The Navy is a community unto itself, with a population that crosses every possible spectrum: gender, ethnicity, religion and age.Within that community are sub-groupings — officer, enlisted, aviation, surface, submarines — and within those are more and more sub-groups: weapons, engineering, deck, administration, operations, warfare-qualified, diver, explosive ordnance disposal, amphibious, carriers, destroyers, work center, division, department, etc., etc.
When I reported to my first command in Norfolk, Va., the base was rightfully declared to be “The World’s Largest Naval Base” with ships of all types lining the piers, an airfield that was home to helicopters and cargo planes, and tens of thousands of Sailors from all parts of the greater Navy community working and living there.
Whenever I was home on leave, it never failed that upon hearing where I was stationed, someone would ask me if I knew so-and-so, a relative or the son/daughter of a friend or neighbor, who was also stationed at The World’s Largest Naval Base. “Umm, no, but that doesn’t mean much because there are, you see, quite a few of us there,” was my usual response.
After completing boot camp and Yeoman “A” School in Meridian, Miss. — where I learned how to complete Navy paperwork and forms — I reported to the staff of Commander, Destroyer Squadron 10 in Norfolk. DesRon 10, or “Lightning 10,” was a readiness squadron — since decommissioned by the Navy — one of two such destroyer units in Norfolk.
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It was our responsibility at DesRon 10 to ensure the 18 destroyers, guided missile destroyers and frigates assigned to us were fully manned, qualified and operationally ready to deploy overseas, where they “chopped” to the control of tactical destroyer squadrons, cruiser-destroyer groups and aircraft carrier battle groups.
The staff at DesRon 10 was composed of mostly officers and senior enlisteds — Master, Senior and Chief Petty Officers — divided up into departments for Combat Systems, Operations and Communications, Maintenance and Repair, Chaplains, and Admin where I was the most junior member of the staff for about six months until another Yeoman Seaman (E3) reported.
Most of the officers I worked with at DesRon 10 later became commanding officers of ships, and several eventually became Admirals — as did many of the commanding and executive officers of squadron ships. The current Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Gary Roughead, was XO of USS Spruance (DD 963) while I was at DesRon 10.
People were the biggest part of our job in Admin. Squadron ships getting underway often left Sailors and officers with us, assigning them on Temporary Additional Duty orders which led us to call them TADs (with each letter pronounced separately: T-A-D). We got TADs for a variety of reasons: schools, medical appointments, humanitarian reasons, or to do some work for the ship while it was underway.
We also took on pending disciplinary cases — I’ll never forget the sight of a former ship Executive Officer who was waiting on a court-martial for misuse of government property giving the business card of his civilian lawyer to a seaman accused of smuggling drugs into the country after a port visit in South America — and the occasional officer or Sailor that the ship just didn’t want.
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One of the very few TADs I remember so many years later was a young Sailor who reported to us the day after his ship left for a two-week training period. His name was Boynton or something like that, and he missed getting to the ship before it left because he was bumped from a flight after attending Fireman Apprenticeship Training — a basic prep course right after boot camp for those destined to work in the ship’s engineering spaces.
Unfortunately for Boynton, the ship was shorthanded on junior engineering department personnel and they were counting on having him onboard to take part in the basic-level training they were underway for. When we reported his arrival to the ship by message, the response was to place Boynton on disciplinary hold as an unauthorized absentee and then get him to the ship the quickest way possible.
Boynton was from a small rural town and had enlisted right out of high school, and when I checked him in he was shy and polite. His flight into Norfolk that morning was just the second time he’d ever flown, with the first being his trip down to boot camp.
I read the ship’s message to him, and at the words “disciplinary” and “unauthorized” his eyes went wide and his jaw dropped. He mumbled something about needing to talk to someone because he didn’t understand why he was in trouble. Boynton seemed embarrassed to talk about it at the customer-service counter, so I pulled him into the empty career counselor’s office and he told me his story.
