a sentry’s recollections

In the Navy I stood a lot of watches.  For those not familiar with our terminology,  “watchstanding” is an assignment for a specified number of hours, to monitor area security, equipment performance, duties according to one’s training and seniority,  or other duties “as assigned”.

As a young Sailor (I capitalize the “S” following a Navy custom),  my first watches were patrols of the recruit barracks I was assigned from the first days in the Navy forty years ago.  We patrolled for safety mostly, but it was also to train us to be light sleepers, and accustomed to getting up within moments to carry out duties.

Later assignments, once I had been in uniform for a year or so, was assignment to the base gatehouses, sometimes the Main Gate but more often the mostly deserted back gate.  Watches – as a student during that time – were mostly starting at midnight, “balls to four” or 4 AM, because I had a class schedule that ran two sessions until early evening.   One night, I was assigned to be a floor watch,  sitting at a desk in a quiet corner of one of the middle floors – decks, we called them – and with the lack of air, humidity, and heat -in a Florida summer,  I dozed off.  A thump in the back of the head and a shout in my ear – the Base Duty Officer that evening was an old Senior Chief – and I was wide awake.  Never dozed off again – ever – while on watch.

Ten years later ( I had left and then gone back into the service) , on my first shipboard ‘tour’,  I was a Petty Officer of the Watch, in port.  Every Navy ship, while moored has a security station, at the brow -entry gangway- to provide protection, announce visitors, note the commanding officer’s arrival and departure, and check for authorized ship’s company to depart or return.   As a Third Class Petty Officer, I was limited in the scope of my assignments, but once I earned my next rank, Second Class Petty Officer,  I sought to train and qualified as the Officer of the Deck (in port).  The OOD is responsible to that day’s Command Duty Officer (CDO) who monitors compliance to the commander’s orders while in port.  On a subsequent ship, I again performed that OOD role until as a Chief Petty Officer, I had oversight of the shore enlisted personnel in my capacity as the unit’s Senior Enlisted Leader.

I was fortunate that during my tenure aboard the various ships I served to have few altercations but for a couple inebriated Sailors.  My watchstanding duties which normally required me to be armed, including at various times carbines or shotguns as well as a 45-caliber semi-automatic pistol, were mostly routine.  But failure of security cannot be allowed. A case, where failure of security personnel at the Norfolk Naval Base a few years ago, allowed a deranged civilian truck driver onto the base and onto a pier, ultimately resulted in the death of a Sailor – and the assailant.   That Sailor gave his life defending his shipmate, a POOW who was attacked and disarmed. Another Sailor performed his duty to eliminate the threat.  Particularly in the post-September 11th world,  there are more random dangers, criminals, mentally unstable people, and web-enabled terrorists on friendly shores.  Being wary of the threats in foreign ports,  assignments for the 18- to 38 year old Sailors ( and Marines, Soldiers and Airmen) who stand watch at their posts are now a matter of serious professionalism.

As a result of being in that environment, witnessing a lot and fortunately only hearing some of the stories,  I have a lot of respect for law enforcement officers today.  The job of securing your assigned watch can be routine, dull, aggravating and demanding.  And there aren’t a lot of second-chances to get it right when dealing with a dangerous world.  To protect us they stand the watch.

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