We were young and brave, weary of the win-proof war that divided our nation and lingered on, refusing to quit.
From the middle of the middle of a generation, we were culled from a socialization of boys in the fifties and sixties when patriotism, a simpler-era behavioral manifestation now derided as “Murica,” was inherent, natural, and prevalent.
We all wanted to fly.
Forty years is long enough for an instance of reflection. It’s exactly that time-distance this week from the moment I arrived in Pensacola, Florida as an AVROC, Naval Aviation’s acronym for “Aviation Reserve Officer Candidate.” AVROCs don’t exist any more in the military training pipeline. Fewer than a hundred of us were left on active duty when I retired as a Navy commander in 1995.
Military services train officers in three ways, then and now. In reputation order, first come the storied Academies, then ROTC units at major universities, and finally officer candidate schools. For Navy Air in 1975, that was AOCS: Aviation Officer Candidate School.
I will take that statement to a bar fight with any Annapolis man.
Because AOCS was Marine boot camp for college boys.
Our drill instructor treated us precisely as you are now imagining. No. Worse. This happened before all of the reforms.
In Pensacola an Aviation Officer Candidate was a guy—all men back then—with a wet-ink bachelor’s degree seeking a commission as a naval officer and only then maybe a one-in-ten shot at earning Navy wings.
An AVROC was something else, a sub-class among the mutts of the officer pecking order.
We are intensely proud of our provenance.
We were younger young men who signed on—in my case in 1974—for the program, only it was divided between our last summer in college and flight training after graduation. We swore into the Naval Reserve as E-2s and received a then-coveted 1-D deferment, meaning hands-off from the local draft board.
Bearing the naïveté of literary Manhattan and the swagger of fraternity life in a liberal arts college, I knew little about what I was getting into. I found out years later just how insanely difficult it was to get there in 1974, with the Vietnam War winding down. The physical, psychological, intellectual aptitude, aeronautical adaptability, and hard-core math/engineering cuts were fairly extreme even before a candidate’s acceptance as an AVROC. You also only have to look at our class picture for evidence of our physical homogeneity, even though we literally came from everywhere. Diversity was something to be expunged, not celebrated. We were measured anthropomorphically to fit into cockpits.
For me, it was the way to escape industrial Pennsylvania, psychically and geographically.
My class, AVROC 548-75, arrived on June 2, 1975. Saigon had fallen 34 days earlier, so by the time I actually made it to Pensacola, draft classification didn’t matter, although we AVROCs weren’t too sure of that fact at the time. Draft anxiety certainly persisted.
So how do you begin to train Naval Aviators for combat at the moment a war is over?
Brutally, with no irony.
More than half of my class did not make it through that blazing ferocious summer.
A hundred-plus AVROCs started out in 548-75. Fifty-two of us toughed it out. The rest? Either medical discharges (a handful) or (overwhelmingly, most of them) quitting by free will, a “drop on request,” more ominously “D-O-R.” The term got absorbed into the national consciousness when Taylor Hackford’s An Officer and a Gentleman became the 1982 summer blockbuster despite the general derision of every one of us who actually lived that experience.
Louis Gossett, Jr. was masterful as Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley in that movie, for which he deservedly won an Academy Award. Foley, however, was a Hollywood cartoon, a pushover wussy compared to the real deal, Staff Sergeant Edwin M. Ramos, our drill instructor.
Four short-short stories. Ramos figures prominently in every one.
In the first days of the AVROC program . . . shaved head, verbal violence, extremes of every manner, stripped to the bare psychological core . . . you were not a name. You had a number. I was 85. AVROCs did not even deserve to wear a uniform yet. We wore green ill-fitting “poopie suits” (think of the smell in that 97-degree Pensacola heat, you’ll get it) and “chrome domes,” dull gray-painted helmet liners that the Indoctrination Battalion drill instructors would constantly slap hard with a flat hand to get an AVROC’s attention. There were practical reasons, of course, for all of this: By the end of Indoc, days later, about a quarter of the class would be gone.
We first encountered Staff Sergeant Ramos in Indoc, each of us silently praying that this maniacally physical DI would not be assigned to us.
Right. The first of all unanswered prayers in the Navy. To everything a purpose.
We are indoors, braced against corridor walls facing each other, drenched in sweat, physically exhausted. Ramos is alternately screaming and scarily quiet as he moves up and down the parallel ranks. Next to me is one of the outlier AVROCs in terms of sheer size—we’re all about 5’10” and he’s well over six feet tall, at the edge of the allowable height for Navy pilots. As the DI passes, he makes a very grave error. He looks, eyes off the straightforward for the briefest glance. Ramos catches the eye movement and explodes. He faces off with the guy—about nine inches taller and sixty pound heavier than he is. Never missing a beat in delivering the wildest tirade, he grabs the front of the man’s poopie suit, twists the material into a tight knot around his armpits and picks him up, feet off the ground, thumping him three times into the wall. When dropped, he collapses out of breath. The DI moves on.
Point made: We learn not to “eyeball.”
Secondary point made: This man may be 5’6”, but he is in charge.
You heard that a lot in AVROC training. We will push you beyond your limits. There was a day that I took it perhaps too seriously.
It’s difficult to overstate the extent to which we were challenged physically. I was a fish in the water—a varsity swimmer, I nailed top honors there. On the ground, running, I was average. Less than that on the obstacle course, where skinny guys tend not to excel in upper body strength. But overall I did fine. (Even today I am still within Navy pilot BMI standards—evidence of what that program does to you for life.)
