Paying the government's bills
September 22, 2022
SEELEY LAKE – Graduating high school in 2002 with no clear career path in front of him, Mike Brent joined the United States Navy. He knew he eventually wanted to pursue higher education. Serving in the military would help finance that. In addition, the Navy might allow him to see more of the world beyond his home state of Colorado.
His military plans almost ended before they began. An eye examination during Boot Camp revealed Brent was partially colorblind. He was told he could become a Navy cook or he could go home. Not happy about either option, Brent pushed to find a better alternative. That turned out to be in the supply department, specifically in the area of money disbursement. He defined his role as "paying the vendors when the ship was overseas, filling up the ATM machines on the ships and things like that."
Obviously, the job was a bit more complicated than that because the prerequisite was three months of plowing through an eight-inch thick manual of government specifications on money handling, the proper method of writing treasury checks, ways to detect and avoid fraud and the responsible management of U.S. taxpayers monies.
Stationed in San Diego, California, Brent's first deployment was aboard the supercarrier USS Constellation in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Iraq.
"You get to stop in all the fun places on the way there and back," he said. "Like Hong Kong and Australia and all the traditional Navy ports."
Brent said that on a carrier the size of the Constitution, with about 6,000 personnel, they would bring onto the ship about $12 million in cash.
"Money is incredibly heavy when you have a lot of it," he said. "When you have basically a two-foot cubic brick of bills."
According to Brent, they had to use a forklift to carry the brick to the vault where they would than transfer the bills by hand. Brent took a minute to muse how much that might be today, multiplied by inflation.
As the most junior person in the supply group, Brent said any kind of bad job that no one wanted to do, he was 'voluntold' to do it. One such chore was getting mail on the flight deck in the middle of the night. He described the flight deck as being incredibly loud with lots of different things going on at once. He said they would launch all the Tomcats going to Iraq and then he had about 10 minutes to run on the deck, grab all the mail from the cargo plane and run back down before another set of planes landed.
He didn't entirely mind that duty though, he said, "It was incredibly coordinated how they ran that. That was really fascinating to me."
It was during a stop at Pattaya Beach, Thailand that Brent's military weapons training came into play. One of the U.S. government's many regulations concerning money handling specifies how much cash can be aboard the ship at any one time. Brent and his fellow disbursing clerks found themselves over the permitted amount and therefore were required to transport the excess cash to the nearest US treasury facility which was Bangkok almost 100 miles away.
"We got fully armored up with machine guns," he said. "It was a pretty rough neighborhood. A lot of those people were just standing outside their shops with machine guns so they didn't get robbed. It was pretty dicey. We hooked up with the Thailand military and just basically [projected] 'Don't come near us because we have a lot of fire power here!'"
Brent was next stationed aboard the destroyer USS McCampbell. His first tour there included joint training with all the Asian navies, which involved stopping in about 26 different countries. His second tour with the same destroyer took him to South America on counterdrug operations, trying to stop drugs from Panama, Columbia and Nicaragua from finding their way to US cities.
"Normally," Brent said, "we write treasury checks to pay for port costs such as trash removal and food services. We write them a check for a couple hundred grand, or whatever it is. But at one port, at the last minute they insisted they wanted cash."
According to Brent, the captain was sticking to his leave schedule no matter what. "So," Brent said, "the three of us were throwing bales of cash down to the pier for these guys as the ship was leaving."
Brent said he enjoyed being able to visit so many places around the world, but "I think it just makes me feel blessed for what we have here in the US. Just seeing extreme poverty in a lot of places. Like I remember seeing a family of six people on a scooter, because that's all they could afford to get around."
He also said he appreciated seeing the different cultures and the people, for the most part, were all very friendly.
"Even though there's a language barrier, like you could be having a beer with someone and you could still get along fine."
After his four years in the military were up, Brent lived in Colorado for a few years, until that began to feel too crowded. He and his wife Amanda both work from home as software consultants, so relocation was not dependent on being near a work area. Brent said they spent about a year checking out possible places to buy property, looking everywhere from the Flathead to the Wind River area in Wyoming. Seeley Lake "checked all the boxes," Brent said, "great community, beautiful scenery, enough infrastructure we can work from home. Plus the fact that [the Double Arrow Ranch Landowners Association] takes care of the roads."
They bought property on the Double Arrow Ranch in 2019, built a house and made Seeley Lake their permanent home in 2021.