Lessons of a military life

#2. If you’re gonna be stupid, you’re gonna be strong!

Flashback to 1977

My Navy career had a lot of great life, management, and leadership lessons. Many are undecipherable to those who have not been in military service but range from teamwork, testing physical and mental limits, courage, decision-making, and taking responsibility before being given authority.   In Navy boot camp, the first thing learned is obedience to authority.  Line up, no talking, do not move,  and other commands.  A second is quickly having situational awareness, introduced to recruits around 0400 (4 AM) on their first morning with a barracks wakeup.  On my first morning,  a metal trash can was hurled clattering across the floor.  That, and a simultaneous yell of “Get your @#$ up!”,  by the Company Commander.

For 9 weeks  recruits are converted from civilians into military service men and women.  Attention to detail was another lesson.   A military uniform is worn is a precise manner and everything from stray threads to “gig lines” – proper alignment – and cleanliness are inspected.  Deviations from the expectation often result in exercise – pushups, situps, 8-count body-builders.   In addition, some “special attention” is paid, verbally, to the offender.  However,  everyone in the unit is afforded the same attention.  To build cohesion, the expectation is for others in the unit to help their shipmate improve for the good of the unit as a whole.  Making one’s bed, or rack,  had to be done in an equally precise manner.  Proper stowage of uniform items is also according to regulations.  It was the proper folding and stowage of underwear that earned me “special attention”.  I had reversed the left-right folds prescribed by the company commander.  For that and other misunderstandings, I  became the “Polack” – an endearing term – to the company commander until I graduated and became a “Shipmate”.

 Thirty years later (2005)

Half a lifetime later, I was again in training.  This time it was as a Navy Reservist selected for advancement to Chief Petty Officer (CPO).    There is a century and a quarter of tradition in the Chief Petty Officer ranks, where these senior enlisted men and women train and mentor enlisted sailors and junior officers.  Officers provide the mission and the direction.   Chiefs take their direction and delegate the execution to sailors they place in charge of their division. Chiefs oversee their divisional petty officers,  and they in turn, place more junior petty officers in charge of division Workcenters made up of several sailors. The purpose is to identify and mentor sailors to gain leadership skills and advance up through the ranks.  To be a trusted member of the Chiefs’ Mess, a First Class Petty Officer, who may be technically proficient,  has to be trained to think and act, not for self-promotion,  but to delegate and mentor more junior sailors.  Also, it is a Chief who deflects criticism,  rebuke or conflicting directions given by a junior officer to an enlisted person in their division.  It is the Chief who relies on advice from the years of expertise within the Chiefs’ Mess, to lead sailors, handle interpersonal conflicts, maintain discipline, and mentor junior officers to perform to the Commanding Officer’s expectation of warfighting proficiency.

As a Chief Petty Officer Selectee, prior to the promotion ceremony each September, each undergoes  a period of training (exercise, team-building, lessons in leadership, traditions and CPO history) and builds camaraderie within the Mess.  This formally begins when selection results are reported.  And there are invitations to Chief Petty Officers, both on Active Duty and Retired to participate in the “Season” to build the sense of identity as a Mess.

To this very day, I still chuckle over the introduction of our trainer, a Chief Petty Officer who carried a bullhorn with a frequently-used siren.  He combined exercise with Question and Answer sessions. We had “homework” every day, including Navy lore, songs, and so forth. We were supposed to share everything we learned and help our fellow Selectees with tasks and such.  If we “failed” the answer or task, our trainer had a memorable response:

“If yer (sic) gonna be STUPID, yer gonna be STRONG!”

And then,  “DOWN and give me twenty (push ups)!”

Everybody laughed, labored, and “suffered” together but everyone learned.  And everyone got stronger, leaner and became a member of the Mess.   But then, in the last ten years, politics, social pressures, and a lack of clear direction ( a military needs clear objectives), also affected the leadership at the deckplates.  But being a member of the CPO Mess,  “Chief Petty Officer, United States Navy”, is the recognition I will treasure for life.

I think a lot of the issues that were reported during the last ten or fifteen years within the leadership – the Chiefs and the Officer community – was due to abandonment or at least a minimalist approach, to training the Chief Petty Officers and mentoring junior officers.  I hear it is returning to the tried and true. 

