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. 

deep waters

Anyone who has gone to sea for any length of time – and with a wink to my Coast Guard brothers and sisters I mean out past “ankle deep” (out of sight of the land) – knows the sea is vast.   And it really does not matter whether the vessel taking the mariner out is a sloop, a ketch,  a six-hundred foot Navy cruiser,  a thousand-foot aircraft carrier or nine thousand-passenger and -crew  cruise liner.  At some point, everyone realizes that we are but dots in the ocean.

For poets, scholars, kings, farm boys and  fishermen, the ocean casts a spell beckoning us to it,  and yet the depths and potential hazards have been a metaphor, even among land-lubbers, for danger and despair.  Who today has not heard or used the phrases “in over your head”, “you’re in too deep”, “the deep end”,  or being “out of your depth” to describe discomfort.

I sink in the miry depths,
    where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters;
    the floods engulf me.   Proverbs 69:2 (NIV)

But getting in over my head was never a reason for me to avoid doing something.  I did  venture to sea, most of the eight years I was crew on 3 Navy ships.   Perhaps it was due to my early introduction to water.   I think I was learning to swim almost at the same time I was learning to walk.  My mother used to tell me how, as a toddler, I would venture off the step in the shallows of the community pool –  and her lightning-quick mother’s arm would shoot out to rein me in as my head went under.  I was a budding Jacques Cousteau.   As a young teen,  I took a class in Lifesaving, in order to become a lifeguard, and the instructor- as I recall it- tried to drown me simulating a panicked swimmer.  I punched him.  Later, in the Navy class on treading water, I never understood how some of my peers had never learned to swim.  I never feared putting my head underwater.  And in my twenties I obtained a SCUBA certification and spent some years going diving.

Still, I have a healthy respect for water whether it is gathered in rivers, large lakes, or the ocean. Perhaps it is due to my experience with lakes that appear deceptively shallow, or water that was particularly frigid on a very warm New England May day.  Or with currents in rivers, in saltwater marshes with an ebbing tide where I tried to navigate a little rowboat across.  And I’ve lost my footing in a shallow beach tidal outflow and been sucked out to the bay.

There is a magical quality to looking out at the sea,  and witnessing the deepening blue hue of the deep ocean, turn gray-blackish and whipped into white foam caps.  When a calm sea could become a violent storm in a matter of hours, there were some, myself included, who offered prayers of thanksgiving to Providence for never having been seasick . On a bright sunny day,  as the weather turns into a full-force gale.

The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore. Vincent Van Gogh  / brainyquote.com

In my childhood,  I was fascinated by nautical museums, sea captain’s two hundred year-old homes, touring lighthouses and old ships, steamers, and ferry boats.   And today I am blogging about such things now and again.   At my keyboard now  I remember the first work of fiction I wrote for a college literature class being a blend of all these memories.   And I quite clearly pictured Burgess Meredith as the crusty old Salt protagonist.

Dwellers by the sea are generally superstitious; sailors always are. There is something in the illimitable expanse of sky and water that dilates the imagination. Thomas Bailey Aldrich

Strangely, I never bought a boat after my assignments at sea ended.   While I have been on several since my career in the Navy ended,  I have never wanted to scrape barnacles, chip paint, or clean the salt-corrosion ever again.   But I still know port from starboard, and even on the maritime museum, the MIDWAY at the pier in downtown San Diego, I will still request permission to come aboard.  And I can wish for others a fond  time  getting  “haze gray and underway”.

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.

 

CPO Sharkey

 

In 1977, I got off the bus from the airport at 0430 at Recruit Training Command, Naval Training Center, San Diego.  And my life has never been the same since.

Regardless of service, I believe all military members recall their bootcamp NCO. I certainly remember my Company Commander vividly.   Robert W Walsh,  ABE1, from north Florida.  Don Rickles might have modeled CPO Sharkey after him.  It is funny now to think how I was “Polack” to the CC,  and every other time some training command or support CPO would call out, ” Ssss—–” I knew they were refering to me.    ” it’s SA-RET-Skiii, sir!”

In bootcamp we were taught to call everyone “Sir” and if it moved, salute it.    But after we graduated and became, Seaman Apprentice, or Fireman or Airman, you would rather be stuck dumb and blind than call a Chief, “sir”.    There was always a colorful epithet attached to his retort (his, this was 1977)

“MY PARENTS were married, @#$@!”

