Article

Johnny A.W.O.L.

| posted on July 27, 2012

With a name like John Smith it's easy to see how the army could lose track of the guy. His surfing ability, however, made it difficult for him to go unnoticed. Photo: Noyle/SPL

A lot of young Americans join the Army to get out of their small-town circumstances.  Johnny joined to make his dreams come true, but he quickly discovered that those dreams were at odds with the system. So, at a time when the country embarked on its grandest military adventurism, Johnny, who was still enlisted, went on a surf adventure.

I got my first board through my stepdad. Turns out it was stolen—had something to do with a cousin of mine. I found that out when I took the board to get a ding repaired. The shop employee recognized it, and my first surfboard was gone like that. I was only 11, but in the time I had the board I got hooked. I started competing. I met Sterling Spencer and his dad, Yancy. I couldn’t get enough of surfing. Like a lot of kids, I didn’t have much backing. I grew up in a rough neighborhood of Pensacola, Florida.  It was kind of the inner city.  I was the only kid who surfed in my middle school.

When my parents split at 15, I moved out of the house and hit the road. This was right after 9/11. Somehow I made it from Florida to Ocean Beach, San Diego. One day out in the water in O.B., the surf coach from Point Loma High School paddled up and asked me to surf for their team. I told her I wasn’t enrolled in any school. But they were nice people and I ended up traveling with them a bit. We went to Ventura to compete and I met Adam Virs and Dane Reynolds. My eyes were opened to the surfing world in California. But I couldn’t get into high school without documents, and because I was underage, I couldn’t get a job. Then my roommate, the only person I really knew in California, bailed on me. With no place to live and no money, I felt pretty small in the world. So, I went back to Florida.

Later that year, Sterling and Yancy invited me to go to the North Shore of Oahu with them. I’d always liked bigger waves, and maybe Yancy saw that. We stayed two weeks and lived the North Shore experience, surfed all the spots. From that first experience, I knew the North Shore was where I belonged. Hawaii is the place to make a dent in the surf world. Everybody knows that’s where people make their names. I just didn’t know how to get back there.

Back in Florida I considered Bible college, but that fell through. I tried to put surfing away for a while but it kept coming back. I moved in with my mom again even though I hadn’t lived with her for years. Then someone told me that there were military bases all over the Islands: Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines. Pensacola is a big Navy town and I wasn’t into that. I was 17 going on 18, a year after I’d gone to Hawaii for the first time, and I found myself walking into an Air Force recruiting office. It was the last place I’d envisioned myself. I told the recruiters I really want to join the Air Force, but that I wouldn’t join unless they could guarantee I would go to Hawaii. I could see that this wasn’t going to be a practical request, so I walked out of there. A few doors down, there were a couple of Army recruiters smoking cigarettes and talking story. They asked me where I was going. I told them I’d just walked out of the Air Force office because they couldn’t give me Hawaii. And right there on the sidewalk, they said, “We can guarantee you Hawaii.” I didn’t care what it was, I was going to get out there. I didn’t have any money, and no backup, and I was intimidated to move after that debacle in California, but I was going to make it.

Obviously, there were two wars going on, and they told me that of all the job choices in the Army, the only one that was going to get me to Hawaii is the infantry. I knew this meant the front. I’d always wanted to do my part for the country. I didn’t necessarily agree with the reasons for the wars, but still, I was gung ho for something new. Not a month later I was off to basic training. There was never a time in my life that I didn’t surf for four months at a stretch and there I was in Georgia. To me it was like Area 51 or something. I threw grenades, shot rifles, marched through the night—15 miles with 60 pounds on my back—and then slept in the dirt. The whole time I was thinking about surfing. Basic got rough at times. Guys will want to hang the name “Dickhead” on you. I watched a couple of privates pretend to be gay to get out. In the end, I did pretty well. I was the second fastest runner out of the 250 soldiers. My drill sergeants wanted to send me to Airborne School. But even though I wanted to perform the best, I didn’t want to go to any of their schools. I knew I was the only guy with papers sending me to Hawaii. And within two weeks of graduating, I got on an airplane.