He was at the gate for his departure flight when an announcement was made that the airline had overbooked, and would four people volunteer to take the next one? No one stepped forward, so the airline made the decision and announced which four passengers would have to wait — Boynton being one of them.
At that point I interrupted to ask if Boynton told the airline representatives that he was under orders and had to make the flight? He did not, based in part on the assumption that “the next flight” wouldn’t be the next day and in part because he didn’t think the airline would allow someone in uniform to be delayed without good reason.
I told Boynton that any airport near a military training base would be crowded with young men and women in uniform, and it wasn’t the airline rep’s job to know who was coming or going on orders or leave. At that point he dropped his head and didn’t look at me; when I asked him if he had gotten any paperwork from the airline to document his story — most had a form that gate personnel could fill in — he just shook his head “no.”
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At DesRon 10 we heard all kinds of stories from Sailors reporting in after their ship had left, so the tendency towards cynicism ran high. Once, I even took a call from a mother in West Virginia wanting to know how much leave we gave Sailors, because her newly-enlisted son had returned home from his ship two months ago and that didn’t seem right.
My senior chief told me to ignore Boynton’s story, process him for travel and not to worry about what happened to him once he got to the ship. I told the senior chief that I thought Boynton was a young man who wasn’t very assertive or articulate, and certainly not wise to the ways of the world. Although the senior chief warned me it was probably a waste of time, he let me make some phone calls to try to verify Boynton’s story with the airline.
I called the airline’s customer service number, got a contact at the airport and within an hour had confirmed the facts of how Boynton got bumped and gotten a signed memo from the airline faxed to the squadron. I typed up my own assessment on the situation, addressed to the ship’s XO and initialed by my senior chief and Lieutenant, and attached it and the airline memo to Boynton’s orders package.
A few days later Boynton headed south on a Navy flight with orders to report to the ship at Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Puerto Rico.
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When it came to TADs at DesRon 10, we often joked that the only Sailors we saw more than once were troublemakers. There was some truth to that, unfortunately, but on occasion we’d run into a solid Sailor more than once.
The next time I saw Boynton we were both third class petty officers. He had completed the requirements for advancement as a Boiler Technician on his ship, and by all accounts was very good at his job. I was on the ship for a short underway period along with a couple of chief petty officers from the squadron maintenance shop.
Although my tour of duty at DesRon 10 counted as sea duty — somewhere there was an operational plan that called for us to become a tactical squadron in the event of war — the chiefs on the staff rode me a lot about my lack of shipboard experience. So, whenever the workload permitted I would join them for short underway periods on squadron units.
My goal for the trip onboard Boynton’s ship was to get into the engineering spaces. During earlier ship rides I spent time in the Combat Information Center, on the navigational bridge and signal bridge, and in weapons and sonar spaces. We embarked early in the day, and the chiefs I was with told me they’d get me into “the hole” after breakfast.
I was eating alone in the crew’s mess when Boynton sat down across from me. I didn’t remember him at first, but Boynton reminded me of how we first met. He thanked me for what I had done, saying my memo and the one from the airline kept him out of trouble when he finally got to the ship.
It’s possible, I told him, that he wasn’t going to be in trouble regardless of what I did. He thanked me again anyway, and asked if there was any way he could repay the favor. When I told him why I was onboard, he offered to — and then did — give me a detailed tour through every engineering space on the ship. I learned more about 1,200-pound steam plants, generators and reduction gears in those two days than most topside Sailors ever did.
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Although there are hundreds of thousands of officers and Sailors in the Navy, each are connected as part of the community as a whole and many share bonds beyond that. “What’s your rate?” “Where were you stationed?” “Did you serve with/know X?”
My path during 20 years of service crossed that of many, many others, but my memory has never been the best, so I clearly remember just a few. If not for our chance meeting later on his ship, Boynton’s story probably would not have stuck in my mind among the hundreds of TADs I saw at DesRon 10. I’m glad it worked out the way it did, though, because too many of the ones that made a lasting impression did so for the wrong reasons.