“This is Petty Officer Duncan. Can I help you, sir or ma’am?”
Some folks calling the Harbour Island Athletic Club late this summer had to be taken aback when the front-desk phone was answered in this fashion. Had they been patched through to CentCom?
Hardly. Their call actually had been taken by Roosevelt Duncan, HIAC’s affable front-desk man. Duncan, it turns out, had recently returned from three months of military service in Afghanistan. His by-the-numbers phone etiquette reflected the less-than-seamless transition he was making from battlefield corpsman to civilian employee.
Duncan, a 32-year-old Naval reservist, was making the quantum-leap adjustment from triage scenarios in eastern Afghanistan to the pedestrian, Harbour Island world of membership cards, lockers, keys, towels and guest registries.
War-zone work takes a toll, underscores Duncan.
“It was only three months, but it was scary,” recalls the 6-foot, 3-inch, 245-pounder who is cross-trained as a Seabee and a medic. “There were live bullets whizzing by. Something you really can’t simulate in training.”
A crucial part of his job, he explains, was to stay focused and calm while ministering to wounded marines and special-ops troops. “You have to tell ’em ‘You’re fine.’ You let them know they’re all right. Even if they aren’t. It’s like with the ER docs. They never say, ‘You’re not going to make it.’
“There are those you can’t save, but you still have to reassure them,” says Duncan. “You try to at least ease their mind. That’s what really stays with you. The guys you had to let go — although we always come back for our own. A friend from high school died in my arms. Sometimes I still wake up in a sweat.”
And there are the other times — such as the sight and sound of a helicopter — that would startle him. “I’ll duck from a backfiring car,” says Duncan. “I’ll grab my wife and pull her down.”
It’s why he took an extra week off before returning to his HIAC job.
“Roosevelt is a genuine guy,” says Tim Forrest, HIAC’s sales director, “and easy to work with. He cares about doing a good job. He’s very polite, very disciplined.”
Duncan, however, was very concerned that the good-humored, gregarious guy who didn’t abide “negativity in the world” had returned in an edgy state.
“I like things to run smoothly,” he points out. “Now coming back from (overseas) orders, some checks didn’t get into my account. They bounced. I took it personally. I’m like ‘Don’t threaten me.’
“I wasn’t myself at first,” he acknowledges. “I needed a little extra time to get it together for civilian life. You take a life or save a life and then come back to the civilized world. Some things are a little harder to readjust to — like when you hear people moan and complain about stuff. Really petty stuff. And you want to say, ‘You have no idea how lucky you are. You have no idea what some people are going through.’ I had to bite my tongue a lot at first.”
To avoid severing it, he would retreat to a reclusive spot by the bay or gulf to meditate. “You want your sacrifice to have meaning,” he says. “I just remind myself of that.”
As a reservist, Petty Officer 3rd Class Duncan has six years remaining on his eight-year commitment. He’s obligated to a weekend a month and two weeks a year. He’s also subject to 48-to-72-hour notice for active duty. He may not have seen the last of the Middle East cauldron.
Which means he may have to go through the hardest part — leaving his family — again. His wife, Ouida, is pregnant with their first child — due in late December. He also has two daughters, 7 and 10.
“If I were single, this wouldn’t be as tough,” says Duncan. “The hardest thing is reassuring others. ‘Daddy has to leave, but Daddy will be back.’ You say that, but you also think, ‘Is my family going to be taken care of? Is this my last day?”
He doesn’t dwell there, he says. Instead, he goes to the enlightened self-interest of the bigger picture.
“I have no regrets about enlisting,” he stresses. “I’m now in this to make it better for the kids. Mine and everybody else’s.”
One more thing.
Thank you, Roosevelt.