I angered my drill instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Coyer. Nearly nine weeks into Officer Candidate School, shit hit the fan. I was tired of wearing my BCGs, glasses so unattractive and cumbersome they were aptly dubbed Birth Control Goggles. I voiced my disdain for them to the gunny in front of the entire class. Coyer immediately instructed me to “get on my face” and commence push-ups. I slowly obliged — much to his chagrin. He then issued me ten demerits, and instructed me to report to the Master Gunnery Sergeant’s office posthaste.
I waited outside Master Guns’s office in morbid reflection. My gunny had a well-known reputation for “destroying” candidate officers. He had whittled my class from fifty-nine recruits on day one to fourteen originals by week nine. And I was now to meet his boss — the head gunny! After a seemingly interminable wait, Coyer ushered me into his boss’s office. I then received the most artful and unconventional dressing down in my entire time in the military. Guns never raised his voice but skillfully imparted to me the high honor of earning my gold bars. He reminded me that in a few weeks, enlisted men with decades of military experience would be required to salute me by virtue of my rank. Fighting back tears, I expressed my sincerest apologies and adamant resolve to toe the line from there on out. Guns had seen enough and he let me go with a warning. However, I still had to deal with Coyer.
I had less than a week to work off the demerits in order to take overnight liberty — my first time off the base and outside ol’ Newport, RI in nearly two and half months. My trip to Boston hung in the balance. So, I hustled overtime to make up my demerits. I knocked off one by singing the national anthem — in its entirety — at the feet of a random chief petty officer. As I approached Friday, I neared full payment of my demerit debt. Friday, morning of, Coyer addressed the class regarding liberty with the usual admonishment to watch out for each other and “not screw things up while out on the town.” At the end of his address, he looked at me and said, “Mr. Sherman, I don’t care if your demerits are gone, you’re staying here this weekend, understood?”
Angry, confused and defiant, I sought the counsel of my class officer. He said, “Well, just ask the Captain at the dining-in, tonight.” The dining-in was our first officer-only event. Such an event celebrates naval traditions in a jovial, ceremonial and drunken manner — you know, toasts to Lord Admiral Nelson and the like. That night the issue of my demerits and subsequent liberty arose at a high point of the revelry. The class leader ambled up to the dais and said, “Captain, request Candidate Officer Sherman be allowed to go on liberty this weekend,” to which the Captain amusedly replied, “What’ll be the punishment?” And the banquet hall full of cadets roundly chanted “Eight-counts, eight-counts!”
After completing these basic military calisthenics, I quietly wondered: had I really paid my debt? Was I really free to go to Boston? That next morning as my class was heading out on liberty, my class officer confirmed my leave was approved. I was free to go. It was in that moment, though, that I decided to stay. I’m not convinced self-preservation alone kept me on base that weekend — it was something more — it was about how I was raised, my working-class roots. I respected the years my drill sergeant spent working up the ranks. And Guns’s talk had reminded me to respect the grind — that real authority is earned the hard way and integrity often requires sacrifice. I think that’s at the heart of the reason I stayed. So when Coyer called me into his office first thing Monday morning and berated me for disregarding his orders, I proudly said, “I didn’t go to Boston,” to which he replied, “Huh, dismissed.”
Reggie Sherman served five years in the Navy as a Surface Warfare Officer. He now studies law at UCLA. His academic interests include: water, energy, and public resource law.