A Sailor looks back over twenty years

Shortly after advancing to Petty Officer Third Class, I enjoyed a beer at a beachfront bar on an island in the Caribbean. Sitting next to another Sailor from USS Donald B. Beary (FF 1085) — a ship that now sails under the flag of Turkey — we ate greasy hamburgers and fries that were pretty good, and mostly talked about the Navy.

He was a Seaman in Deck Division, one paygrade below the one I had just moved up to, but had been in the service more than twice as long. His lack of advancement had nothing to do with his abilities, however.

He simply didn’t want to.

“I don’t need the pay and I don’t need the headaches. Everyone in Deck already knows I can do anything and everything a petty officer can do,” he said. “I like working outside with my hands, don’t want to be standing around watching other people work or sitting at a desk.”

The man had a mustache, usually a perk reserved for petty officers, but he told me the Deck chief and division officer allowed him to grow it as an incentive to take the last Petty Officer exam — the one I had advanced from. Although he agreed to take the test — long since qualified, he had refused to participate in previous exams — it was for the mustache, so he didn’t study and purposely missed several questions to ensure there was no change to the status quo.

“Don’t need any more than I’ve got right now,” he continued. “I’ve got enough money in my pocket to have a beer now and then, or watch a movie, or go out for dinner. On the ship I’ve got a warm and quiet place to sleep and three or more hot meals a day — that’s all I need.”

*  *  *  *

That conversation with the deck seaman from the Beary took place close to 30 years ago and in a Navy very different than the one I retired from. I suppose change is one of the strengths of the sea service: despite a strong sense of tradition, the Navy evolves to suit its needs and changes in society. As it went from sails to steam to gas turbines, the male-only Navy now has women serving in and commanding warships.

In later years of my service the Navy started a High Year Tenure program for Sailors, matching the requirement for “moving up or moving out” that officers faced. Under HYT, that Seaman from the Beary would be required to take the advancement exam, and he could be discharged for failure to earn promotions at set intervals.

The 1990s are often seen as a decade of ambition and greed, with Yuppies working hard to earn BMWs, corporations conducting leveraged buy-outs for rivals and Internet start-ups making overnight millionaires. Is it any wonder then that the HYT program — which, in a way, sought to legislate ambition in Sailors — was introduced at that time?

*  *  *  *

When I enlisted in the early 1980s, men still wore their hair fairly long and with their close-cropped haircuts Sailors were self-conscious of how much they stood out in a crowd of civilians. Many Sailors pushed the limits, including wetting their hair for morning quarters. This practice was not limited to enlisted Sailors, either. I was once reprimanded by a Captain for not ensuring my boss, a Commander, got a haircut before a meeting with the Admiral on whose staff we all served.

In the large cubicle-less office space I shared with my boss, the Captain told the Commander several times he needed a haircut — at one point calling him “a damn hippie” — and as he walked to the door the Captain turned to me and directed I get him to the barber.

I immediately reached for the phone but my boss cut me off, saying he would take care of it. I pointed out the fact that the Captain had seemed quite serious, and I felt he had given me a direct order. The Commander sneered and told me not to worry about it. Of course, he didn’t get it cut — I found out even a Navy Commander would try the Seaman trick of wetting down his hair — and although I didn’t get into any real trouble, I never let him forget about it.

*  *  *  *

Mandatory drug testing was relatively new when I joined the service, and the penalties for Sailors who “popped” positive for drugs or had been involved in an alcohol-related offense had been stiffened. Mandatory drug testing resulted from a 1981 jet crash that killed 14 and wounded 45 on the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. Autopsies showed marijuana in the system of many of the dead.

I was once told a sea story by a Sailor who was a Master-at-Arms assigned to the Military Working Dog program. He was on a helicopter with his dog, a drug sniffer, en route to a deployed aircraft carrier to conduct a sweep for illegal substances. Also on the helicopter were some civilian journalists heading to the ship.

