A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece titled “The Navy’s Debauchery Problem: An Enlisted Perspective,” which outlined concerns I have with the Navy’s culture and which you can read here. Some readers had strong and differing opinions on the matter. As a result, I’ve written some follow-up posts, the latest of which is below.
A common response from critics of my recent Navy-culture piece was, “You only served six years; how could you possibly know what the Navy is really like? You cast the Navy as a caricature of itself.” It’s lazy criticism seeking to delegitimize my arguments, but it’s good for a writer to show receipts, and I happened to see more in six years than many do in twelve. Readers can decide whether I accrued enough experience to further comment on our forces afloat, but it’s worth explaining, briefly, here.
In the final days of high school, I went to the recruiter’s office hoping to be a corpsman (medic), but having scored a 97 on the ASVAB — the military’s approximation of the SAT, graded on a 1-99 scale — I was strongly urged to join the nuclear program instead. I naively agreed. After Basic in Great Lakes, Ill., it was straight to the swamps of Goose Creek, S.C., to become a “nuke,” a mechanic for the reactors known as an MMN. I passed the first of three schools but ultimately washed out of the program after seven months — earning the designation “nuke waste.” (Note to Navy: never send an English major to a nuclear-physics program.) They converted me to a regular mechanic and stationed me aboard a frigate, the Rodney M. Davis (FFG-60) homeported in Everett, Wash.
The RMD was “pirate navy” with an all-male crew, excepting a handful of female officers, and home to a culture of hard drinking and adulterous nonsense. The lead electrician had a gym bag full of whiskey bottles underway, and half of my division spoke openly of cheating on their wives. Perhaps the most jarring was when the ship’s doctor was arrested partway through deployment for allegedly using Medical’s morphine recreationally, for which he received a “bad conduct” discharge from the service.
My year aboard her saw an INSURV (an intensive inspection where you look busy for four months and work 80 hours a week), a deployment to Southeast Asia, and, ultimately, a decommissioning of the tired old gal. While aboard, I worked in the Auxiliaries Division (A-Gang), with a stint in the wardroom as a cabin boy serving meals and doing laundry. Day-to-day life comprised cleaning sea life out of A/C condensers, acting as the diesel-filter remover because of my long, skinny arms, and pumping bilge water out of the ship while on watch. It was a sweaty, miserable time, but deployment saw us pulling into ports of call I would have otherwise never seen like the Maldives, Thailand, Yokosuka, etc.
After decommissioning the RMD, the Navy, in its infinite wisdom, saw my ASVAB and produced orders to Portsmouth, Va., to learn about how to make liquid nitrogen and oxygen for aircraft in their cryogenics (O2N2) school. The class was primarily “nuke waste.”
Three months out East confirmed a truism in the Navy, that “the farther from Washington D.C. you are, the better the Navy gets.” Proximity to D.C. means more visits from the brass and an overall more-oppressive sailor experience as a result. Seeing as cryo-school was on a nearly defunct base — in case we blew ourselves up — I saw little of this “East Coast Navy” until we went to the nearby naval shipyard for morning PT every few days. What a sad, over-regulated, and depressed bunch of sailors. Suicides tend to spike in dry dock, and I could certainly see why.
Upon graduation, my next duty station was the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), homeported off San Diego. Once aboard, my chief sent me TAD to AIMD (loaned me to the intermediary repair branch of aviation) to become a calibrator of gages, scales, and other items of sensitive measurement. It was not possible to live on the ship due to an intensive repair period, so I got the enviable opportunity to live aboard a Navy berthing barge. After a year of award-winning gage work, advancing to E-5, and having forgotten most everything I learned about cryogenics, it was back to O2N2 to prepare for a deployment to the South China Sea.
The following three years predominately were spent at sea, with two deployments and many months in between cruising the California coastline so pilots could get qualified on flight-deck launches and landings. Days deployed become rotations of working, sleeping, and eating with little to break up the tedium, with the exception of two things: “brilliant” ideas, like group PT and altered work assignments, that issue from the Chief’s Mess and fizzle within a month, and revelations in the POD (Plan of the Day) like the news that a couple — usually married but not to each other — was busted canoodling in a fan room. The POD would detail their punishment and the regulations they broke; it was like the military version of People magazine without the pictures. Otherwise, the days were spent taking logs and watching the news to see if the angry man in North Korea threatened to blow us out of the water again.
While cryo is a nice gig at sea, there is little work in port as the airwing is no longer around. When there’s nothing to do, you become a target for special assignments. The final year saw me TAD again, first in maintenance authorization and later the Security Department. Before the 2018 deployment, there was a short maintenance period, so I’d approve work orders and do tag-out checks. Our ten-man group worked out of an air-conditioned space on the ship that was once a pilots’ lounge. The job was to keep sailors and contractors from electrocuting themselves, and we were shockingly effective.
After a four-month deployment to Southeast Asia from January to April of 2018 – USS Carl Vinson became the first carrier to dock in Vietnam since 1975 — the final months of my Navy time took place in Hawaii and San Diego, working security. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it as much as I did were I not months away from freedom, but the chain of command was excellent, and the work — standing and looking at people beadily while cradling a Mossberg M500 — was simple enough. The worst bit was getting “voluntold” to be a urinalysis observer, but after watching the 50th guy pee in a cup, it becomes old hat.
All of this is to say, I’ve reported to multiple duty stations, held positions topside and below decks, and deployed thrice. I’ve lived the small-boy and aircraft-carrier lives and attended schools in Great Lakes, San Diego, Portsmouth, and Goose Creek. My experiences with the Navy’s flaws are neither contrived nor difficult for most sailors to observe.
I believe turning a blind eye to correctable shortcomings is a failure of leadership. Please, do feel free to disagree with me on the merits of my argument, but as to the claim that I haven’t seen enough of the Navy to have an opinion . . . well, in the immortal words of Johnny Cash, “I’ve been everywhere, man.”
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