Setting the mail buoy watch

In a politically-correct world that has tempered practical jokes, initiations and rituals, I miss some of them.  Twenty-five years ago,  I was assigned to a guided missile cruiser, my first time putting to sea that was not a harbor ferry or pleasure cruise.   Though my primary assignment was maintenance of the electronic systems in my division workspaces,  I volunteered to be a bridge-to-bridge phone talker during the Underway Replenishment, or UNREPs.  I knew I was going to enjoy life at sea, as I was initiated by the deck seamen who were the helmsman and lookouts.   Practiced in the art of good fun, the deck seaman handed me night-vision binoculars for my first watch. It was nearly pitch black on the bridge. He almost got me.  I caught the whiff of black shoe polish applied to the eyecups of the binoculars.

1395286500-2As for me,  a new crewman on my first ship,  my “salty” (experienced) maintenance supervisor sent me aloft to perform a maintenance check.   While this was in port,  I was to go about a hundred feet above the waterline, so I paid very close attention to the proper safety procedures.  He got me outfitted in climbing gear, lanyards, helmet, bucket of tools and sent me aloft to verify operation of the aircraft warning lamp atop our receiving antenna.  Once aloft, white-knuckled,  I found there was actually no physical maintenance involved.  But the experience cured my fear of heights forever.

w12-1-mail-buoySome time later,  it was one young seaman being prepared for a most-important mission that was most amusing to me.   His mission: Capturing the mail buoy.   It was one of the harmless but amusing initiations for a young Seaman’s first time at sea.  The build up  was important.  The crew was expecting mail, letters from home, Care packages, and so on.   A plane flew ahead on the course that the ship was following, dropping the mail buoy.   It had to be retrieved.  In hardhat, foul weather gear, sound-powered headphones,  life jacket, lifeline and a gaff,  the Seaman was posted to the forecastle and was instructed to keep his eyes peeled for the buoy.  Twenty or thirty minutes in the cold breeze and sea spray later, of course, one of the Boatswains Mates, lookout or bridge watch would then cuss him out (over the headphones) for missing it.  Of course, both the Deck Officer, the Bridge OIC and the Chief Boats were in on the joke.

CGN-39Another practical joke was played on new seaman on the Low-Visibility Detail.  These are lookouts posted to the forecastle during foggy conditions in busy sea lanes.  “Boats”, an experienced junior Petty Officer, requested the new seaman on the detail, to signal to the bridge to report whether the Ship’s Whistle (a truly thunderous horn) was working properly.  He straight-faced told the seaman, the bridge watch could not hear it. After protecting his ears with each blast,  he turned to wave up to the bridge. “It works”.    The fun lasted only a few minutes.  The Skipper came onto the bridge, demanded to know what that fellow was doing, and after a brief chuckle, put an end to it.   He gave us all sorts of oral navigation quizzes to torture us, since we tortured that poor seaman.


destroyermen tell no tales

4347_1153409202041_3983536_nOn a warship there are few times that anything without a strict mission-related purpose is permitted aboard ship.  Of course,  this does not necessarily mean trinkets  the crew buys in a foreign port of call have to be shipped home.   After a visit to Turkey,  there were many nooks and crannies aboard the Proud Pete that were stuffed with oriental carpets, leather goods and other swag. Another time, after a port visit in the Caribbean, many crewmen had Cuban cigars.  And all sorts of goods from stops in the Mediterranean.

The oddest thing to be brought aboard the PETERSON were the temporary port-a-potties welded to the forecastle.  But none of the crew wanted “that”.  It was ordered from the naval authorities during staging for our Haitian interdiction operation which might result in taking aboard refugees.  However is was my tenure’s last Commanding Officer who introduced something I could only guess was some private joke with those who knew him when he was an Ensign – aboard the PETERSON – fifteen years earlier.   It may now sit at the bottom of the Atlantic.

DD969“It” was a park bench the my Commanding Officer, CAPT. Edward Zurey authorized to be installed (welded) in the athwartships passageway near the Ship’s Store.  A corner that during his tenure became known as “Broadway and Main” (for the Main Deck).



Honor, Courage, Commitment

Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Christopher Veloicaza 
Navy Public Affairs Support Element West

A Senior Chief Petty Officer I had the opportunity to work with during a CPO Selectee training day once asked a Selectee when did he (or she) become a Chief Petty Officer.

” I was selected this year, Senior Chief.”

“Do you know when I became a Chief Petty Officer, Selectee?”, he then asked.

“When I decided to act and take responsibility as a Chief Petty Officer.   I simply waited for the uniform to catch up.”

