We all do some foolish things in our youth when we don’t understand the consequences. For me, a lighthearted prank saddled me with a goat for the rest of my career, and I have to tell you — goats are a lot of fucking work.
It started late one night in Bradley Barracks on a cool autumn night just before the Army-Navy Football game. My roommate and I were rubbing each other’s backs and talking about our dreams, like we always did, when we hatched a fantastical plan to steal the Navy goat. We would be legends.
Still, I wasn’t ready for that moment, deep below Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, when I locked eyes with Adm. Ernst J. King the goat. I didn’t expect him to seem so worldly, so wise, so game for the adventure. There were many goats in the goat dungeon that night, but I knew that Ernest was the goat for me. Ernest stood aside from the common goats, lazily eating “The Bluejacket’s Manual,” and practically leaped into the rucksack I’d brought for him. Our first touch was electric.
The next few days were a haze. While the military world panicked at the loss of Ernest, we spent lazy days on Clinton Field, sharing a secret just the two of us knew. I showed him how to cut a pie properly; he showed me how to eat the pie tin.
I realized, as I boarded the bus for the Army-Navy game, Ernest tucked neatly under my winter cape, that I had devised such an excellent scheme to steal Ernest I had never thought to make a plan to return him.
Time with Ernest flew by. Before I knew it, it was branch night, then graduation. As I threw my cap into the air, Ernest headbutted the chair out from under me, a sign of things to come.
Being a platoon leader is hard for anyone, but it’s harder with a goat. At unit PT, he’d run faster than me and jump higher than me, embarrassing me in front of my men.
I was excited and nervous for my first deployment, a fact lost on Ernest. He was a constant liability. He never wanted to stay on the FOB, which I can respect, but he was always getting confused as a gift, bribe, snack or sex toy when we went out on patrol.
If I thought Ernest was difficult on deployment, I really wasn’t ready for how he was going to handle our next assignment, as an assistant training officer at brigade S3. Ernest had no patience drafting PowerPoint slides for hours. He was clearly the kind of goat that you needed to keep with troops, the kind of goat that needed a mission. He took out his frustrations about the assignment — about the things he’d seen on deployment — by drinking too much. I could never get him enough water, and then he’d pee on the paper shredder. There were times I didn’t think we could keep it together.
Things got a little better when I picked up captain. I had a little more money to spend on Ernest. He got frustrated at the long hours and the midnight phone calls, but by that point, Ernest understood that we’d spent too long together. He couldn’t do better than me.
Sometimes people say to me, “How did you get a goat in the Pentagon?” I’d ask you how I could not have a goat in the Pentagon. Sure, now that I’m chief of staff of the Army, it raises some questions about why I don’t have a mule. It’s a ridiculous question. I’ll enjoy an evening in the company of Traveller or Trooper, but I bear a responsibility to Ernest. Ernest made it through War College, too, and he’s never brought a cell phone into a SCIF, so he’s ahead of most of us.
I never planned this life. Ernest J. King didn’t plan this life. Tradition brought us together. I think sometimes that Ernest needs to go back, but we both know that he can’t go back to naive midshipmen and lush greenery of Annapolis. Not after what he saw in Afghanistan. The VA isn’t ready for his type. He has no marketable skills. He can’t make it on the outside.
I’ll warn you: traditions are fun, cadets, but think through it. Always have an exit plan. Ernest and I didn’t. And I still have a fucking goat.