Throughout the flight the drug dog kept alerting his handler to one of the photographers, and when they got to the ship a quick search revealed the man had stuffed his camera bag with small bags of marijuana. The photog had planned on making a killing in sales to the Sailors on the ship, but instead he found himself facing federal charges.

The Navy’s previous lack of harsh penalties for drug-related incidents reflected in many ways the Old Navy belief that Sailors worked hard and deserved to play hard. It also meant that many senior enlisted leaders I worked for had been caught earlier in their careers, but not suffered serious consequences because of it.

I’ll never forget talking one duty night to a grizzled Master Chief — the highest enlisted paygrade ­— who told me he had twice been convicted at court-martial for drug and alcohol abuse, including smoking pot in his berthing compartment onboard the ship while it was underway.

*  *  *  *

Performance was the most important thing for a Sailor in the Navy that I enlisted into. A Sailor who was “squared away” in appearance and attitude, who worked hard and achieved results could in many ways write their own ticket. Good Sailors had to stay inside the rules just like anyone else, but they could go closer to the gray areas than others. Like that mustache on the deck seaman from the Beary for instance, or wearing their hair just a bit longer.

Even breaking the rules didn’t necessarily mean the end of the line for a good Sailor, if the mistake was honestly made or the result of some mitigating circumstance. At the destroyer squadron staff I served at, we once had assigned to us for temporary duty a Boiler Technician First Class who was awaiting legal proceedings for stabbing another Sailor while their ship was on deployment.

During a port visit in the Mediterranean Sea, the Boiler Technician found out he had been selected for advancement to Chief Petty Officer and he got blacked-out drunk in celebration. In conversations the man, who had a wife and children, said he rarely drank before that night, so it didn’t take much.

Further, the Boiler Tech had absolutely no idea why — after his shipmates decided he needed to return to the ship — he became angry enough at another Sailor to grab a folding knife from his locker, open it and then stab the other man in their berthing compartment.

The stabbed sailor was hospitalized but later recovered, and the ship had no choice but to refer charges against the Boiler Technician, who returned to Norfolk clearly remorseful and devastated by what had happened. With a solid record of achievement over 15 years of service and glowing letters of support from his chain of command, the general consensus was a way needed to be found to salvage a good Sailor without compromising the rules.

For his punishment, the man was fined two months pay, demoted to Petty Officer Second Class — effectively a two-grade drop since he had been selected for advancement — and referred to a Navy alcohol rehabilitation center to see if treatment was warranted.

The key component of the punishment, however, was that paygrade “bust” was suspended for a year. Stay out of trouble, and he kept his chevrons. Step out of line once, and he was busted. The man was as good a Sailor as advertised, and two years later I saw his name once again on the Chief Petty Officer list.

In the Navy I retired from, the man would be also have been fined, demoted and sent to alcohol treatment, but I highly suspect any suspended sentence would be imposed. In fact, the most likely result would be discharge from the service upon completion of alcohol treatment.

A joke often heard later in my career was that that the Navy would fix you before dumping you overboard.

*  *  *  *

Why the difference? The service I enlisted in was growing to meet the requirements of President Reagan’s 600-ship Navy, and it was led by Admirals who vividly remembered the post-Vietnam “hollow Navy” plagued by personnel shortages and less-than-ideal enlistees.

The Navy I retired from was still shrinking in size and searching for its mission as a result of the Cold War ending. Competition for promotions and advancement as well as choice billets and programs was high, and the career of even the best Sailor or officer could not survive the slightest blemish.

For my part I tried to walk the line between the Navy I enlisted in and the one I retired from. I tried to treat good Sailors the way I had been, but it wasn’t always easy. At times I was taken advantage of, but mostly I raised the ire of other officers and chiefs who toed the line.

*  *  *  *

Life sometimes has a way of circling back on us, though. A case in point would be my final tour of duty before retirement as the Administrative Officer at the Naval Station in Everett, Wash.