I am running flat-out, fast, pushing it, on the cross-country course. It’s a horrible run, only 1.6 miles distance, but that’s up-and-down, through sand and fire ants and exposed roots and rough pines in mid-90s temperatures, and the qualifying time is hard to make. I accelerate, feeling lightheaded as I get lighter afoot. Faster, faster—there’s the finish, and I’m only in the middle of the now strung-out pack. This is going to be close.
Crossing the finish line I fold completely and black out. I come to in an ambulance with my drill instructor and two Navy corpsmen over me. Sirens are blazing. One of the corpsmen is pushing my left eyelid back, shining a penlight.
I had a heat stroke.
Not the lesser condition of heat exhaustion.
This was the one that kills you, when your body can’t regulate its own temperature.
I spend a few hours in the Navy hospital before being released back to the barracks. At formation SSgt Ramos is effusive in his praise—the first real notice I think that he ever took of me, personally. “That is motivation!” he exhorts. “That is beyond limits.”
In the barracks, AOCS Battalion III, we bunk in open-door rooms of four, not the open bays of enlisted boot camp. We did not get to pick our bunkmates. They were assigned.
I’m in with Dan Mularski and Nick Machupa from western Pennsylvania and Chauncey Mitchell from east Texas.
It’s years before I begin to consider how this lineup may not have been an accident. Three guys with eastern European surnames out of small colleges in Pennsylvania and Mitch, the only African American member of Class 548-75.
Dan Mularski got a Ph.D., teaches leadership, and is now a motivational speaker with the theme of “live a life that matters.” Nick Machupa went on to Columbia University to become a board-certified physical therapist. Mitch Mitchell had the most successful Navy flying career among all of us AVROCs. He was a squadron commander and wing commodore. Retiring as a Navy captain in 2004, he had a successful decade as a government contractor CEO and is now a golf pro and runs military education partnerships.
Dr. Mularski recently sent me a picture of the two of us standing in our barracks room after it had been absolutely trashed, “hurricaned” by SSgt Ramos for some minor infraction. Its reconstruction to AVROC standards is going to take us hours of work in lieu of sleep. He looks like he’s in shock. I have kind of a “ . . . whatever” wan smile.
Whatever it was that we did, I am pretty sure that it didn’t happen again.
Even military drill on the Naval Air Station Pensacola grinder—the concrete sea wall—was physically intense to the breaking point. We spent as much time working out with our M1 Garand rifles (I bet can still field-strip one blindfolded, a barracks trick I mastered that summer) as we did marching and memorizing the Landing Party Manual.
Try running a brisk couple of miles on summer concrete in khaki uniform and boots with a 9.5-pound rifle at port arms while singing Jody calls at double-time cadence.
I wanna be a Navy pilot
I wanna fly an F-14
Fly it over Pensacola
Make those poopies eyeball me
That’s the cleanest one I remember, but there were certainly others. Ramos was utterly uncensored.
Drill was one of the few instances where classes competed directly, and as I later learned, where drill instructors were evaluated on their performance.
We practiced like madmen for what was coming—even lost a few DORs in the process.
The drill cards we used were lengthy and abundant with complex detail—marching maneuvers with rifles like you’d see today at the Marine Barracks here in Washington at summer evening parade. For our evaluation by senior DIs, we knew that we would be given one of three cards. SSgt Ramos would call it. We AVROCs would deliver. There were many building blocks in these maneuvers, and the order in which they were differently arranged on each card made it a significant challenge. We could practice from all three cards ahead of time, but there was no way to know which one we would be handed on the day of the review.
Ramos’s solution was simple. We would learn, memorize, and then drill drill drill the hell out of all three cards, for weeks.
My enduring memory-image of SSgt Ramos is the moment he received the evaluation drill card from the senior DI—an intimidatingly imposing tall man who stood almost a foot taller than our DI. We AVROCs knew what to look for.
As he crisply spun in a perfect Marine Corps about-face, Ramos almost imperceptibly crooked in the forefinger of his right hand, showing us three fingers. Card Three. Fifteen seconds passed as he marched into place, time enough for all 52 of us to get ready, knowing exactly, precisely, every single move we were about to make in unison.
Preparation. No. Over-preparation. The best lesson he could ever teach aspiring Naval Aviators.
☐ ☐ ☐
If you had asked me or the other AVROCs in August 1975 who was coming back to Pensacola for flight training after college graduation, we would have answered unanimously: All of us. That turned out not to be the case.
Most of AVROC 548-75 didn’t return. Few earned Navy wings, and only a handful stuck around past our obligated service. The mid-70s were a deeply unsettled time.
The Navy terminated the AVROC program in the whole post-Vietnam drawdown. Ending the draft diminished its appeal to guys like us. Personnel cutbacks reduced its utility to the service. There was an attempt to revive something like it during the Reagan 80s defense buildup, but that didn’t last long. So AVROC is an artifact, one more defunct commissioning source. Aspiring Naval Aviators who don’t come from Annapolis or ROTC start out at OCS in Newport, Rhode Island with everybody else.
Ramos’s autonomy and authority as a DI are unthinkable in 2015.
Pride has unpredictable effects on emotion and memory. In some places recollection sharpens, in others it dims considerably. AVROC, encasing a whole lot of pride, has those effects on me.
I like what I find when I visit there.