I remember it well: It was Friday, March 11, 2011 and the warm weather in Singapore was serene. I was still in my uniform, finishing up some work before I could go out to town. Suddenly, we had a shipwide recall and the whole crew of USS Blue Ridge knew that we were going to be heading to Japan to help in a relief effort for a massive tsunami.
There was just one problem: our ship was crippled. We could barely inch our way across the seas because the ship's propulsion system had a series of mechanical failures. The systems kept destroying replacement parts, until one of the engineers figured out what the problem was. Unfortunately, the part we needed wasn't available and would take more than a week to arrive. Thousands of lives depended on us delivering humanitarian supplies.
Then, John Ray, a stoic African American sailor of middle age, got onto a metal lathe and created the exact part within hundredths of an inch without blinking an eye. When he was awarded a Navy achievement medal for single-handedly getting the ship moving toward the disaster zone, all he said was, "They needed the part, so I made it. That's my job."
When I hear our political discourse today, my time in the service makes the hatred and rancor across our country difficult to understand. The fact folks even have to say "Black Lives Matter" is baffling to me, because there are thousands of people in Japan who are alive today because of one black man.
It's hard to devalue a human life when you see the rich potential in each and every one of us. And yet, here we are. Our country has Donald Trump, a man who never served his country, talking about how he's "like, the most militaristic guy ever." Donald Trump, like many Americans, has an understanding of military service that comes from action movies.
For people who actually served our country, military service is punctuated by the times a Muslim shipmate helped you finish your work in time so your boss wouldn't yell at you. You remember the time your best friend got you some late-night snacks to study for an online exam by making small talk in Spanish with one of the ship's cooks. In the military, every difference between individuals washes away as the common experience of struggle makes a person's talent and hard work more important than anything else.
We live in a country that serves less and is more divided than ever. A poor warrior class in our country is forced to serve the enlisted ranks, fight our wars, and deploy time and again without question -- and there is no such thing as a common American experience. Right now we're having a national debate on what bathroom people should use, which seems a lot more silly if you had to shower with 86 other dudes every morning. Trust me, if you served, you'd be happy every time you walk into your bathroom and there isn't a line.
America is in a dark place right now, and it seems that much darker looking out from Dearborn, Mich. My hometown is likely to be "Ground Zero" for a Trump presidency. We need to come together as a nation, but there's nothing unifying us beyond party, beyond race, beyond what region or state we grew up in. As Islamophobia, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia and racism expand throughout our culture, it's hard not to imagine how different things would be if more folks served their country.
The truth is, Donald Trump isn't the one creating the lack of unity. We, as citizens, are not united. We, as citizens, are creating the soil ripe for growing far-right and far-left political movements. The only thing that could unite us beyond our tribes is a common American experience. It's high-time we started talking about how to create that and be one nation again. It's high-time we stopped complaining about fascism on the right or socialism on the left and instead started holding ourselves accountable for the state of the ship we're steering into oblivion.