By: Katie Barnhart
Richard Stevenson is 62 years old and completely bald. He has bushy eyebrows and blue eyes that always twinkle when he smiles. He has an infectious laugh and makes the best cheesecake on the planet. He loves golf and is a horrible singer. He is a calm man; he rarely yells and doesn’t let life stress him out.
But before Richard became this man, he went to Hope High School in Providence, Rhode Island where he skipped class and always received bad grades. He was quick to fight and always talked back to his teachers. He hated school and didn’t want to go to college.
So what sparked the transformation that changed an inner city kid with no direction into a successful man?
In short, joining the military changed his life. But this is not a story about a kid who joined the military and instantly became a good man.
Richard enlisted the same day of his high school graduation in 1968. About a month later, Richard was sent to basic training in Virginia. When he completed basic training, he spent seven months in Washington D.C. working on a Navy base.
“Those seven months were great,” Richard said as he smiled and recalled the memories. “I spent most of my time in D.C. chasing women. I dated two best friends who never figured out they were dating the same guy,” laughed Richard. “Yeah, I was a jerk. I’ll admit it: I was a first class jerk. I was just a punk in a Navy uniform with a big head.”
At this point, Richard had been in the Navy for nine months and hadn’t changed a bit. After his seven months in D.C., he was assigned to a battalion in Cuba.
“I spent my time in Cuba like the same punk I always was. When I wasn’t on duty, I was smoking pot or getting drunk. Everyone always said that the military took kids like me and turned them into productive members of society, but I hadn’t changed a bit.”
“After 24 months, the government decided that they needed more people in Vietnam. They gave us the option of spending our next two years of duty in Vietnam as members of the Army or we could be honorably discharged and just go home. When I heard ‘Vietnam’ I was ready to sign the discharge papers right then and there.”
Richard was back in Rhode Island a month later. He hadn’t changed at all while in the military, but how did being back home impact him?
“I still didn’t want to go to school. I know I could have gone for free, but I just didn’t want to and I didn’t feel like I had to. People would hire me because I was a veteran and they automatically assumed I was this great, reliable guy. I lost those jobs quickly because I was still a jerk.”
In 1972, Richard was a 22-year-old kid living with no direction. He had been home for a year and still wasn’t doing anything with his life; when was he going to change?
“I was out drinking one night with some buddies from high school and I realized that none of them had changed at all. I was sitting there thinking, ‘What am I doing with my life? Am I going to smoke pot and screw around or am I going to make something of myself?’”
“I went home and decided to become that upstanding guy that people expected a veteran to be. I borrowed one of my brother’s suits to get a job at a jewelry factory and enrolled in a few night classes at Roger Williams University. I still wasn’t big into school, but seven years later I graduated with a degree in Criminal Justice. I quit my job at the jewelry plant and entered the Correctional Officer Academy.”
Richard seemed to be finally getting his life on track. He had graduated college, started a career, gotten married, and started a family. How did he feel that his military experience contributed these changes?
“I enlisted in the Navy because I wanted an excuse not to go to college and I didn’t want to get sent to Vietnam,” Richard said in a very matter of fact tone. “I just messed around when I was in the Navy and I didn’t take it seriously.”
“Being in the military didn’t change me; being a veteran changed me. When I got back home, I realized that I couldn’t just keep acting however I wanted and that people expected me to become something great. I got all of my stupid teenage years out of my system in the military, I found the love of my life, and I had a family of my own. Elisa and I taught our kids to appreciate life and family. We taught them that without school, they will never get anywhere in life. I am lucky to have the life I do now. At the rate I was going before I got my act together, I wasn’t headed anywhere.”
So how did Richard Stevenson change his life? He became a veteran.