What A Night Out At New York’s Fleet Week Can Teach Us About The Civilian-Military Divide

This isn’t one of those stories you read over Memorial Day weekend of the incredible heroism and humanity of fallen soldiers who died in far away places.

Those stories are important to share with the American people. They’re important to understanding the burden shouldered by servicemen and women in the interest of national service. And they’re important to bridging the divide between the military and an American populace that has drifted way too far away.

This story is focused on exploring that divide between the civilians and the military from a far different angle. This story aims to explore what happens when we put away platitudes like “support the troops.”

Let’s take away “thank you for your service” and patriotic bumper stickers and messages that revere the troops from afar, and instead, let’s examine the civilian-military divide through the lens of one of the most basic, intimate, and uninhibited forms of human interaction — drunkenness.

What happens when America’s relationship with its military is whittled down to a crowded, dimly lit bar in New York City? What can we learn about the civilian-military divide from a dozen uniformed Marines and sailors and their drunken interactions with a bar full of New York City millennials?

Let’s find out.

What follows is an account of a night out in the city — Friday, May 23, to be exact — spent interacting with the sailors and Marines in town for Fleet Week who we found in the bars.

There are 1,500 Marines, sailors, and Coast Guardsmen in town for this event, which has been around for a quarter of a century. A half-dozen ships come into New York harbor and dock on Manhattan’s West Side or in Staten Island. The military offers tours of the ships, conducts news interviews and community relations events — the military brass’ way of bridging the civilian-military divide. But after hours, that divide will be bridged in a much different way, over drinks in New York’s bars. This is what I’m interested in.

With me on this adventure is John Williamson, a Task & Purpose contributor and 2013 graduate of the Naval Academy who is now in medical school in the city. He can trace his family lineage of military service back to the Spanish-American War. We met in high school, played junior varsity football together. We’re joined by Michelle, another friend from high school. That’s not her real name, for reasons that will become evident soon. Michelle’s roommate Kerry (another fake name) also comes along. Both women are gorgeous and intelligent and affable. They’re all great friends of mine and I always enjoy their company, but tonight, there’s a strange anxiety as we meet for dinner at a Thai place off of New York’s Union Square. We’ve never gone out with a sense of purpose like this before and we don’t know what to expect. It creates a kind of tension that just hangs around the table.

Like a lot of veterans, when I get anxious about something, particularly something veteran or military related, I revert back to my comfort zone. That’s reflected at the table, as John and I are talking about the military way more than Michelle and Kerry would like.

But Michelle has a level of military experience that John and I lack. When she was in college, she once brought home a uniformed Marine from a party. Not wanting to lead him past her college roommate in the living room, she told him he could only come in if he could make his way through her second-story bedroom window in his dress blues. By the time she got upstairs, he was waiting for her. I told her Marines are great at climbing things — it’s the pull-ups.

Shortly after we start eating, the rain comes — lots of it. Our iPhones buzz with flash flood warnings. The rain renders improvisation and exploration impossible, so we nail down our plan at the table while we finish our drinks.

John, Michelle, Kerry, and I pile into a taxi and head toward a big Irish pub in the West Village that’s regularly packed with the very sort of millennials who you would last expect to interact with members of the military. The military conversation starts back up again.

“Can we play some music?” Michelle asks in a way that suggests John and I shut up. We take the hint. It’s early, and Michelle and Kerry are concerned that no one will be out yet. John and I put on our expert hats and tell them about how early people in the military start drinking.

When we arrive at the bar, there’s not a single service member to be seen. It’s the typical crowd, and I scan the bar to see if there’s anyone in the back. Nope. We’re confused and disappointed and order a round of drinks while we plan our next move. John takes out his phone and looks up “best bars for Fleet Week.” The search suggests we should move far north, near Times Square, but we’re hesitant to do this. I want to see sailors and Marines interact with New Yorkers, not tourists visiting the city like they are. As we mull our next move, I see something over John’s shoulder.

White male, early 20s, high and tight haircut. He’s not in uniform, but he’s unmistakably military. He’s even wearing his dogtags. At that moment, I bet myself that he is a boot Marine. ‘Boot’ is a term used to describe someone fresh out of bootcamp. It’s pejorative.

I go to say hi and find him with a slightly older Hispanic male with a matching high and tight.

“I was wondering when the Marines would show up,” I say.

They stare at me blankly. “We’re in the Army …” one offers.

“Then why are you dressed like a lance corporal in the Marine Corps?” I say.

Well, this night is off to a terrible start.

