Category: navy career

The Gang That Can’t Shoot Straight

navy chief petty officersWe were recently on a family vacation in Cape Cod.  And when I say family, I mean family.  There were 10 of us in a house we rented a few blocks from the beach.  A lot of togetherness.  But we still had a great time-although when it came time to leave, I was ready.

Marleen and I had flown into Boston a few days ahead of the rest of the crew to take in some of the city’s sights.  One of the things we did was walk most of the Freedom Trail; a sidewalk tour that takes you past many of the locations where key events that led to our break with the Mother Country occurred. Well worth doing next time you’re there.

An unexpected bonus along the way was to witness snatches of the advancement ceremonies for an incoming class of Navy chief petty officers.  At intervals, we would see men and women in uniform, sometimes in formation belting out a spirited rendition of Anchors Aweigh, sometimes lounging around waiting to move on to their next rally point.

Prominent in the news when we were in Boston was the most recent of the four sleek Navy ships that have been involved in collisions with lumbering commercial vessels.  And which have resulted in the deaths of numerous sailors since the first of this year.  The latest incident, involving the destroyer the John S. McCain, resulted in the Navy ordering an “operational pause” for the entire U.S. fleet of 277 vessels to review safety procedures.

uss constitution

I ruminated on this alarming record during our remaining days in Boston, which included a visit to “Old Ironsides.”  Officially known as the USS Constitution, the beautiful three master looked her best, having just come out of dry dock following a two year restoration.  By then, our son, Byron, had joined us as we toured the ship.  Byron is our “Navy guy,” having served with distinction during his eight year career helping to run the reactor aboard the ballistic missile submarine, the USS Nebraska.

By the time we got to the beach on Cape Cod, we were joined by our son-in-law, Haden, who is the family’s “Marine guy.”  He did two tours in Iraq; the second was agonizing for our daughter, Lauren, who was all but engaged to him during his deployment.  “All but” because Haden is the kind of guy you would want your daughter to marry; he called and asked my permission when he got home.

At one point on Cape Cod, when the three of us were together, I asked Byron about the Navy chief advancement ceremonies Marleen and I had seen.  “I don’t know a whole lot about them,” he answered, “but given that they were going around seeing the sights in Boston, I expect that they have something to do with naval heritage indoctrination.”

“I’m sure,” I continued, taking the conversation in a different direction, “that you guys have seen the news about all Navy vessels that can’t seem to keep track of where they’re going and run into merchant ships.  I’m thinking of writing a post on my blog and calling it ‘The Gang That Can’t Shoot Straight.'”

“I wouldn’t do that,” said Haden.  “With all the wars and deployments the military is stretched pretty thin.  I wouldn’t want to be in the military right now.”

I could have guessed what Byron would say:  “I agree.”  By the time his commitment was up, he couldn’t wait to get out.  In addition to the frustrations of military bureaucracy, exhausting, long watches were a way of life, even in the reactor space.

But despite their qualms, I decided to go ahead.  If the news stories are right about the military being overextended, and I don’t doubt they are, shouldn’t it be talked about?  Especially since, as it so obviously is, a life and death issue?

And, yes, the title of this post may be irreverent.  But is it inaccurate?  Despite spending trillions of dollars, has the U.S. military been on the winning side of a major conflict since WWII?  You decide.  Korea?  Seventy years on and it’s threatening to explode into an unprecedented calamity.  Vietnam?  You’re kidding.  Grenada?  I said “major.”  The Cold War?  Perhaps.  Unless we “succeed” in provoking Russia, a nation with a vast nuclear arsenal, into a shooting war. As so many of our warmonger Washington politicians seem to want.  Afghanistan and Iraq?  Out and out disasters.

Dwight Eisenhauer, President and Supreme Commander of Allied forces in the last major war we won, warned the nation in his farewell address of what he called the “military industrial complex.”  It’s an iron triangle of defense contractors looking for lucrative arms deals, Congressmen who want to bring home pork barrel projects for their districts, and a top heavy military bureaucracy out to aggrandize itself.   In 2015, the U.S. spent more on the military than the next seven nations combined.

Judging, in short, by this record, the U.S. military seems better at spending money-than winning wars.  Perhaps not too surprising.  Since when did “complexes,” rather than armies, win wars?

When we got home, I discussed the Navy’s problems again with a friend who, over the years, has repeatedly astonished me with the depth and breath of his knowledge; he may be the closest thing to a polymath that I know.

“You know,” he said, “there is another problem in the Navy that’s been largely buried.  It’s not just that tired sailors are falling asleep when they should be standing watch.  There’s a lot of sleeping around since Obama mandated that the Navy go coed.  Pregnancies are way up. That means ships are short handed.  And,” he continued, “it’s a politically incorrect thought crime to even notice it.  Obama did his best to deep six the story.

– – – – – – – – – –  – –

I attend a men’s Bible study most Wednesday mornings.  We’re currently making our way through the books of Samuel in the Old Testament.  A central figure is King David; one of the episodes in the book, known to most school children, is that of David and Goliath.

Our gifted teacher, Rich Pilon, (a Navy vet, by the way) has said repeatedly that a central theme of the story is, “Leadership matters.”  There are abundant examples in the book of the disastrous consequences of poor leadership at the highest levels:  corrupt priests whose selfish miscalculations result in slaughter and national humiliation.  Lustful kings, including David himself, whose misdeeds shatter families and nations.