The article here honors the example and sacrifice of SEAL operator Michael Monsoor, whose example will be remembered in his namesake naval vessel and her crew.

via DVIDS – News – USS Michael Monsoor (DDG 1001) Crew Welcomes Namesake into the Chief’s Mess


Saturday morning, 3 AM,  and I am awake.  I really do not want to be; when I was in my twenties and thirties,  I was able to be very productive on four hours sleep.  Six hours would have been “vacation mode”.    For some reason I am reminded of many times I stood watch on the Quarterdeck in the middle of the night while our ship was in port.  Whether aboard the USS TEXAS – the cruiser,  not the present submarine, on the West Coast; or in Norfolk, Virginia aboard the USS PETERSON, a Spruance-Class Destroyer,  it was often very cold standing watch at this time of the morning.

I still remember the sound of the exhaust fans, the deafening, steel rattling as warm air was blown out onto the weatherdeck from the ship’s interior.   Standing at a podium, partly exposed to the wind,  I remember on more than one occasion wrapping my peacoat tighter around me, and sending the Messenger to get me more hot, very black coffee.  The “balls to four” watch,  midnight till 4 AM,  is one of the more difficult watches  since there are few comings and goings, the ship’s commander is either ashore or asleep since getting his last passdown report.   It was a good time to quiz ourselves and study for qualification tests.  At that time,  the ESWS qualification was a big boost to a junior Sailor seeking advancement.  The landline rarely rang at that time unless it was to report a member of ship’s company going on or off- leave.   Sometimes it was the base security reporting a member was being written up for being intoxicated and belligerent or trying to drive onto the base.  We would have to rouse a master-at-arms to go retrieve him.  Normally, unless we were in a period called a Intermediate Maintenance AVailablity ( IMAV) when welders and other contractors were coming and going all night, it was often a dull period of duty.   This was in the decade before 9/11, so the occasional drunk Sailor returning from Liberty and a visit by the base Command Duty Officer might be our only interruption on the Quarterdeck.

Overseas in the Mediterranean in the period following the Gulf War and Bosnian conflict,  the middle of the night was a time we did not have security forces in heightened vigilance as we had once on the other side of the Suez Canal.  On a six-month deployment, our ship might spend a month patrolling in the Med with several port visits. It was often a blessing to be on duty in port.  One of my shipmates was never interested in going out on liberty – he had been to these same ports several times.   He bankrolled a lot of money on these cruises.

Saving money when overseas was never a strong skill of mine.   Had I not stood midwatch overseas though,  I might never have believed stories I read about mariners, ships, and rats.   When I was standing the Quarterdeck midwatch in Trieste, Italy in the early 1990s,  I remember looking down to the head of the pier at some dog rooting around the dumpster just off the pier.  It was dark, foggy, and things illuminated by the yellow lamps of the pier were not distinct.  But I realized that dog was not a dog.  What would a dog be doing here anyway?  It was a wharf rat,  about the size of a terrier – the largest rat I have ever seen.    And now I know why ships mooring lines have “rat guards” on them.   For good reason.


For those who might be amused, or assume I was exaggerating,  I found an article online of a rat that obviously was well-fed up until his untimely end.

1  mid-rats is the term we use in the Navy for the late night meal prepared for the watchstanders.  RATs is short for “rations”, not an item on the menu.





mammalian diving reflex

When I was very young I was taught to swim, and recall that I was quite fond of holding my breath and ducking underwater and pushing off to see how far I could swim before I had to come up for air.   My father had been a great swimmer my mother tells me, but when he was still in his twenties,  illness took away his athleticism.  With his DNA, I enjoyed being in the water: swimming pools, rivers, ponds, and the ocean.  With my mother’s DNA (she grew up by the Irish Sea), cold water was not preferred but also not dreadful for me.

