When my brother was accepted into the Navy JAG program, he was 31 years old. Way above the standard age of men and women accepted into an elite program (some may argue the most elite program) of lawyers across the country. It was the 1 percent chance; he was the statistic “they” warn you never to rely on.
My brother is smart—really, really smart. He wrote a letter to his teacher in the sixth grade thanking her for the knowledge she bestowed on him that year and encouraged her to never give up on her dreams (the teacher sent the letter to my mom—it still makes us laugh), he quotes entire movie scenes (usually Braveheart) on the spot without batting an eye, he was the Ideal Graduate at our high school and ironically received a military scholarship for academics and athletics as well, he graduated in four years from the Honors College at the University of Mississippi, he graduated with honors from the law school at Cumberland University, and he rounded out his educational career with a Master’s degree in history from the University of Alabama. My brother, Bennett (his story another day; you’ll be hearing about these two a lot), and I have sat through more graduations for Gaines than we can count, and we are witnesses to the shrine of accolades my parents have hanging on a wall in his bedroom at home. It’s a big wall.
But GPAs and degrees and diplomas and fancy initials after his name aren’t why I’m telling you about him. Of all the things I’m proud of my brother for—and there are a lot; see above—the thing I’m most proud of him for is having the strength to walk away from all of it—the paycheck, the power, the prestige—when it wasn’t serving him anymore. The integrity, authenticity, and bravery that walk required overwhelms me.
But it made all the difference for him.
The first time Gaines mentioned the Navy JAG program he was at dinner with my parents in Mobile. Mom immediately jumped to defense mode and told him she didn’t want him to apply because she didn’t want him to “get shot at.” After much reassurance that he would not be on the front line of anything, he applied to the Navy JAG program, and he was waitlisted. Like he was told, “As the statistics bear out, it’s a very long shot.”
Months went by, he married his girlfriend of four years, moved to Atlanta to try a new career on, but he struggled to find his footing again. It was probably the first time in his life he wasn’t immediately accepted with open arms by an academic or physical endeavor. It crushed him. The harsh blow of rejection was almost too much for him, destroying his confidence, his self-esteem, everything in one fell swoop. He was lost; even we couldn’t get through to him anymore to remind him of the person he was, the person we still saw. His eyes were empty; I can’t imagine what was in his heart.
And then one phone call in October saved his life. One phone call. Someone had dropped out, and fate had stepped in. He was a Navy Jag, and he had to report for training in one month.
In November he left for Officer Development School in Newport, Rhode Island, having never set foot in the state, not knowing how to march, salute, or even put on the uniform properly. Only two of his peers were also in their thirties. The people he was surrounded by were so different in background from everyone he knew back home, hailing from the neighborhoods of Charlestown in Boston to the high-income estates of Monterey, California to the inner city of Baltimore. But they were the true gift. Gaines said he went there not knowing you could make best friends after turning thirty, but he did. They called him Bama, and I know they loved him.
He spent six weeks at ODS and then returned a month later, shaved head and all, for a three-month justice school course, during one of the harshest winters in recent East Coast memory. Learning how to drive on the ice, slipping across frozen bridges every day on the way to class, he survived. And I’m sure Bama reminded them of that every single day.
We flew up for his graduation not really knowing what to expect, all of us dipping our toes into the unfamiliar territory of a family member in the military. I’m still not sure we totally understand or comprehend what he endured there during training, but we can all testify to the person he became as a byproduct of it.
When he received his next assignment, San Diego, California, we were all hesitant. It sounded foreign, and far. His wife had never been west of Las Vegas, which was on a trip with our family a few years prior. But she packed up her bags and her courage and he packed his, and together they went, following his second chance.
I went to visit them twice while Gaines was stationed there, and it was heaven. California agreed with him. The sun, the sand, the cliffs plunging into the Pacific Ocean, the Jeep Wrangler he purchased to “assimilate” into the culture of his new home—it was perfect.
His next assignment was Pensacola, Florida, an hour away from our hometown in Alabama. He and his wife rented a home on an island in Orange Beach, Alabama, and they had their first child, a girl, at the naval hospital in Pensacola. A year went by, and they purchased their own home in Daphne, Alabama, and had their second child, a boy, less than a year after their first.
Today is his last, official day as a Navy JAG. Four years, three cities, two babies, and one life saved. I can’t help but wonder what his life would be like, what all of our lives would be like, had he not ignored the warnings and tried for the 1 percent chance, had he not taken a hard look at the very long shot in front of him and said,
“Why the hell not? Why not me? Screw the 99 percent. I am enough.”
I texted him this morning to let him know how I proud I was of him but mostly to thank him. For the past four years, I’ve had the most incredible front-row seat to what bravery, commitment, discipline, sacrifice, and faith really look like. It’s been like attending a seminar I didn’t even know I was enrolled in and coming out with a solid set of principles on how to live my life and how to encourage others to live theirs. His response was gracious and humble, but one thing stuck out to me.
He said, “I would not be here today or had the chances I did if my family did not believe in me, even when I couldn’t. It’s easy to be strong knowing who is in your corner.”
On any given day, in any given moment, we have the opportunity to stand firmly in someone’s corner, to be their strength, to be their bravery, to be their faith, their commitment, their solid two feet on the ground, their front row seat to see how just capable they truly are. By doing this, we join in each other’s victories just as completely as in each other’s defeats. Their loss is our loss, their success is our success. The uphills and the downhills are all the same because of the company along the way.
Congratulations, Gainesy: “You stand relieved.”
I’m so damn proud of you. Mom is going to have to start on another wall soon.
In your corner always (as long as it is not at any more graduation ceremonies),