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Navy Beginnings (Part 1)

It was not a good time to be in the Navy. Less than four months earlier, the last helicopter had lifted off the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon with the last refugees, marking the end of the most embarrassing moment in American history since the British burned the White House during the War of 1812. Morale in the various branches of the military was at a brutal nadir. Troops had returned from the sweltering jungles of Southeast Asia only to be greeted by anger, hostility, and abuse as though they had any input about having been there. The wound was fresh. The sore still festered.

Never was there a worse time to be a psychiatrist in the Navy. Yet here was Steve Marcus, a young psychiatrist on active duty for less than a month at the Naval Submarine Medical Center in Groton, CT. In the hierarchy of life, being looked down upon by civilians was compounded by being looked down upon as a Medical Officer by the Line. As a psychiatrist, Steve was at the bottom of the food chain on a base that was under the thumb of Rickover, the hyperactive, blunt, confrontational, insulting Admiral; and the father of the nuclear Navy. Although Rickover was in Washington, his influence and power permeated the base which was the home port for many submarines. When he arrived, Steve had been warned of Rickover’s opinion that no psychiatric problems existed at the base until they had brought psychiatrists in to the hospital. One of the psychiatrists he was replacing had become the target of the Commanding Officer of Subgroup Two and had faced the ignominy of a Captain’s mast, a highly unusual experience for a Medical Officer. Hardly the foundation for a congenial experience, and the hostile attitude filtered down the echelons at the base.

Needless to say, Steve didn’t want to be there. Nor did he want to be a psychiatrist. Yet due to a series of events here he was. At the time he entered medical school, Lyndon Johnson was still President and the end of the war was nowhere in sight. During the early days of orientation, he sat in an auditorium with his one hundred class mates listening to an Army sergeant advising the group that the physical criteria for a doctor in the military was “warm and breathing”. He had the choice of taking his chances at being drafted after his internship and possibly be sent to a battalion aid station in Vietnam, or applying for a commission under a program called the Berry plan in the branch of his choice along with a deferment to complete his specialty training. Steve’s father had advised him to apply for a Navy commission. A dentist in the 82nd Airborne Division during WWII, he advised Steve that the Navy treated its officers better than the Army. It sounded like a Hobson’s choice, but Steve opted to apply for a Navy commission.

At the time he was accepted, he had indicated his planned specialty would be psychiatry. Three years later, while doing his clinical rotation, Steve realized that he did not want to be a psychiatrist. He had developed a deep interest in neurology. He contacted the Navy and asked if he could complete a neurology residency instead of psychiatry before going on active duty. The short answer was “no.” Aggravating the situation further, during his residency training, Nixon had abolished the draft. Had Steve not applied for a commission, his military obligation would never have occurred, but it was too late. He had signed on the dotted line, taken an oath, and could not get out.

Induction at Bethesda was memorable. There were several hundred Berry planners who would spend the next two weeks learning basics such as how to salute, how to recognize various ranks, protocols, responsibilities, and most importantly how to tell who was a Chief Petty Officer, the human glue that held the Navy together. He had been given a uniform allowance and advised to buy a set of dress blues and summer whites. He was told not to buy the more comfortable and practical khakis. After arriving in Groton, he was informed that because of the political VIPs who were seen at Bethesda, khakis were not allowed there, only whites. Elsewhere khakis were fine. All the uniform allowance had been spent, and the pay was hardly enough to afford the indulgence of buying khakis.

At least he was given his first choice of assignment, although even this was a mistake. He would have preferred Newport, Rhode Island, but was under the mistaken impression that this hospital had been closed. It hadn’t. Instead of being on the picturesque waters of Narragansett Bay, Steve would be spending two years in the blue-collar New London area. He did want to remain in New England, and although he was geographically only a short distance from Hartford where he had trained, psychologically it seemed to be light years. In sum, he was at a place he didn’t want to be, where he wasn’t wanted, and doing what he didn’t want to be doing.

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© 2019, Alan Neuren

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