Only Miles to Go: Student Veteran Returns Home for Thanksgiving

By Tom McLaughlin

At first glance, Christopher Cummings will celebrate Thanksgiving just like many other Americans. The Rutgers University–Camden student plans to hit the road and travel to New Cumberland, Pa., to share in the festivities with his grandparents and four siblings – Brianna, Jonathan, Jason, and Mikayla – among other family members.

Cummings heads off to class at Rutgers–Camden on the first day of the fall 2019 semester.

It is the biology major’s hope that, in many ways, the celebration will mirror the many joyous Thanksgivings of his youth. It was always a generous feast, he recalls – turkey, ham, all the trimmings, a cornucopia of desserts – prepared under the steady hand of his grandmother.

“There would be everything that you could ever dream of under the sun served on Thanksgiving,” says the Voorhees resident and Hammonton native.

But make no mistake, this one will be different. Six years – and thousands of miles zigzagging across the Southeast Pacific – have passed since the last time he was home for the holiday, giving the U.S. Navy veteran more reasons than ever to be thankful.

“I am grateful to have made it home in one piece,” says Cummings, who has served in the Navy since 2013, attaining the rank of E-5 torpedoman’s mate. “Not to sound doom and gloom, but there were times when I thought, ‘We might not make it out of here.’ I am glad that I was able to do what was expected of me and get the opportunity to spend time with my family again. Unfortunately, not every servicemember gets this.”

Cummings, who separated from active duty in July and is now fulfilling his inactive service obligation, spent much of his service as a torpedoman’s mate aboard the submarine USS Tucson (SSN-770), home-ported in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The sub regularly participated in classified missions – he’s not allowed to discuss any details – but had port calls in Japan a few times as well as Singapore, Guam, South Korea, and the Philippines.

Cummings arrives in Pearl Harbor after a six-month Western Pacific deployment.

Life on a submarine, he recalls, was an efficient, regimented routine of… well, routines. There were essentially three main rotating groups of “worker bees” working eight-hour shifts: one-third that was on watch, actively taking part in operations; another third that would have just gotten off watch and was doing regular maintenance, studying, relaxing, or working out; and the last third, which was usually sleeping.

Space on the sub was of course limited – a simple fact of life that admittedly took a little getting used to.

“Being on the boat for the first time, I couldn’t help but feel like I was in the way no matter where I stood,” says Cummings, a 2008 graduate of Hammonton High School. “The passageways are narrow and, just walking around, you bump into people. After a while, you kind of get used to it, because you know that’s just how it is.”

Cummings soon discovered that space is used – and reused – any way they can. For instance, the engine room doubled as the exercise room, with its one treadmill, two stationary bikes, rowing machine, and adjustable power blocks. Cummings and the torpedo crew also slept in the torpedo room, but that was considered having it good; after all, it was one of the biggest spaces on the boat.

“As long as we weren’t actively doing anything in there, it was a nice place to hang out,” he says, adding that, for practical reasons, the crew needed to be close by in the event of an emergency.

The constant schedule and tight quarters were no different in the crew’s mess – the dining area – which only had 24 seats, a portion of which were allocated for only the highest ranking enlisted members. The captain and officers ate in a separate space called the wardroom.

It was never a comfortable experience eating meals, he says, because there was invariably a line of people waiting. When one crewmember finished and put their plate in the scullery – where food was disposed of and plates were cleaned – they would call in the next crewmember, who promptly made a plate and sat in the vacant seat.

The USS Tucson (SSN-770) arrives back in Pearl Harbor.

Despite the clockwork operation, Cummings says, the staff made the extra effort to celebrate Thanksgiving with a traditional meal. He acknowledges the considerable planning and preparation that was needed – careful not to cook too much or too little of an array of foods – to pull it off.

Still, the meal served as a poignant reminder for the crew that they weren’t home celebrating the holiday with family. Cummings remembers dining with one shipmate who didn’t say a word during the entire meal.

Even Cummings couldn’t escape an unspoken sense of sadness that hung over the day.

“I’m not going to lie, I remember feeling particularly sad on Thanksgiving,” he says. “It was hard being away from home.”

Two Thanksgivings ago, his last one deployed on the sub, he recalls, local Hawaiian schoolchildren decorated placemats for the sailors. He fondly remembers that a child traced his hand and drew a turkey, and wrote a message wishing him a happy Thanksgiving and thanking him for his service.

It was a small gesture – from a child he would never meet – that made a big difference.

“It really meant something that we had that support,” says Cummings. “It reminded me of the sacrifice that we are all going through. It’s something that we all signed up for, even though I don’t think many of us were actually ready for that sacrifice.”

Last Thanksgiving, Cummings recalls, he was recuperating from knee surgery at his apartment in Oahu. He and his roommates relished the opportunity to go literally outside the box and cook a lavish meal for themselves and some friends.

Still prone to organization and structure, they planned and wrote out the entire menu and executed it down to the last detail – a considerable undertaking, he says, which gave him even more appreciation for the “grandiose” feasts his grandmother has prepared.

Afterward, he says, he had the rare chance to kick back at the table and relax – a simple luxury that he hadn’t enjoyed in years. Amid plenty of leftovers, the guests went around the table and shared what they were thankful for – a tradition that he grew up with in his family.

This summer, Cummings returned home to South Jersey and enrolled at Rutgers–Camden shortly thereafter. He now looks forward to carrying on his family tradition once again when he makes the trip to Pennsylvania, where his siblings have since relocated.

It’ll be a relatively minor trip to fulfill a Thanksgiving wish many years – and miles – in the making.

“I am really looking forward to being with family again,” he says. “That’s number one for me.”

Posted in: Student Achievement

Comments are closed.