Although there was a destroyer squadron staff assigned to Everett, the rules were different for them than for my old Destroyer Squadron 10 in Norfolk, Virginia. In Everett the Naval Station took in transient Sailors from homeported ships that were underway — Sailors getting ready to transfer or retire, go to school or take care of medical or legal issues.

One day a couple years before I retired a Petty Officer from one of the ships, a young woman in her late 20s, knocked on my office door. She was accompanied by her husband and had been left behind when her ship got underway that morning. Earlier that week she had been diagnosed as having an inoperable brain tumor, and even with weekly radiation treatments doctors at the Naval Hospital in Bremerton, Wash., gave her just months to live.

While I read through her paperwork and service record — full of glowing performance evaluations and awards — the young Sailor asked me what her working hours would be at the Naval Station, stressing that she wasn’t looking for an easy job but instead because she was no longer permitted to drive. If her husband was needed to pick up their children at school, she said, arrangements would need to be made for another ride or for her to take the bus.

I told her not to worry about working hours, because she wasn’t getting any job. Instead, I directed her to call me every Monday, Wednesday and Friday so that I knew she was okay. If she wasn’t feeling up to it her husband could call, and if I didn’t answer they could leave a message. They should also call me if they needed help with anything — Navy or not. Other than that, I told her to focus on getting better and spending time with her family.

I only saw them once more, a few months later. She had a bandanna around her bald head and was clearly in decline, needing her husband’s support even while sitting in a chair. They needed paperwork signed that would transfer her to the Retired List for medical reasons: such a move would provide extra benefits to her children once she passed away.

Once the paperwork was processed she was no longer part of the station but a few months after that the husband called to tell me she had died. He thanked me for letting her stay at home. He said she struggled with it at first — it wasn’t in her nature to not be working — but as her health declined she appreciated every moment spent with him and their children.

I expressed my condolences on the loss he and his children suffered, said I was glad they had that time together and told him to call me if he ever needed anything. There was no really need to thank me, though, because it was the only decent thing to do.

I’d have done the same in either Navy — the one I enlisted in or the one I retired from.

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4 responses to “A Sailor looks back over twenty years

  1. Interesting. I cannot imagine how things must be in the sea-going services these days. I think it was ’77 or ’78 when women (officers) came aboard in the Coast Guard. The atmosphere you describe I certainly remember, my first ship a floating pharmacy and lunatic asylum. Officers and senior enlisted did not walk the weather decks alone when underway, particularly at night. Morale was bad, very bad in the post Vietnam military. Our hair was a constant issue and Fu Manchu mustaches were common. It was a bad place to start off from coming straight out of boot camp, but that’s where they sent me. If you lived in deck or engineering berthing during those days you lived “in the hood”. I thought it was pretty crazy, until I visited a shipmate’s apartment on the nearby Army base. Later when I was stationed in New London, a drinking buddy who was an HT on the Fulton (he’d been aboard four years and had not gotten underway once) described life on that thing. I realized how fortunate I was. My cousin who served on the Enterprise in Vietnam described life aboard as “scary”, and he wasn’t referring to the topside hazards.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read & comment, Will. I think military “atmosphere” (for lack of a better term) is constantly evolving. The Navy I left isn’t the Navy I joined … and honestly I’m not sure it was better. But, then again, the world is always changing, too, so I guess the military is just following suit.

  3. Loved the article. As a sailor who joined in Oct 1980. I remember how much it changed the short time I was in. 1980-1986. The loose with the rules mentality slowly changed to everything by the book. While some clamping down the regs, I feel was necessary. I think a lot more got done with a little bending of the rules now and then, as you stated giving a guy a 2nd chance.

    • Thanks for reading & leaving a comment, Ron. I much preferred the Navy I enlisted in to the one I retired from: a Navy of 2nd chances & a focus on getting things done instead of “looking right”.

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