Turning Down My Dream

Three years ago, I walked into US Navy Talent Acquisition Group Rocky Mountain, the Navy's recruiting team for officers. I had just bombed my second Google interview in three years, and I thought the Navy could be a fallback. Maybe intelligence or cyber warfare.

As a kid, I'd always dreamed of flying F-14's off of carriers, so when they asked me to take the ASTB (the Navy's aptitude test to see what jobs you qualify for), I asked if I could take the aviation version, even though I was much too old to fly. They graciously agreed, reminding me it was a waste of my time because, after all, I was 5 years over the cutoff.

I got a perfect score.

I got an age waiver.

I spent the next three years jumping through every medical hoop imaginable. I took a scary test to accurately rule out my questionable diagnosis of childhood asthma, which turned out to have been misdiagnosed. I got refractive eye surgery to meet the vision requirements. I got recommendations from former employers at NASA, including a former astronaut.

And, two and a half years after applying, I was selected. I was offered a place at Officer Candidate School, with a spot waiting for me in Pensacola flight school, to become a Naval Aviator, a dream so far-fetched and rarified I had never dared to take it seriously. All signs pointed at the very real possibility of flying F-18s or F-35s on carriers (as much as the preliminary tests can predict success).

But something felt off. It was coming up too quickly, my family wasn't on board, and I wasn't ready to sign up for 10 years. When my ship date was two weeks away, I backed out. It was a hard decision that left me in tears, full of shame and disappointment in myself. I hated that I would hesitate, because it meant I really wasn't cut out for the greatness I associated with becoming a Naval Aviator. Backing out just confirmed my deepest fears about myself: I just didn't have what it took, whatever ineffable quality that was.

But my recruiter called near the end of August, gave me a pep talk, and got me to commit to leaving in January instead. That gave me more time to prepare, mentally, emotionally, and physically. He explained to me that I could drop out in OCS without any penalty if it wasn't a good fit, and that I needed to do this for my own peace of mind, to know if I could. He lit my fire, and he was right. I was committed. I was excited. Knowing I didn't have to sign up for the 10 years right away, I felt a lot better.

A month later, a war broke out in Gaza. My government expressed its unwavering support for however Israel chose to respond. To emphasize this point, the US moved an aircraft carrier to support Israel. Naval Aviators (presumably) started flying missions over Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Jordan. When I saw the news about the carrier, my entire body went cold, like ice water had been poured down my neck. I remember the moment, sitting at the kitchen table. All the excitement, anticipation, and pride evaporated instantly. Just like that, I knew immediately I could not join the Navy.

I didn't yet know exactly why, but it had something to do with a very simple, and very complicated reality:

I am an American, and I am a Palestinian.

Since October, I've watched war decimate my mother's homeland, children orphaned and traumatized by bombs supplied by the US to Israel, dropped by US-made aircraft, in a war with confused origins and messy justifications. Those who suffered the most were not the guilty, which perhaps is true of all wars.

Internally, I watched my fascination with military aviation turn into abhorrence. Where once I'd seen fighter jets and their heroic pilots as elegant, if lethal, strategic weapons, now I saw them as vicious instruments of destruction. They morphed in my eyes from the blazing shield of Athena into the blood-soaked spear of Ares. And I realized they had always been that.

I felt my pride unmasked as selfish ambition. Of course I had known I would be required to deploy weapons. Of course I had known killing, or at least violence, was part of the job. Somehow, I had rationalized it because I wanted the prestige and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see if I had The Right Stuff. But seeing what warplanes actually did to real people, I felt a fool.

That's being generous. I felt like I had been on the edge of letting myself become someone I've never wanted to be. All for pride. To feel important, that I was something grand. A Naval Aviator. An American Action Hero.

The fact that it took an actual war, affecting a land and a group of people with personal significance to me, for me to realize this, that fact did not assuage my guilt. If anything, it just amplified it. But I guess that's being human.

I don't presume to judge others' choices. I still respect and admire military pilots, both for their sacrifices in service and their sheer skill as aviators. But for me, existing as I do at the intersection of one of the world's most oppressed peoples and its most privileged, I could not reconcile military service–in this particular Navy, in this particular historical epoch–just to serve my personal ambitions.

I refused to swear the oath of enlistment. I simply didn't sign my contract.

And that was it. The Navy moved on, and so did I. Just like that, I was freed of my oppressive dream.

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