The Army has an introduction program where they pick you up from the airport and give you a little tour. As we were driving in Honolulu, memories returned of the trip with Sterling and Yancy. They were so vivid. I thought to myself, “I made it. I’m here.”

Was it the way I wanted it to go down? Not really. It wasn’t until halfway through training that I began to question why I didn’t just save up for a plane ticket. I could already feel the huge battle about to go down in my head. When you sign those papers, your life is what they say it is. In less than a month I stood in line to get my desert uniforms—a reality check. They were sending guys off to Afghanistan after less than four months of training. You realize then that basic training is only that: basic. They make you a professional janitor and then hand you a rifle—not quite the landing gear for jumping into a war zone.

For whatever reasons, we suddenly incurred a lot of downtime on the base. So, I started surfing a lot and enjoying the North Shore. I got a gig where I was basically a landscaper for the Army, which gave me more free time. I moved in with a couple of guys in Waialua. The Army is opposed to a private living off-base, but I did it anyway. I’d get off work and try to live a civilian life. This is when the upper brass started to have issues with me. The Army is like any organization: if you don’t go along, they have ways to handle you. I knew, at that point, I’d gotten into something I didn’t want to be in. I felt trapped, and I realized that sometimes it’s better to not have what you want, than to have something that you don’t want. And I didn’t want the Army.

One day, I just decided not to show up for 5 a.m. formation. At first, AWOL didn’t feel like that big of a deal. Surfing had always been the most important thing for me. For most, the military is a way to get out of a nowhere town and a nowhere situation. I’d always known where I wanted to go. But after three or four days of going missing, you can’t just walk back on base and say, “Hey guys, sorry, I’ve just been doing my own thing for awhile.” That’s not how it works. After a week, two weeks, you realize, “Man, I just went AWOL.” It’s considered desertion during a time of war. Technically, in the books, desertion can earn you capital punishment. Some guys get thrown in the brig for years. The longer I was AWOL, the more I thought about the consequences. I thought I’d just bail to Mexico. I’d be absent without leave, for life.

But a few months in, I was surfing everyday: Pipe, Rocky’s. I wasn’t trying to make a name for myself, just attempting to fly under the radar. It’s a small island. I got a job washing dishes in the back at Cholo’s Mexican Restaurant, which was perfect because I couldn’t work in the front. The base was 10 minutes away. A lot of the customers were from the military. I would sometimes look out from the dish pit and see my brigade superiors eating in the restaurant. Once, I dropped my I.D. outside and a military officer brought it into Cholo’s. He was just being nice, but my co-workers and I were sure he had my number. That’s when the waiters started calling me “Johnny AWOL.” I had near run-ins around the island. One time at Waimea Bay, I walked right by my commanding officers—it was on the side of the highway and there was nowhere to move. I guess the longer hair and beard worked. But then the publisher of Free Surf Magazine came into Cholo’s with a fresh copy. He’d gotten a full-page shot of me published. The job of a pro surfer is to get attention, but that’s the last thing I wanted. I felt like a fugitive. I was afraid to drive, to fly, to be seen in public. Around that time, CNN was transfixed on the story of a soldier who’d gone AWOL in North Carolina—the Army wanted to make an example of him.

A year later, I was living at Waimea Bay. After the first two weeks, I never received so much as a call from the Army. On a Super Bowl Sunday, I surfed the Bay on a closeout swell, just giant. I thought to myself, “This is what I’m living for.” But it was a dream inside a nightmare. There was always this shadow of my commitment following me. What if I met the woman I wanted to marry? What if I wanted to travel? See my family again? Two years in, I knew I had to take care of this burden. The feeling of running was wearing on me.

Around that time, a friend came to me and said he knew a retired Lieutenant Colonel, a former Green Beret, who would be happy to talk to me about my “problem.” I sat down with this ex-Colonel, Jim. He began researching the issue, and suggested that I was better off turning myself in than getting caught—that I’d get a lighter sentence. I had to swallow the fantasy that I could just walk away from the Army.

