My Early Days in the U.S. Navy and Why Things Were so Great in My Life Back Then
From College to The Military
I’ve been asked quite often about the time I’ve spent in the military. So of course, if you’re reading this and you aren’t aware, I spent six years in the military–U.S. Navy to be exact. I was 19 when I joined, and hands down–the best decision I could have ever made in my life.
I often get asked, “Wow Dean, how was that experience? Where did you travel? Did you like it?” and a myriad of other questions that give people an instantaneous sense of intrigue when I tell them about my military service.
A resounding, “It was an absolutely amazing experience!”
I say that because when I look at where I am now, as compared to where I’ve come from, I’ve made a lot of progress in my life. I’ve had plenty of up’s and downs in my life, but I’ve grown and benefitted immensely from the experience.
So the story goes…
In September of 1999, at the end of what I recall as a very memorable and fun summer, I departed for Illinois State University. This was at the end of the summer after I graduated from high school. I was accepted to the University right out of high school and quite excited about the experience. I had gone down to visit the University for a freshman orientation earlier that summer. I was 16 at the time so I had my drivers license and my Dad was kind enough to allow me to take his 1996 Honda Accord down on my own for the trip. This after he and my mother reluctantly argued over whether I should take his car or hers. Remember, the year was 1999, and my mother had a 1998 Honda Prelude. It was a stick, and very fast might I add! On top of being a brand new car.
So anyhow, I drove down to Bloomington, Illinois. A 2-hour drive to be exact. I spent the entire weekend in the orientation around people from all over the country and from so many different racial and cultural backgrounds. It was eye-opening to say the least! Needless to say, I was really excited about the prospect of leaving and going off to college. My first time away from home, away from my parent’s and on my own.
My mom had a friend that was kind enough to drive me down the weekend I was scheduled to move in. This was fall of 1999.
I get to Illinois State and of course, it was heaven. Meeting new people, parties, college town life, and everything else in between. I spent the first semester figuring things out, meeting people, getting adjusted to classes and finding my way. I breezed through the first semester and almost towards the end I realized something… College wasn’t for me.
There was something about being there that really had me on the fence about spending 4 years in this small town.
The honeymoon was over as far as I could tell. The fun, the parties–it wasn’t how I wanted to spend my early twenties. I also recall going home on break and having some very uncomfortable moments with my parents and realizing that I wasn’t interested in coming back home after my spring semester.
So in January of 2000 when the semester started, after break, I decided I would I look into enlisting in the service. I have to admit that I was very skeptical about doing this, but I was so frustrated at the thought of having to go back home that I honestly needed to get away. I think it was a combination of anger and frustration. During that semester I looked at the Air Force as well as the U.S. Navy. Recruiters from the U.S Navy came by my dorm room and really sold me on the entire idea of joining. They also moved pretty fast to get my processed, so much so it literally went from being something that I was just looking into to something that I was actually going to do. A lot happened in the course of those months leading into the spring, but I finally enlisted, made it MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station), and was ready for bootcamp!
Mind you, breaking this news to my mother was welcomed. In fact, she cried and my dad cursed me out. I’ll never forget it.
The Beginning of My Journey with the U.S. Navy
Spring of 2000 I ended my last semester at Illinois State University, returned back to Chicago, and headed off to bootcamp. I was 19 at the time and to be honest, words really can’t describe what that experience was like at such a young age. It was such a dramatic change in such a short period of time. There isn’t enough time in this blog post to truly convey what the experience was like, but I can tell you that is both exciting and scary at the same time. Military life was very regimented and for the uninitiated–a challenge that some failed. I can recall the very first few weeks of bootcamp where we were awake for 16-18 hours a day. Closed off from everything we ever knew and being told when to eat, sleep, and asking permission to use the bathroom. Just a few short weeks prior I was a happy and free civilian living the American dream!
I spent 8 weeks in bootcamp and finally graduated. I was assigned to Naval Training Command, Great Lakes which was right across the street. I would spend all of 2000 and half of 2001 training at what is called a class “A” school. This was the first training school that all sailors attended fresh out of bootcamp. This was a very fun and exciting time during my military career. It was somewhat like college all over again. We lived in the barracks with 3 sometimes 4 other sailors, and of course, we were young and all getting paid so the party continued right after my graduation from bootcamp. Great Lakes was a very wild place for most of us that were young at the time. Think about it, you’ve got a lot of people who have plenty of time and money, and are relatively young and free. There was a lot going on back then, but it was a really great experience.
I finally graduated and traveled to my first duty station out in Mayport, Florida around June of 2000. You have to believe me, this was all too real! At the time I had been out of the state a handful of times to only two states, and now I was preparing to go out of the country, of which I had never traveled outside of the U.S.
My first destination was South Hampton, England where I met my ship that was already in the middle of a deployment. This was both exciting and depressing at the same time because I had never been in a situation where I had to leave my family. I had a girlfriend then, and that was a difficult situation to deal with. We had been together for some years and the idea of leaving for 6 months was a tough thing to deal with. Of course my parents weren’t too fond of the idea but they supported me no matter what.
Post September 11, 2001
The story here is quite long but the intriguing part of this new journey was that I was hurled into the middle of conflict following the attacks at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
My ship was amongst the first to conduct strikes into Afghanistan almost two months after the attacks. We would later return home in October of that year to a very warm welcome–one I will never forget! My mom and my dad had flew down to welcome me and the one greatest memory of all time was when my dad ran up to me with the biggest smile and hugged me like he hadn’t seen me in years. All of the sailors on my ship were praise worthy for having completed a deployment and returning home safely. It was such a great feeling of pride and purpose being in the U.S. Navy. You really felt as if you were part of something greater than yourself.
One of the things that was so great about my life back then, was the fact that my Dad worked for United Airlines.
This is one thing that I was so fortunate to have experienced about those years that made all the difference. My mom and i joke about this quite often, but I was privileged to be able to fly whenever I wanted because my father worked for the airline. It was a truly surreal life that I was living back then.
Imagine living and working in another state other than where you’re from and being able to travel at will wherever you wanted. That’s really what life was like for me back then.
I would get off of work at 5pm, make it to the airport at 6:30pm, on a flight home at 7pm, making it home to Chicago by 9pm, and than I would jump in a car and be downtown at someone’s party by 11pm. This scenario played itself out quite often, in fact, I was home anywhere from two to three times a month. Traveling for me was the one thing that I did regularly and I loved it. I was young, making good money for a 20-year old, and just free to do so many things. I enjoyed the privilege of being able to serve my country while enjoying the conveniences of being able to see my family and friends regularly while being stationed in another state.
It was beyond amazing. I was just so young back then and to truly have the ability to travel the world the way I did at that age was the best experience I could have ever had in my life. For the majority of my years in the U.S. Navy I would have the ability to travel as needed, especially when I went overseas. I lived in Bahrain for one year and during that time I came back to Chicago twice to visit. Once during the summer and then again at the end of the year.
I recall traveling from Bahrain to London, London to Washington D.C., Washington D.C. to Chicago, Chicago to New York. This was all during my military leave the summer of 2004 and I got a chance to spend a few days in New York, shop, sightsee, and party at some very nice venues while I was there. I was having such a great time back then that it didn’t seem like it would ever end. Destination after destination, I spent those six years perusing the world over from Europe to the Middle East and for that I am forever grateful!
Rest In Peace Jean R. Cantave. Love and Miss you dearly!