Trio's uniform commitment Military: Three Montgomery County friends find their calling in different branches of the military

each aims to make a long career of it.

July 04, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

It's not as if there were some grand scheme or blood oath. It just happened this way: Three buddies from rural Damascus High School set off for the nation's three military academies.

Shawn "Garrett" Linton, homecoming king, set out for the U.S. Naval Academy; James Bennett, who talked of reaching the Joint Chiefs of Staff, headed to West Point; class valedictorian Paul F. Geehreng, followed his love of flying to the Air Force Academy.

The trio -- three of the four legs of the Damascus relay team -- charged from their graduation in 1993 into a military ailing from the frustrations of downsizing.

Five years later, at a time when pilots, ship commanders and submariners are staying in the military only long enough to pay back the requirement for their expensive training and to land jobs in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street, the three Montgomery County friends say they will put in a full 20 years.

In the face of widespread failure to retain its officers, the military apparently did something right with Linton, Bennett and Geehreng.

Says Linton: "I've got friends back home who already feel stuck in dead-end jobs that they're not happy in. I don't have that problem."

On the nation's birthday, it's appropriate to ask: Who are the 1.2 million women and men in Army, Navy and Air Force uniforms?

With the ranks shrunk to the lowest level in a generation, how can the Pentagon prevent more of them from leaving to take a bite of a booming economy? The Navy Times, for example, surveyed officers earlier this year and found that three of four were considering leaving the Navy, as were 95 percent of the Navy aviators.

All three branches are struggling to retain more officers, offering them bonuses and pay boosts, master's degrees and limits on unwanted travel.

"We ask these people to be gone from their families a lot," said Capt. Lane Willson, head of Officer Plans and Policy for the Navy. "They start comparing what they're doing for a living to the private sector and wondering if they can have a better lifestyle there."

The Damascus three say they are hooked on the perks of a military lifestyle: global travel and postgraduate education. And while they sometimes feel like another tree in a very big forest, they have made close friends and grown professionally by staying optimistic -- and footloose.

The trio has set foot in 30 countries.

As officers, they rank in the top 15 percent of their branches, bosses over lower-ranked enlisted personnel who may be twice their age. The pay is $37,000 to $47,000. But housing is free, they get extra money for food, 30 vacation days a year and free military flights around the world.

Military's drawbacks

The biggest problems arise from the fact that not since before World War II have so few people been in uniform, which means longer tours overseas and no banker's hours for anyone.

Jim Bennett has been engaged to be married twice, only to see 14- to 17-hour days unravel his nuptial plans. One fiancee couldn't stand how the Army could send him 10 times zones away at any moment and how he couldn't say no.

"The Army is the bane of my personal life," he said, driving through his hometown and past Damascus High -- coincidentally, on graduation day last month.

Still, looking back on his aimless high school days, Bennett realizes that the Army was the perfect job.

"I was a good problem-solver, could think quickly on my feet, liked to lead, and wasn't truly excellent at any one thing; rather I was pretty good at a lot of things," he said.

After West Point, Bennett went to Army flight school in Alabama. He shipped off to Colorado Springs in 1994 to begin three years of flying and supervising a platoon of Blackhawk helicopters, scary-looking 60-foot, dual-propeller workhorses. As platoon leader at age 24, he was in charge of $25 million worth of equipment and telling wizened vets what to do.

"If you're their boss, they'll do what you tell them to do," said Bennett, a stout man whose roundish face, topped by a short stubble of dark hair, breaks easily into a smile. "But until you earn their respect, that's all they'll do. No more."

A downside of military life is that the Pentagon decides your fate. Then again, you are never in one place long enough for it to wear on you. "So, if you hate what you're doing, stick it out and in a year you're somewhere else," Bennett said.

Somewhere else is half a world away, South Korea. Bennett hopes his forthcoming stint there will help keep the lure of civilian life at bay by leading him one step closer to his goal: becoming an astronaut, an opportunity a few Army aviators get each year.

'It's a great job'

But first he was best man at the wedding of his best friend, Paul Geehreng, who discovered how to make a relationship work: Marry another military person. His wife, Charlotte, is an Air Force nurse;, by policy, they will be assigned to the same base from now on.

Geehreng grew up across the street from Bennett, in a similar one-story brick rancher surrounded by farmland that's now suburbia.

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