June 25th, 1998.
About two months after I turned 20 years old, I enlisted in the United States Navy and reported to Basic Training at Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes, Illinois. The shackles of my mother’s apron strings were finally shattered and broken.
After turning of legal age, a little over two years prior, I was more than ready to leave and make my own way in the world. Those two years between the age of 18 and 20 would be spent searching for myself and a direction in life. Nothing I tried seemed to fill the gap and my deep longing for purpose.
Finally, being penniless and without any real hope of changing my circumstances, I decided that my only recourse for not only survival but even actual success, was to join the military.
It was a scary prospect; I spent about two months contemplating and discussing the decision. My mother was admittedly against it. Joining the military would counter the very essence of her narrative of control over me. The military was an entity so much bigger than my mother…and she knew it.
Being from Rhode Island, I grew up near the water. The ocean is a part of my very being…I have salt in my veins. So, when deciding to join the military, the obvious choice was to enlist in one of the maritime services; the United States Marine Corps or the United States Navy.
I decided to call both. The Marine recruiter never answered the phone; I was a little disappointed, but I wasn’t going to let it stop me. I figured, my next shot was the Navy, so I called and left a message on the recruiter’s voice mail. About an hour later he called me back.
I told him I was ready to join the military, that the Marine recruiter wasn’t answering the phone and that I wanted to leave for boot camp as soon as possible. I was probably the easiest recruiting job the Navy ever had. No sales pitch or slick talk needed…sign me up now…I’m ready to go!
I grew up only a few minutes from the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, the former Quonset Point Naval Station was about five miles up the road and the U.S. Navy Submarine Base in Groton, Connecticut was a mere 30-minute drive away.
There was Navy everywhere; lots of retiree Sailors and civilians who worked for the Navy. The entire area is steeped in maritime tradition and service. So, it was only fitting that I join the world’s finest and enlist in the United States Navy.
What was my second preference for a branch of service to join, would probably end up being the single-most impactful choice in my life. Shortly after graduating from boot camp and while I attended my technical training to become a Radioman (RM), I met the girl of my dreams. A young lady, who was also a new enlistee as a Gunner’s Mate (GM), would capture my eye, attention, affection and ultimately my heart.
Here I met my future wife Erica; a beautiful young Hispanic girl who grew up in one of the most impoverished and run-down parts of South Houston, Texas.
When I looked into her dark brown eyes, I saw my future. After meeting her and falling in love, I didn’t want to spend a single day of my life without her in it. I knew she was meant for me and I was meant for her. We were just a couple of young kids; she was 19, and I was 20. Erica had a tough story of her own, and she certainly didn’t know about mine yet. We were just two hearts traveling along the road of God’s ordained purpose, destined to become melded and travel the path of life together.
After about three months of dating, we decided to get married. Neither of us had been in the Navy even a year; we were fresh out of boot camp, still in our respective technical training schools and there we were…about to get married. All the odds seemed against us; people said we were crazy. Our fellow junior Sailor friends said we were nuts and the senior enlisted staff said we wouldn’t make it past a year.
Regardless of the nay-sayers, we got married anyway. It wasn’t a fancy wedding. Really simple actually; a piece of paper from the courthouse, followed by a quiet little ceremony held in a small Spanish speaking church on the north side of Chicago.
About a month after getting married, it was time for me to pick my first set of orders; Erica would pick hers a few weeks after me.
One afternoon, my instructor who was a seasoned Petty Officer 1st Class, brought in a list of orders for my class to pick from. Each student went up to the front of the classroom, one at a time, based on their academic performance; top students went first and then on the way down to the bottom performers.
As my turn came up, I was anxious. I remember talking to Erica, and she had told me that when her time to pick orders came up in a couple weeks, that she’d pick San Diego, California…and that I needed to do the same.
“Seaman Recruit Mattera…you’re next shipmate…get your butt up here and pick where you want to go for your first duty station.”
Nervously, I walked up to the instructor’s desk and looked down at the list. I stood there and stared. “Well, hurry up Mattera! What in the hell are you waiting for? Pick your damn orders already!”
No San Diego on the list for me. There were two slots, but they were already taken…but then I did see something interesting: Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island. I quickly thought to myself “Well, heck at least I’ll be close to home where I grew up…better than nothing I guess”… and so I picked the orders to Rhode Island.
Later that day I told Erica about my decision. She was only a couple of days away from choosing her orders; we wanted to stay together, but it seemed a near impossibility. We were about a month apart from graduating, and we each had very different career paths in the Navy. She was being trained to be a weapons specialist, and I was being taught the art of military communications systems.
Erica urged me, “You have to go back and tell them you don’t want the orders to Rhode Island…tell them to wait until I pick my orders!”
That was a tall order. I was fresh out of boot camp and the lowest rank possible. Who’s going to listen to me? It would be a daring move; the audacity alone could get me in trouble.