So after work one day, Jim picked me up from Cholo’s in his Corvette. Here I was, 20 years old, and on the way to turn myself in for going AWOL. I belonged to the U.S. government. Jim drove onto base like he owned the place. Everyone saluted him. We walked into the offices and Jim said, “This young soldier would like to turn himself in.” The officers asked, “For what?” Jim told them that I’d been AWOL for two years. They just went scatter-brained. The staff tried to pull up my information on the computer. By that time, all of my commanders had gone off to different places. After 30 minutes, the guy behind the computer told us that there is no record of me ever being AWOL. Jim and I just looked at each other. I said, “So, what? Can I just leave?” They told me no, that I had to wait while they figured it out. Finally, they came up with some financial information that suggested I didn’t serve my full term. I realized right then that I could have stayed gone and the world would never have known Johnny went AWOL. But there I was, and they had no idea what to do with me.

Technically, I was supposed to have been arrested on the spot. But after a couple of hours they sent me back to my original company. Here I was strolling up to hundreds and hundreds of soldiers cleaning rifles. All the leading officers were mulling around. I could smell the steel and gun powder, I could feel the grit in the air and I knew that my walkout was like calling bullshit on the whole scene. I didn’t know how much of an example they were going to make out of me. I was dressed in my regular clothes, standing in front of this sea of uniforms, when they announced that this guy here had just turned himself in for being AWOL. Two years. During a time of war. All eyes turned to me. One of the sergeants walked up with shaver and commanded me to shave my beard right there. So, out in the sun, no water, no shaving cream, I scraped it dry. Everybody watched.

From that time on, there was tension whenever I was around. The officers still couldn’t find any paperwork on me. I began to sense that the other enlisted guys were curious as to who I was, where I went, what I did with my time. All the while, I basically went right back through training again. I was respectful. I trained harder and wanted to perform. When I began to tell the other privates the stories of the North Shore and show them my picture in magazines, I imagined they didn’t see me as the dirtbag who just bailed to do nothing. In time, I started to win favor with my leading officers. They moved me into their offices and I began running errands. Nobody at my rank ever did that, but I wondered if it was because I just didn’t officially exist.

I didn’t see it coming, but one day the officers sat me down. They said, “Johnny, we can tell that you’ve been working hard, that you regret your mistakes, and that you’ll make a good soldier. How about we forget the two years you were AWOL. You finish out your term. It’ll be like nothing happened. After two years, you’ll get out with full benefits.”

The officers added that if I still wanted out, they would do their best for me, but couldn’t guess as to the consequences I’d have to pay. The commanding officer had a lot of options on how to proceed. I could be court-martialed, do time, and still be sent to war. If I was kicked out with an other-than-honorable discharge, my job prospects and financial future were at risk. And there I was, thinking through these options, standing in the middle of five or six officers—even the tough sergeant who made me shave my beard. Maybe they could see my wheels spinning, because they gave me a couple of days to think about it.

I really struggled with the decision. If I went along, a tour of Afghanistan was a certainty. But I’d also begun to really like these guys. They didn’t look down on me for being passionate about surfing, or even skipping out. It was tempting—I wanted to go to college on the GI Bill and have all the benefits. At the same time, I’d already started jumping the barracks fence at night again. I’d been going down to Haleiwa to hang out with friends. I’d stay out all night. That’s when I met my wife. I had a life on the North Shore.

I don’t know the word for the disappointment I saw in my officers’ faces when I turned the deal down. Not everybody gets a walk-through like that. No one knew what I’d have to face. But the officers honored their word. One captain in particular worked hard on my case. Maybe it was because there are so many Johnny Smith’s in the world, or maybe it’s because they just didn’t have enough paperwork on me, but eight months after turning myself in, I received a general discharge, basically, a big nothing. I went home, took the uniform off and got my old job at Cholo’s back.

I’ve told this story to veterans. Some of them say they might have done the same thing if there was something they were that passionate about. Others look down at me, say I should have manned-up and honored my commitments. I don’t regret any of the time I spent in the Army. I learned a lot through the military, but I also learned how to humble myself at a time when all I wanted to do was to keep running. Life can sometimes spin you in circles, it’s amazing where you can end up. I live a block from Pipeline now. I’m just about to walk down there.

  • Cheeseburger

    It is hard being a surfer in the military. Especially if you aren’t on the North Shore. Been tempted to do this many times…