© 2015 paulwhankins

“The Duties We Assume. . .”

First and foremost, this blog has always been a representation of my thinking and not a response to the thoughts/thinking of another (not by way of immediate response anyway). And this post is submitted as respectfully as it would be if I were talking to any person who might propose policy that speaks to my person or my personal history. In particular, my military history.

Please, don’t make assumptions regarding my military history (Point of Fact: my military duties ended over two decades ago with the beginning of this year’s first bell 1991-1995). Recent discussions around arming or not arming teachers included a mention of prior service individuals. I am a prior service individual. With military experience.

In some circles, we are called “veterans.”

I am a veteran. But please don’t make assumptions regarding the duties I carried out while wearing the prescribed uniform of The United States Navy.

For one year of my enlistment, I assisted active duty personnel and their dependents at Naval Hospital Oakland. I worked on a Cardiac Stepdown Unit–9 South wherein I learned the basics of post Cardiac Arterial Bypass Grafting (CABG). I learned how to read EKGs and telemetry. Most of my patients were folks who needed a quick tune-up and they went back to lives after recovery. This was satisfying. . .for a while. . .and I asked for a transfer to the ward across the hall: 9 West.

“The Stairway to Heaven.”

Everyone thought I was crazy. Including the sailor who almost sprinted across the hallway to exchange places with me in my appointed duties. My request was met with disbelief of my charge nurses and the medical professionals who sought to teach me each day in post-procedural care. Even the hospital chaplain thought my decision to be a little strange. But it was a move I felt called to make. I wanted to be close to the people who were close the end.

During my time in the military, I saw a lot of death. A lot a natural, at-the-end-of-life death.

And during that time on 9 West, I listened to a lot of hearts, not for the waves they would send, but for the words they would speak. I spent more time sweeping brows than I did bows. I saw how a face can go as gray as a bulkhead upon hearing bad news and I saw how a face lights up like a morning’s bugle call when someone speaks a kind word. And I’m going to share that I held more hands than my hands held a gun (one time–by the way–while I got my marksmen medal while in Guantanamo Bay. . .that story is coming).

I cared for a man dying of AIDS while he waited for the very last moment that his sister might arrive to say goodbye. I held the hand of a dead woman while I waited for her family who was beyond the three-hour-window (I had her burial elements tucked underneath her so that I could move her expeditiously after her family’s visit and I got into trouble for this lack of protocol). I gave a very confused black woman a shower each day in a PVC-pipe chair while she called me the N-word each morning.

I signed up for Temporary Active Duty in Guantanamo Bay with a Joint Task Force working with Haitian Migrants who were denied access into America because of their HIV status. I learned about refugees before they were trending on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. I met them face-to-face in the tent-based encampment they all shared under our watch. And watch I did. I watched as T-Cell counts dropped to dangerous levels. I watched a people given to mystery stomp out medication in the dirt for its uselessness. I read to their children. I learned songs in Creole I do not know today, but I have not lost the sound of a child’s voice signing.

We cannot make assumptions based on the fact that a person has worn a uniform. That a person has served. I wore a uniform and I was served by the essence of humanity as much as I performed any service. My service was to the country of man. . .humanity. . .and they gave me medals for it. I found myself more in the smiles of the faces of the people I met than I ever saw in the toe in my own spit-shined shoes.

I don’t know that any one of these experiences would be of any service during a situation that we can script all day long but will play out unscripted. . .and human. I can tell you in preparation what I might do out of sense of duty to children. . .to myself. . .to my family, but I would only be entertaining the whim of a writer who has seen too many films. . .to many television shows. . .to many young adult books about the scenarios we fear the most.

I am prepared to bring my experiences into the classroom each day. They are sprinkled into lessons when I remember a face or a quote or a scenario that works its way into the conversation.

This is the duty I assume. I am armed with memory. I am armed with story. I am armed with connections.

After all, I am “veteran.”

But anyone who has spent time with me in the classroom knows this.



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