About two days went by. I approached the staff office, contacted the ranking Petty Officer, explained my situation and asked if I could speak to the Leading Chief.
Typically, I would have received a firm military butt chewing, told to suck it up and get back to my duties.
The invisible hand of God must have been with me at that moment. The Petty Officer stared at me, with a puzzled look on his face. He looked up from his desk, scowling and trying to form words to say to this little Seaman Recruit who had the gall and audacity to challenge the orders that he had picked only 24 hours prior.
As words of admonishment started to form, rather than lash out and yell, his climate suddenly changed. “Sure shipmate…no problem…let me see if Chief is in.”
The Petty Officer got up from his desk, walked back into the Chief’s office. From where I was sitting, I could just barely see the Chief sitting at his desk, behind a mountain of paperwork and typing a bunch of reports.
I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but at some point, I saw the Chief stopped what he was doing, leaned over and looked right at me square in the eye as if he was thinking, “Who the hell does this kid think he is?”
The Petty Officer walked back and told me...”Chief would like to speak with you.” Now I’m petrified, but I’m already in too deep at this point…why stop now.
“Aye aye Petty Officer”, I replied as I stood up and marched over to see the Chief.
I walked up to his office, knocked three times and militarily reported my presence as best I could: “Good afternoon Chief! Seaman Recruit Mattera reporting as ordered…Chief!”.
Rather than yelling and telling me to grow-up and act like a U.S. Navy Sailor, the Chief actually listened.
I’m not sure what Divine Power was at work on his heart that day, but the Chief said, “Well shipmate, I think we can help…I’ll put in a call to the personnel headquarters and let’s see about getting you some orders to San Diego, so you can be stationed with your wife…”.
The rest of what he said after that just seemed to drone off…I couldn’t believe my ears. The United States Navy…the most powerful navy in the entire world, was actually willing to cancel and re-arrange orders for a first term Sailor who barely left boot camp. I was dumbfounded.
“Shipmate, did you hear anything I just said? I told you to standby for further instructions…you should see new orders as soon as your wife picks hers…any questions?”,the Chief replied.
“No Chief…I mean, yes Chief, I heard you, but, no I don’t have any questions.”, I stuttered.
“Good…now get out of my office shipmate”.
“Aye aye, Chief”, I sharply replied, as I stood at attention, did an about-face and marched out of his office.
A few days later, I heard a knock on my barracks room door. There was a message from the Radioman schoolhouse which said I needed to report immediately to the administration office.
Quickly I rushed to get my uniform on…what could this be about? Was I in trouble for something?
I double-time marched to the big red-brick Radioman schoolhouse building. Out of breath and shaking, I walked up to the leading Petty Officer’s desk; “Oh, you again…hold on…Chief wants to talk to you”.
The Petty Officer announced my annoying presence, “Chief, Seaman Recruit Mattera is here…”
“Good, send him in…”, Chief replied from his back office.
“Well, you heard the man…get in there”, the Petty Officer curtly replied.
Knock, knock, knock… “Good morning Chief, Seaman Recruit Mattera reporting…” Before I could finish the standard blurb, Chief cut me off; “Yeah, yeah, have a seat Mattera…what I have here is a set of orders to Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station San Diego California…do you want the orders? This is your last shot boy…don’t play games…do you want the orders or not?”
Of course, I did! I couldn’t believe it…it actually happened. I got ordered in San Diego and was going to be stationed with my wife.
Barely able to contain my smile and joy “Yes Chief! I’ll take the orders!”
“Good, because you’re going to shore-duty and your wife has orders to a ship…your both getting stationed in San Diego together. We normally don’t do stuff like this for first term new Sailors like yourselves, but something in the system made it happen…good luck to you both”.
Chief was just as surprised as I was. He shook his head and smiled…gave me some well-wishes and sent me on my way.
Later that afternoon, when Erica got out of her classes, I pulled her aside and told her the fantastic news.
About a month later, we were both graduating our technical training schools; Erica was a newly minted Gunner’s Mate, and I was certified as a Navy Radioman.
With our orders in hand, a box containing our only worldly possessions and our sea-bags on our backs, we headed to Chicago O’Hare Airport and stopped in Houston, Texas, for a brief stay with my in-laws.
After, staying in Houston for about a week and a half, we flew to San Diego, California and reported to our first duty stations.
Monologue: Just a couple of young adults, I had just turned 21 while we were visiting my wife’s family in Houston…she was still 20. Neither of us knew anything about marriage, life or how to make a family work. All we had was our love for each other and a deep, unquenchable drive to be better than the sum how we had individually grown up. Both of us had a smoldering ember of motivation and determination to go higher, faster and further than those who had raised us.
Our next steps toward our future would be taken in San Diego, California, where we were about to start a family…