I found him by ways of Battlestation[b], a collection of short stories by multiple authors set in a shared universe that he'd co-edited. It had a Death Star-like spaceship on the cover, which was all I needed to know to buy it. The opening story was Facing the Enemy by Drake, and just a few pages in I knew I had found something quite unlike the rest. Where the other stories felt like something you would expect from a book with a Death Star-like spaceship on the cover, Facing the Enemy felt vivid and real - even to someone like me who hadn't experienced anything even remotely like war. It was grim, accentuated by Drake's trademark flat affect, but it was believable in a way that other stories weren't. From there it was on to The Fleet, and then to Drake's magnum opus - the Hammer's Slammers series.
Underneath all the action the stories were to some extent little morality plays. Drake himself wrote that he wanted to write stories where good prevailed, and while many of his stories lacked an entirely "good" side - as most of his military SF feature characters who have ended up fighting for reasons unexplained - it was clear what he thought was right and wrong. In particular, he avoided the trope where the evils of the world must by necessity percolate all the way down to every interpersonal relationship, making everyone a raging asshole: it is possible for people be good to each other in a nasty and uncaring world, and this is not just nice, but a survival skill. Characters who subscribed to the "the world is mean so I must be mean"-mantra often ended up dead.
If I were to summarize what I took away from his stories it would be this, in no particular order:
people can be horrible to each other and frequently are, but try to be nice
do your duty to the best of your abilities
Not new ideas by any stretch, not even to me back then, and I'm sure they have been articulated better by better authors, but if you're going to marinate your young impressionable brain in something they're a pretty good choice.
Then at the age of 19 I did my military service and got to try out some of those precepts on actual people in an actual military setting, albeit not a shooting one. It wasn't always obviously clear to me if what I did was right, but by and large they seemed to work. Note that the only other philosophy that seemed to be present among us, besides the official one coming from above, was that we should all pattern ourselves on drill instructor Hartman from Full Metal Jacket. Yes, Hartman, the guy that was spectacularly murdered for being just like Hartman. Maybe his death is seen as the blood that needed to be shed in order to birth the perfect soldiers? Hartman thought so in the book at least[c], but it's neither the message of the movie nor the book. I was pretty happy I had found a different "unofficial" philosophy that felt real enough to rely on.
It worked out well there, and has continued to do so. I carried it with me to university, then on to my own little IT company and into my working adult life.
It's been a remarkably useful philosophy, and bottom line is it just feels good. It has a fundamentally positive outlook on life while acknowledging the imperfections of the world; and it demands the grit and conscientiousness required. As I look around me I like the results.
David Drake left the world a better place than he found it.
I don't claim to tell people The Truth, but I've always--especially in my fiction--told the truth as I knew it.
— David Drake (in an email to me 2001-07-10)
Immortalized in the short story A Flat Affect by Eric Flint
A problem I have with the otherwise brilliant author Peter Watts. There's grim and then there's grimdark.