As a pre-teen I took a Red Cross Life-Saving certification class at the community pool near our apartment building.  I had always been a good swimmer and athletic, but the certification test proved to be my brush with drowning.   The backup instructor was a huge Marine-looking man who jumped into the pool and pointed at me.    I swam toward him as trained and he started to thrash about.   Then he seized hold of me, and climbing up my shoulders, forced me under the water.   That simulation was all too-real.   Whether fear of death or anger at embarrassment,  as I started to choke inhaling pool-water, I managed to strike him as hard as I possibly could.   They awarded me the Life Saving certificate.  I don’t think the instructor wanted to advertise that a lanky kid had overpowered him.    I have told the story previously how, on a beach in Cape Cod,  my mother and I were walking along a tidal sand bar with the tide going out.  I ran ahead into a channel that appeared to be no more than knee-depth.  It wasn’t and I lost my footing in the swifty oceanward water and was washed about a quarter-mile into the Bay.   I was rescued by a couple in a power boat who were near enough to see my mother’s frantic waving and my bobbing.   In the Navy at seventeen,  it was not water that got the better of me but a failure to properly secure my gas mask in the tear gas training chamber.  Lord!  I was crying, spewing and hacking with stuff running out of me long before we all had to remove the masks and sing “Anchors Aweigh” for our boot camp instructors!    Years later, after my first enlistment ended and I was a student at the University of Arizona,  I took scuba diving lessons, certified and spent several weekends in successive summers, in the Sea of Cortez.  During one of these, I was a now, more-experienced diver paired up with a newly-qualified teen (ten years my junior).  “Jacques Cousteau” did not heed the diving limit so we found ourselves about a hundred feet instead of the sixty-foot maximum set by our dive master.    Pointing him to the surface, we were several hundred yards from the dive boat and had a challenging swim to get back to the boat.

In all the scenarios that we undertook during my second enlistment in the Navy and eight years of sea duty,  we performed a lot of dry simulations of flooding casualties to the ship.  We had hands-on training ashore for firefighting, and we had both well-lit, and blackout compartment simulations on entering, exiting, and securing compartments.  As part of the training for the Enlisted Surface Warfare qualification, I had a familiarity as well as a number of hours monitoring and performing skills that might save my life or my shipmates someday.

USS John S. McCain DDG-56,  By Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Todd Frantom – 030126-N-1810F-002 from http://www.news.navy.mil/view_single.asp?id=4306, Public Domain,  via Wikipedia
FILE: USS Fitzgerald
USS Fitzgerald, DDG-62

I have no idea what has caused shipmates on two Navy combatant ships,   the USS John S. McCain, and the USS Fitzgerald, to collide with merchant ships this summer, but the intense bravery and training of the men and women who saved their ships has not been told in the questioning by observers on how that could possibly happen in the first place.  The facts will certainly be collected, studied and whether training or terrorism-related, the truth will be known.  It is the response of the crew to a potentially fatal breach of the hull that should be studied equally and used to train subsequent generations.  There were definitely those who, knowing they could possibly die, chose to try to save their shipmates in the flooded compartments instead.

Numerous injuries and the deaths of at perhaps seventeen Sailors at sea are horrible.  The mere seconds between personnel sleeping, eating breakfast, taking pressure readings, monitoring electrical panels — and the aftermath of a collision: the crushing metal, screaming men, pitch darkness, and flooding seawater, are mind-numbing for those who have not been in peril.   We should all pause and pray for those Sailors and their families.   The loss of life in combat, in training accidents, in freak-occurrences on routine days, or even the acts of a madman or terrorists are never acceptable, but the mental preparation as members of the military one might accept the possible call to put yourself in harm’s way to save your fellow service members.


Courage at sea

“Until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore, you will not know the terror of being forever lost at sea.”  -Ovid

As most of the world knows by now,  a horrible collision at sea occurred between a merchant freighter and a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS FITZGERALD (DDG-62),  a couple days ago off the coast of Japan.  Three Sailors, the Commanding Officer and two others were injured and are in the Naval hospital in Yokosuka.  The ship was obviously extensively damaged above and below the waterline.

With the ship now safely in port, the Navy has announced that the remains of several of the seven men, previously unaccounted for, have been recovered from the flooded compartments.   It is a credit to the training and resolve of the crew that the ship and crew were able to control the flooding and that not more lives were lost.  At sea,  compartments below the waterline are maintained at modified-Zebra, where the hatches are closed between compartments and between decks, with the scuttles opened for crew movement.

In an emergency, announced over the 1MC system, they would announce “General Quarters” with perhaps only seconds to respond in this case.   I remember one emergency response in our berthing compartment when a sensor in Engineering erroneously detected a poisonous gas (freon) leak in the space below ours (the compartment was above the refrigeration system compartment).  From a dead sleep, all my shipmates and I evacuated in less than 2 minutes.  But in a collision and the resultant flooding might allow for less that half of that time to get out and secure that hatch.

Regardless of the questions as to events leading to this catastrophe, the loss or injury of a single Sailor is a blow to the community of Sailors.   I pray God’s comforting embrace for my brothers and sisters who continue to serve every day.   For the lost and injured at sea.  And for the surviving crew and families of the USS FITZGERALD.  Serving with HONOR, COURAGE, and COMMITMENT.