I rejoin my friends and Kerry mentions that she once saw a couple of sailors at a bar off of Union Square that’s frequented by New York University students and young New York millennials. It’s well liked for its cheap beer and a beer pong table in the back. It’s a great choice. We get in a cab.

When the taxi pulls up in the rain in front of the the bar, I see a group of sailors standing on the corner. We found them. We enter the bar and find a table near a group of five enlisted sailors. Four men, one woman. John observes that it’s basically the proportion you would expect.

I go to the bathroom and by the time I get back, John’s got a pitcher of beer and the sailors have multiplied. But there’s something not right about the four or five sailors who have joined the ranks of the others. I know the Navy rank structure, but I get a little thrown off by the dress whites, so I ask John.

“Who the hell are these guys?” I ask.

They’re midshipmen from the Merchant Marine Academy over on Long Island. John’s already talked to them.

They’re college kids, enrolled in school just outside of the city, who put on their uniforms and came in for Fleet Week thinking it would be easier to pick up girls. Michelle and Kerry don’t know that, at least not yet, and so Michelle goes to see if one of them will flirt with her, you know, for the integrity of the story.

She wades right through the middle of the group, disappearing into a sea of white uniforms, and goes to the bar to get a drink. After a few moments, she’s joined by a short, muscular African American midshipman. He makes small talk with her about how tough it is to get the bartender’s attention. She flags the bartender down, he orders his own drink, and that’s the end of it.

Kerry decides to try a similar effort and leaves John and I alone. Unable to get any sailors to talk to her, Michelle rejoins us.

“Where’s Kerry?” she asks.

“Lost in the throng of seamen,” I reply.

“Aren’t we all?” she asks.

But jokes aside, we aren’t. There’s a clear disconnect between the ten or so sailors in the bar and everyone else, who are largely carrying on like it’s a normal Friday night. Maybe it’s because they’re midshipmen, effectively college students who ventured into the city for a night of partying, only in uniform.

Last week, comedian and talk show host David Letterman said of Fleet Week that it is great for him personally because “it’s the only time I can walk around New York City and not feel stupid wearing my little sailor outfit.”

That sentiment also applies to these midshipmen.

They’ve come into the city on a Friday night to piggyback on the existence of the Fleet Week sailors and Marines and try to pick up women. And their uniforms are a mechanism to do that. It’s both a shallow view of military service and a shallow view of women. Their go-to move seems to be to let girls wear their covers (what members of the military call their hats).

It reminds me of a daydream I used to have in Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island in 2009. To escape the rigors of recruit training, we used to think about ridiculous things — what we wanted to eat, where we were going to go when we finished boot camp, etc. When I got home to New York City, I was going to put on my dress blues, go to Times Square, and just walk from end to end. Women were going to fall over me, I thought. I recruited a couple of other guys from New York who were in my platoon to do it with me. We all thought it was a great idea. I was 20 years old, hadn’t seen a woman in weeks, was very excited about becoming a Marine, and was stressed from intense training in a swamp of South Carolina in July. As soon as I actually got home, the idea seemed almost as dumb to me as it does now. But it’s a strategy presently being implemented in front of me in this bar by six midshipmen from the Merchant Marine Academy; and boy is it fun to watch.

Michelle at one point goes to go to the bathroom. The midshipman she was talking to makes her pinky promise she’ll come back. This isn’t the confident man in uniform he’s pretending to be; this is an insecure college kid.

When Kerry breaks off the conversation with another midshipman and tries to come over and talk to me, he doesn’t want to let her go.

“Tell me why you’re going,” he demands. “Tell me why.”

The dynamic with these midshipmen is instructive of the way they, as young men, view the military they endeavor to join. In many ways, like their fellow bar patrons, they’re on the outside looking in on the armed forces. Their membership in the military — the way it was for me in boot camp — is built on aspiration; it’s limited to theoretical studies and the hierarchical rank structure of their college, and not based on operational experience or actual sacrifice.

“Where’s the real Navy?” Michelle finally asks.

“Right here, baby,” John replies.

Then the Marines show up. The appearance of three or four Marines in their dress blues injects a little bit of energy into the bar. They’re confident in uniform, already a little bit drunk, and hell-bent on having a good night.

They’re young, there’s only one corporal among the group, but judging from the stack of ribbons on their chest, they’ve all been to Afghanistan — these guys aren’t boots. And they’ve brought a Navy corpsman with them. Combat medics assigned to Marine units, corpsmen are revered and accepted by Marines in a way few from other branches are.

“What’s going on, Doc?” I ask him.