“I WORK for a living,  @#$@! !”

“DO YOU SEE BARS on my collar?  @#$@!!”

And heaven help me,  with my nearsightedness,  if I saw two khaki-clad men approaching,  I was supposed to discern which, if either, had the insignia of a commissioned officer – on their cap or collar.   And that had to occur by a certain range as I was expected to salute.

I only screwed up in my first few weeks. With a Master Chief and a Lieutenant Commander.   The Master Chief’s response was far more “interesting”.  But with the officer, it was because I had NOT saluted.   He got over it.

The stride and bearing of a Chief, then as now, easily identifies my Mess Brothers and Sisters from an Officer at any distance.  And CPO Sharkey?  From this first episode, it brings back the memories of my formative days in the Navy.  He finds it ridiculous that sailors get bunks, mattresses and curtains.  And there is a part in this show when Sharkey is in disbelief that women might soon serve on ships.  In reality, about that time women had just entered the Naval Academy.   Then, in the 1980s, auxiliary support ships, tenders and others were integrated (genders).  And warships?   when female crew were first assigned to the USS PETERSON in the early 1990s,  I talked with a few of the Snipes about the prospect.  Once I proposed the idea in relation to more generously balancing each rating’s sea -shore rotation assignments,  my shipmates became all for the idea!

As for bunks and curtains?  I sure sounded like Sharkey when I heard about the redesigned berthing compartments, larger mattresses, lighting and space on our newest ships.   Has the Navy gone soft?!

Too funny.

VADM H. Denby Starling, II — honor365

Vice Adm. (ret) Starling began his last assignment as commander of Navy Cyber Forces at its establishment on Jan. 26, 2010. There he was responsible for organizing and prioritizing manpower, training, modernization and maintenance requirements for networks and cryptologic, space, intelligence and information operations capabilities. He concurrently served as commander Naval Network Warfare Command, where he oversaw the conduct […]

via VADM H. Denby Starling, II — honor365

Cuban Missile Crisis

As a veteran and retired Navy Senior Chief, wearing a t-shirt celebrating Navy Chiefs is a point of pride, even in San Diego with a large population of veterans, Active Duty and families with members of the military in them.

While shopping at a Lowes Saturday afternoon,  a gentleman thanked me for my service and we chatted as two veterans are likely to do.   Gene’s service as a Comms Officer at SECOND Fleet, the commander of all afloat naval forces in the Western Atlantic and Caribbean, occurred at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

That was almost fifty-six years ago.  In six decades, millions of American (and a number of foreign-born) men and women have served or continue to serve in the armed forces.  Travel, learning self-discipline, gaining a better perspective on many topics,  and useful work-related skills.  Many took advantage of the college benefits to become very skilled professionals in everything from agriculture to zoology.

And yet for many who have served in combat, in combat zones, or even when injured in training or other military-related periods,  there has been sixty years of failure to live up to promises by the Government.  Mental illness, drug addiction, homelessness, and incarceration plague veterans who have served honorably but became only statistics.  And with every election cycle, promised of change may cause a stir, but then either never are completely realized, or get the budget axe.

I am one of the fortunate.  I have a good post-military career.  I have a support system that is independent of the government. And I have good memories of camaraderie, as well as some challenging memories of the bureaucratic foul ups and health issues from military service.   With a population that increasingly is self-interested, emotionally-fragile, rigidly opinionated, and in many cases unprincipled,  the graying veterans like me may spent more time reminiscing at a Lowes, or a Target, or in the park.   You cannot really ever hide the walk, the bearing, or the “USA!” branded clothes and pro-veteran opinions.

On the Cuban Missile Crisis, this is one article for further reading

 

Who is culpable?

Via NavyTimes.com

How homicide charges for two skippers will shake up the entire Navy

The Navy’s decision to level criminal charges against the commanding officers of the destroyers Fitzgerald and John S. McCain is forcing the surface warfare world into a grim reckoning on how it operates, and the consequences of sailors dying on a leader’s watch.

The Navy announced on Jan. 16 that negligent homicide charges will be sought against Fitz CO Cmdr. Bryce Benson, and McCain CO Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, for their roles in the deaths of 17 sailors in the Pacific last summer.

The unprecedented move sets in motion a military justice proceeding that will begin with a preliminary hearing known as an Article 32, which will evaluate the evidence and determine whether to send the officers to court-martial.

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