the distance as I squeeled around corners with 1000 foot drops. Arriving at our pensione, we were escorted to a tiny room with a terazza that overlooked a church and the sea.
“I think I’ll just sit here the whole weekend,” I said, shaking my head in wonder at the unique beauty of the cliffside villas overlooking the village. But soon we were down at the beach looking for a place to put our towels.
“You can put your eyes back in your head, buster,” my wife said sarcastically as we ambled down the rocky beach. “I know what you’re thinking. They don’t go topless around here.”
“Wha!?” I protested, rolling my eyes. “I didn’t notice a single tanned gorgeous young body.”
“Yeah, right.” It was her turn to do the eye roll. “How would you like to rent a boat and do some exploring.” She knew how to get me off the beach before I drooled on myself.
As we shoved off and began motoring through the deep blue water, my wife relaxed on the cushions spread out on the foredeck of our tiny boat while I daydreamed of ancient Roman gallions. Sometimes, I thought, serving your country has a few little perks.