“How do you know my name?” he drunkenly replies.

If I expected the Invasion of Grenada out of the Marines in this bar, where the Marine Corps far outperformed the other branches, I am sorely disappointed. The Marines are sticking together tighter than a group of boys at a middle school dance. I make a quick bet with Michelle and Kerry about whether they can start a conversation with one before I introduce them, and I win handily. (Michelle is one of the only people I know who is more competitive than me, so this is no small feat.)

It’s a stark representation of the reclusive nature of the modern military community. The same instinct that propelled John and I to revert to military conversation at dinner and in the taxi leads these young men to stand in a circle in a crowded bar when there are two gorgeous young women right next to them wanting to make conversation.

But save for a couple of women, the bar is mostly uninterested in the troops here. These men may be the first uniformed service members many of these people have ever seen — I know I’m the only Marine many of my friends know. It may be that the uniforms create a sort of stand-off, rendering these men unapproachable to many. In uniform, they’re tokens of an event in New York that lasts only a few days out of every year. They’re symbols of a more bellicose world that the average young New Yorker could never understand. In reality, they’re a group of guys in their 20s trying to get laid like everybody else.

This disconnect leaves at least three Marines or sailors for every girl who approaches them, and it creates an interesting dynamic among the men. One of those women, attractive and tall with dark brown hair, is talking with the lone Marine corporal and a tall midshipman. I pull the corporal aside. “If you’re going to let that midshipman steal your girl,” I whisper in his ear, “just take off your rank right now.”

Pushing his hyper-masculine buttons works masterfully, and he immediately puts his arm around the girl and boxes out the midshipman in a way that would have put Shaquille O’Neal to shame.

But there’s a funny thing about this group of Marines and their Navy corpsman — they aren’t here as part of Fleet Week. John and I ask them who they’re with, meaning what unit they’re a part of.

“2/9,” one replies, meaning 2nd Marine Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, an infantry battalion out of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. They say it with pride. Of all the different military dynamics in this bar right now, they’re the most legit, unless there are some Navy SEALs or Army Rangers hiding somewhere.

“Awesome, what ship are you guys on?” we ask. It should have been our first question.

“Oh, we’re not on a ship. We just drove up for the 96 because it’s Fleet Week and we’ve never been to New York City.” A ‘96’ is military parlance for a long weekend, you get 96 hours off.

The two groups of military men in uniform in this bar, who couldn’t be more different — midshipmen versus enlisted Marine infantry — all have one thing in common. They’re all crashing Fleet Week.

Michelle winds up talking to the tall midshipmen who lost out to the corporal. He is the least drunk of the group. His name is Patrick, I think. We’re all introduced, but he’s interested in Michelle. She’s wearing heels and her feet are sore.

“It must suck to be that short,” he tells her.

This is our Fleet Week experience: Patrick’s fratty flirting, his drunk midshipmen friends, a group of Marines who drove up from Lejeune, and two pissed off Army soldiers in a bar across town. I wonder if this is what the Navy’s community relations team had in mind.

Finally the night draws and that little switch flips, the one that tells us when we’ve hit the threshold of intoxication and tiredness. We make plans to leave. We don’t voice it, but there’s a clear, collective concern that Patrick might try to leave with us.

John takes action, offering out his hand and saying, “it was nice to meet you.”

Patrick shakes each of our hands, the look of disappointment on his face growing with each handshake. Kerry seems to feel bad and mirrors his expression on her own face. She looks back over her shoulder at me as I follow her out of the bar.

“He seemed like a really nice kid,” she says.

And so this effort to find sailors and Marines during Fleet Week yields no sailors or Marines who are actually here for Fleet Week. Just some grunts and some college kids looking to hitch on to the event to find girls. But there are 1,500 servicemembers who came in on the ships, so where are they? Maybe they had to check in back aboard the ships too early. Maybe the rain kept them from venturing this far downtown. Maybe we should have gone to Times Square.

It’s this setting, this rainy, inebriated night, that leads me to realize I am not a fan of Fleet Week. Not because it’s not a worthwhile endeavor, but a failed one. The intent of Fleet Week, the Navy says on its official website, is to offer “an unparalleled opportunity for the citizens of New York and the surrounding tri-state area” to meet sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen. But does anyone get a real portrayal of these men and women by standing up and clapping for them at baseball games or taking selfies with them in uniform? People don’t meet service members in this manner, they mythicize them, learn to view them as symbols rather than people. And in for a nation deeply divided from its military, particularly in its largest city, that’s dangerous.