The problems in our military aren’t, for the most part, caused by the Navy chiefs that Marleen and I saw along the Freedom Trail in Boston.  Like so many others in our all volunteer force, they are no more than cogs in the wheels of a dysfunctional military Borg.

Our political leaders too often see these sailors as tools to allow them to brag to the folks back home about all the jobs they’ve brought to the district.  And use them as petri dishes to try out misguided social experiments in the cause of political correctness.  And then abuse them by entangling our nation in endless, futile wars at a terrible cost to our soldiers and their families.

Defense contractors and lobbyists look on them as little more than a justification for their fat, steady paychecks.

And our top heavy military brass?  Well, I won’t say it.

 

 

 

 

“No, I got a D in calculus.”

image2 (2)Our son, Byron, is a smart guy.  But, growing up, he was not big on school.  He much preferred to spend his time reading books.  I don’t know how many times he read the Civil War epic, Rifles for Watie.  And he almost certainly doesn’t either.

It drove us, and particularly his mother, nuts to be aware of his wasted potential.  We tried a private, alternative high school for a while.  It was a goofy waste of money.  I suggested that we send him to a military academy in Kansas-my wife vetoed that idea.

When he got older and could learn to drive, we thought that preventing him from getting his license might motivate him.  Wrong.  He sat in his room and read.  And brought home, at best, uneven report cards.  Some A’s and B’s, a sprinkling of D’s and F’s.  We gave up on the license thing when it dawned on my wife that if he didn’t learn to drive before he went to college-if any of them would accept him-he would be learning to drive from other college kids.  Probably not the best teachers.  We surrendered, he won.  But he never seemed to really be all that interested in driving anyway.

He ended up going to Miami of Ohio-talk about a university with a geographic identity crisis.  Why a school of its caliber would accept him I don’t know.  Well, actually, I do: they wanted our money.

As he did at Cherry Creek High School, he played in the marching band.  We went back for parents’ weekend and were there for the homecoming football game.  Those were the glory days of RedHawk football-Ben Roethlisberger was the quarterback.  So we got to see our son march at half-time.  And Big Ben win the game.

But it was all pretty much down hill from there.  Toward the end of the spring semester, we got a letter from Byron’s room mate informing us that he almost never went to class and did very little besides stay in the dorm room playing computer games.  The room mate also reported that he had to work to pay his way through school.  The kid was justifiably angry that Byron was not even warming a chair in class while he was working his fanny off.

When I picked up Byron at DIA that spring I showed him the letter.  “What do you have to say about this?  Is this what’s going on?”  My voice quavered with anger as we drove along Pena Boulevard.  He didn’t deny the contents of the letter.  I told him, “We’re done with this.  If you want to keep going to school, you’re picking up the tab yourself.”

A few minutes of stoney silence passed before he said, “I went to see the Navy recruiter recently.  I think I’m going to join the Navy.”

“Right,” I replied, still upset, “I’ll believe that when I see it.”

“I actually took the the military IQ test, the ASVAB, and got the highest available score.  They’re recruiting me into the Navy’s nuclear program.”

“Well,” I replied, “that sounds like it could be a good plan.  But you’re going to have to prove to us that you’re serious.”

But, skeptic though I was, a few weeks later a couple of impressive, ram rod straight Naval recruiting officers were sitting around our kitchen table.  I was a pretty easy sale.  My wife was tougher; she was afraid that they would pull the old bait-and-switch on him and he would wind up chipping paint on old hulks.  Nonetheless, a few months later, and after an emotional going away dinner, the recruiters showed up late one evening to take Byron downtown to be sworn in.

The next we heard from him was a frantic call from the Great Lakes Naval Training Center:  “I’m here.  I’m ok.  And I have to go.”  Click.

It was demanding, but he did well in basic training.  The fact that I was only seconds from missing my flight to Chicago to see him graduate from basic still haunts me, but I made it and the ceremony was suitably impressive.  We enjoyed a great weekend in Chi Town together.

He continued to excel through the various training schools.  The nuclear power training school curriculum is enough to make my head explode-you look at it and decide if you think you can pass.  I couldn’t have.

From there, he opted for submarines and helped run the reactor for several years on the USS Nebraska, a ballistic missile sub.  I joined the Big Red Sub Club and, in that capacity, was able to go on a one day ride along as the submarine returned from one of its 77 day patrols to its base in Bangor, Washington.

After eight years of outstanding Navy service, Byron finished as a Petty Officer, First Class.  The letter his mother and I received from his commanding officer announcing the promotion is impressive and, framed, hangs in my office.  He has a shadow box laden with commendations, medals, ribbons and pins.

On the strength of his naval record, and the recommendation of a fellow bubble head, Byron got a job with Google at their data center near Omaha after he mustered out of the Navy.  Again, regular promotions.  They’ve sent him around the country and from Finland to Ireland on various assignments.

I used to like to tell folks that “The only class that our son passed in college was marching band.”  And then go on to tell them how well he had done in the Navy-and now at Google.

However, one time Byron heard me say that and corrected me:  “No, dad, I got a D in calculus.”

I stand corrected.