The above picture of cousin Michael Carroll (my youngest cousin) with me at our grandparents house was taken in May 2005 when we had a family reunion centered on his high school graduation. Michael was probably the second most popular member of the Carroll Clan (my grandfather's brother Jim is without a doubt the most popular). Everyone loved him. He was such a likeable kid.
On January 20th two years ago, I came home from work and planned to do a special observation/reflection for myself on the ten years I'd been out of the Navy. I'm a big anniversary guy and like to spend significant anniversary dates doing something special to mark the occasion, whether it's a special dinner, watching a certain movie, or lighting candles and meditating on the significant event. But on that day, as soon as I got home from work, my mom called to share with me the tragic news that cousin Michael had taken his own life. He was 20 years old. Out of respect for him, I won't share the reasons why he took his own life. However, it was devastating news and the first family tragedy that I could ever recall. Two years later, he is still missed. His parents have recently adopted a baby girl from Guatemala, named Marisol. I don't know when I'll get to meet the family's new addition, but I'm sure that Marisol will bring much joy into my Uncle and Aunt's life...though as I'm well aware, no one truly ever heals after a loved one takes his or her own life.
Now it has been a dozen years since I've been out of the Navy. When I got out, I was debt free, I sold back my unused leave which gave me enough to make the final two months payment on my car (Geo Metro) and live on for a few months (I had planned to use the remaining money to go on a monthlong vacation to Australia in August 1996). I can't say that it has been easy for me these past few years. There was a time in college when I was so broke, I lived on Ramen noodles and actually reminisced about the Navy ("at least you don't starve to death!"). However, after having such positive thoughts about the Navy and almost wanting to go back in, I'd slap myself for such thoughts and remind myself that I had freedom. I could determine what I wanted to do. If I didn't like a job, I could quit. I wouldn't have to miss out on events because I was at sea for six months. No, it hasn't been an easy twelve years...and certainly not financially secure as I'd like. But, in the past twelve years I have to laugh when I think about my supervisor, the Admin Officer on my last ship, who said that if I got out, all I'd find for work was flipping burgers and that I wouldn't be able to travel like I did in the Navy.
Well...since I've been out, I've been to college; I've travelled far and wide (from Berlin to Honolulu; Boston to San Francisco); I've interned for Vice President Gore; but most important of all...I've met many wonderful people who've been a blessing in my life. Would I give up all those friendships and experiences for a safe and financially secure career in the Navy? The answer is obvious. Heck no! I value my freedom too much. I appreciate my Navy experience. It was five years of learning about myself on my way to becoming the man I am today. Some experiences don't have to be very long. I knew when I joined that the Navy was good for one enlistment. If I truly wanted a military career, I would've joined the Air Force. But I can't regret any of the choices I've made. For in their own way, they led me to where I am now. All I can do is be grateful for the experience as I continue on the path my heart leads me to follow.