This is several weeks late, but I was given a rare opportunity to speak publicly about my time in the service this past Veteran’s Day, at Tigard High School in Tigard, Oregon. There were over 2000 people in attendence and was a wonderful and respectful event for the centennial of Armistice Day.
What follows is the speech I gave. Enjoy and share.
Thank you Tigard High School for allowing me the honor of addressing you today.
My name is Nathaniel Patterson, and as you may or may not know, I work here as the Technical Director of the theater program, I have worked in theatre for over 20 years, however from 2004-2009 I served as an enlisted sailor in the United States Navy as a sonarman onboard the fast attack submarine USS San Francisco.
Today has given me the opportunity to look back on my five years in the service as well as my nine years as a veteran and attempt to explain fourteen years of experience in about ten minutes.
I am originally from Dayton, Ohio a city which has been economically devastated over the past thirty years, and like many young people from impoverished parts of our nation, I needed a way out. I was in and out of school with no real direction, and acting does not pay the bills in the murder capital of the state.
So, I joined the Navy. Joining the Navy was a practical decision, not one based on a higher calling or a desire to serve my country. I needed a steady job, and a way out of Ohio.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were in full swing and I did not want to come back with an odd number of appendages. This ruled out the Army or Marine Corps. The odds of this type of injury were less in the Navy. Naval service offered good opportunity for travel, adventure and way fewer people shooting back at me. Simple as that. I then volunteered for Submarine Service to get the seven thousand dollar signing bonus. These decisions, though greedy and pragmatic, rank among ones that I am most proud to have made.
On June 15 2004 I entered boot camp and learned the finest lesson the military could teach: It does not matter what color you are, what you worship, where you are from or who you are attracted to, because we’re all garbage. We were all garbage together, members of a unit, a division, a crew and we drew strength from our differences to make the unit stronger.
From bootcamp I left for Submarine School in Groton, Connecticut, and a year later I received my orders to the fleet.
The Submarine Service is unique unto itself within the fleet. Submariners are the original US special forces, engaging in dangerous secret missions for well over 100 years. Those of us who earn the title Submariner go through a rigorous training period known as Qualifications. Within ten months the sailor is expected to know the boat from cone to screw.
By the time of my first qualifications board I could draw every system from memory. This includes: High pressure air, hydraulics, trim system, drain system, refrigeration systems, nuclear power plant, diesel power plant, torpedo launch system, low pressure air, sonar, radar, radio, periscope, ships control, and the garbage smasher. I also could recite from memory: damage control procedure, fire fighting procedure, flooding procedure, emergency air procedure, oxygen system operation, ships escape procedure, boat parameters, command history, submarine service history, the 52 boats lost during World War Two with all hands, the two boats lost during the Cold War with all hands and several dirty songs. And No, I will not repeat them for you now or ever.
After three hours of questions, I failed. I failed my first qualification board, and had to do it all over again the next week.
In August of 2006, I passed board,earned the title Submariner and the right to wear dolphins on my chest, our warfare badge. Submariner is a title we hold for life. Once earned it is unrevokable
The men I served with, and at the time it was an all male service are my brothers. We hold a unique and treasured bond of making the best out of what most would call a miserable experience.
I did not love my time in the fleet. I kind of hated it.
I loved the members of my crew, and more than once sealed myself inside a 300 foot long, 30 foot wide steel tube with 144 of my brothers, went below the waves and into harm's way.
The Frisco herself was unique. On January 8 2005 she was involved in a catastrophic undersea collision several hundred miles south of Guam. The boat slammed into an uncharted sea mount 534’ below the surface of the Pacific, with six miles of water below her. The collision crushed the sonar dome and ruptured the forward ballast tanks. 70% of the crew was injured in the accident and a man was killed, when the impact threw him across an open space and into a steel bulkhead.
I joined this crew ten months later, and took part in the three and a half year procedure to repair and restore San Francisco to operational service. During this time, I qualified to be called a Submariner and then deployed on another boat, the USS Helena conducting counter narcotic and counter terrorism operations. I was away from the wind, rain, the moon, stars and sun for over four months; breathing recycled air, taking twenty second showers, tracking ships of all types all unaware that I was listening to their screws turn through the Pacific.
I’ll never forget the feeling of wind on my face as rain sprinked down when I walk onto the pier, and dry land.
My final voyage in 2009 took the Frisco from her drydock port in Bremerton Washington, to her new home in Point Loma, San Diego. Completing this mission put a period on my naval service, and I walked off the boat for the last time in May of 2009.
I was now a veteran and civilian. I travelled that summer across the United States and Europe, making my way back to Washington State to start school. While in college, I rediscovered theatre and that world suddenly felt uniquely comfortable. I was surrounded by funny, goofy, hardworking oddballs while working in a dark room with no windows.
A play operates similarly to military operations. There is a top down command structure, everyone has unique roles to play, and much like the operation of a ship, a play is so unfathomably complicated to pull off, it’s amazing that it happens at all, yet it happens every single time.
It took me another eight years to grasp how lucky I was to have theater in my life. I avoided the dozens of pitfalls veterans face when returning to the civilian world: I never felt alone, isolated, or that I was unheard. I never became suicidal, opioid dependent, or violent in my homelife. I was able to process my PTSD into works of art, writing, and performance.
I am positive theater saved my life by giving me a second crew and the opportunity to use my extensive training, training designed to break things. Things like nations and people. And use those skills build a better world. To create, tell stories and bring people together.
For the past two years I have helmed a veterans theatre program titled FUBAR. FUBAR is a live theatrical storytelling production of true stories told by the men and women who experienced the wars our nation fights.
Most of you in this room were not even born on September 11, 2001. I was 21. I am now 38. We are still fighting wars as a consequence of actions taken in response to that attack. FUBAR is an attempt to put human faces on the folly of war. I know that theater saved my life, and FUBAR is my opportunity to give some of that joy back, the shared camaraderie with other veterans and to be part of a unit again. FUBAR also allows civilians like yourselves to listen and understand that we are more than a football flyover, more than ‘Thank you for your service’, and more than a pity case.
The men and women who serve this nation honorably have so much more to offer, so much more to give, because we are stronger than you can possibly imagine.
I would like to close with a quote. This sunday, November 11, is the centennial of Armistice Day. 100 years have passed since the guns of the First World War fell silent, the War to End All Wars. This quote is from All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarch.
“They are more to me than life, more to me than motherliness and more than fear; they are the strongest, most comforting thing there is anywhere: They are the voices of my comrades.”
Speech delivered November 9 2018 at Tigard High School.