Mama Told Johnny Not To Go Downtown

NOTE: I wrote the following a few years ago, shortly before shipping off to OCS. While a bit dated, it’s still good advice for any prospective Officer Candidates.

There’s an old running cadence (See: Jodie) in which a concerned mother warns her son not to venture into the urban population center of some unnamed city because the big, bad recruiter was hanging around. The song is reminiscent of the days of Vietnam, when you could walk down to ye olde local recruiter’s station and be on a bus headed for one of the happiest places on earth the next day (See: Parris Island, Fort Benning, Great Lakes, etcetera). Unfortunately for those still gung-ho about a military career these days, it’s no longer that easy.

With all of the talk of budget cuts and drawdowns, the military is starting to lower the amount of accessions they take on. What this means is, that yours truly has had to fight an uphill battle of sorts to get in. At present count, it’s taken three applications to Annapolis, three for a contract with Naval ROTC, and two tries with applying for direct accession (See: O C S). Luckily, I managed to snag a spot on my second try with the selection board. What has followed my selection (Called “Professional Recommendation”) has been a mountain of paperwork, a thorough investigation into my lengthy medical history, and a security clearance background check. Much to my chagrin, the Navy Medical Community has proved to be rather ornery and sticklers for tidy paperwork. I can’t say I blame them, seeing as how their approval could mean that I will be lent the keys to a pointy-nosed, fire-breathing, fighter/attack aircraft. It is not a decision to be made lightly.

I must say though, that the experience has been very much like that of wooing a woman. Just like courting a fine lass, the military has multiple hoops that a man must jump through in order to prove himself worthy. There are reams of forms and boiler plate that cover all kinds of topics ranging from your birthplace and citizenship to your education background and religious preference. All of this paperwork is then submitted to the selection board which is composed of men and women who hail from the warfare community that you are applying to join (I selected Student Naval Aviator, naturally). You see, when dealing with direct accessions in the Navy, you must apply to a specific warfare community (Surface Warfare, Submarine Service, Civil Engineering Corps, Special Operations, etcetera) and if they have an opening for you and you are qualified, they will accept you in. It’s not dissimilar from applying for a job working for General Electric or Ford.

Once you have secured a professional recommendation from the board, the real fun begins. The two major hurdles standing between the selectee and his final orders to Naval Station Newport are an extensive security background check and a visit to the wonderful world of MEPS (See: Military Entrance Processing Station). The background check is to ensure that you are a trustworthy enough individual to be allowed the supreme privilege of handling the country’s secrets. Naturally, it covers employment history, places of residence, citizenship information, and whether or not you’ve ever been a member of an organization dedicated to the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Ironically, there is a section asking about any contact you may have had with anyone of foreign disposition. The questions are run of the mill: Do you have any foreign contacts? Have you advised or supported foreign businesses? Have you ever had contact with officials of a foreign government? The answers available gave me a chuckle, though, as the respondent has the ability to answer “Yes,” “No,” or “Official Govt. Business.” Your humble author was mightily tempted to check the latter option, seeing as how he is a fan of literature of the cloak and dagger variety.

If the applicant is not yet exhausted from amount of paperwork required to apply for a security clearance, then he will undoubtedly be fatigued by the ordeal that is a standard MEPS visit. MEPS pairs the joys of paperwork with the excitement of a thorough medical examination. Contrary to popular belief, the rumors of the dreaded “oil check” are greatly exaggerated. Anyway, MEPS takes an exceedingly long time, and even more so if you have a lengthy medical history.

Once you have been blessed by Navy Medicine and whatever shadowy organization performs security background checks, you receive your Final Select letter which is the document where one signs their life away on the dotted line. And as soon as you place your John Hancock on that piece of paper, you’re property of the U.S. Navy.

So what advice do I have for those trying to make it as a Naval Officer? One, don’t ever give up hope. Two, document everything, because you never know when you might need a piece of documentation to prove something.

Dopo

There’s a special sensation when pulling into port for the first time. There’s an electricity in the air, a palpable excitement shared amongst the entire crew. Each new sight and smell and sound builds the excitement to a crescendo of magnificent proportions. the young seaman who the previous day had been run down, tired, exhausted from two-and-a-half months at sea with nothing to alleviate the drudgery of grinding and painting the chalks and bits but the occasional bird perched atop the hurricane bow is suddenly renewed by the bright Mediterranean sun and the promise of liberty.

And liberty, blessed liberty, that short, seemingly infinitessimal time when a Sailor can depart the ship, and then walk, run, or fly to the nearest bar and drink himself silly and attempt to arrange more carnal pastimes. Or he can immerse himself in the culture and language of whatever paradise he finds himself in. And the troubles and toils of the day job won’t follow him.

And thus it was, as it has always been, when we pulled into Bari, Italy — the crown jewel of the Puglia region of Southeast Italy — after almost sixty straight days at sea. And the crew felt that same excitement, and each deck seaman scurried about the forecastle with an extra pep in his step, and tended his lines with that much more dedication. And then, once safely moored, and all business attended to, those glorious words were announced on the 1MC: “Liberty Call, Liberty Call. Liberty Call for duty sections 1 and 2.” And then those same deck seaman raced across the brow to regain their land legs.

And my compadres and I — all four of us — set foot onto Italian soil, some for the first time. The first stop was to find a caffeteria and scratch the itch that only a capuccino could scratch. And then we wandered, as we are wont to do. There’s a special joy in getting lost in a foreign city. The hassles of leading Sailors and long bridge watches and wardroom politics seem miles away, completely unreachable, and the to-do list that stretches a cable’s length is replaced by the top notch priority of finding a good bowl of pasta and magnificent bottle of wine. Your troubles can wait until later; “dopo” in Italian.

And after sixty days at sea; sixty days of rushing; sixty days of maintaining a steady strain; the near complete lack of any kind of hurry that pervades the Italian culture is a welcome relief. Everything is dopo: paying for your coffee? Dopo. Can we have the check, please? Dopo. Signora, when do we need to check out of our hotel room? Dopo.

What a welcome relief it was. This sleepy seaside city, who’s real claim to fame is that it contains the cathedral that houses the bones of Saint Nicolaus (Yes, that Saint Nicolaus). This same seaside city which has been a crossroads for various conquering armies throughout the millenia, was a refuge from the storm of operational commitments and uniforms, where you could almost pretend you were a civilian. And like all Sailors, every now and then we all need some time in a safe port from life’s tempestuous struggles.

Where the Sky and Sea Meet

Life at sea can begin to drag at times. It seems to occur more often the longer you’re at sea. The nights drag into days and the days mix together until the only dividing line is each day’s watch. And then those blend together until you try to create your own log and  can’t remember if that particular helicopter landing, where the winds wouldn’t stay put off of the stardboard bow and the seas were so confused that the deck wouldn’t stay anything resembling steady, happened on Tuesday or Thursday three weeks ago. And so Sailors, being the crafty individuals that they are, have created their own metrics for telling the days apart. Many in the crew use burger days (The U.S. Navy serves hamburgers for lunch every Wednesday, fleetwide). And then conversations like this occur: “Hey dude, do you remember when Chief said we needed to get that fuse box squared away?” “Yeah, man, he said next burger day.”

But at least obsurd conversations like that break up a long midwatch, as does the ever popular game of “Who’d You Rather?” So far Scarlett Johanson and Fat Amy are neck and neck and factions have arisen amongst the crew over their particular favorite. And even then, games and training can only last so long, until halfway through that long midwatch you run out of things to talk about and everyone is left to their own thoughts as they struggle to remain awake and retain what sanity they have left. Those are the nights when you venture out to the bridge wing and stare up at the stars and see the brilliant studs of light puncture the inky black sky for as far as you can see. And then the watch stretches on as you transit the vast Atlantic Ocean.

Eventually, you’ll look out and see no one else for miles, and then you’ll look down at the radar scope and confirm that electronically, and it’ll dawn on you that you’re really alone out here. If something should happen it’ll be up to you and the other 199 members of the crew. As the ship rocks side to side, and the swells crash into the port beam, you call down to the Central Control Station, where the engineers control the engines and bowels of the ship, and inquire what the sea water injection temperature is. “Hey pilothouse, CCS, SWIT’s about 60 degrees.” “60 degrees, bridge aye.” Sixty degrees: That sure is cold. . . And I haven’t seen a single surface contact all night. And then the thought begins to creep in, as you stare out at the empty sea: If I go overboard, I’m probably not making it back. Ditto for if we all have to abandon ship.

And it makes you realize how important it is that we do our jobs right, and keep the ship running and afloat. You realize why all of those man overboard drills are so direly important. You see how important it is that the look outs stand a vigilant watch. And why it’s so important that you stand a vigilant watch. And then the sun breaks the horizon and shines its wondrous rays down on the sea below. And you eagerly greet it.

Distant Shores

It’s a strange sight, to sit off the coast of a country you’ve never been to and probably won’t ever visit. At night you can distinctly make out the dark mass of land as it breaks up the almost endless sky. And the lights sit ashore, twinkling, waiting for the sun to rise. And there I sat, perched atop the rails on the port bridge wing, leaning against the life boat canister, surveying the coastline for movement of any kind. The only sounds are whine of the gas turbine engines and the whoosh of the ventilation fans. The air is static and the South American humidity so thick it feels as if I’m breathing a glass of water. And the watch drags on.

Conversation has gone stale and the drug runners don’t seem to be interested in coming out to play to tonight. No doubt they could see our ship from shore and thought better of it. Whoever thought standing a five hour midwatch, after standing the reveille watch the morning before and then working through the day, was a special kind of cruel.

But it’s in these moments, out here, all alone on the bridge wing that I can finally afford the time to be introspective. I have the freedom and the privacy to be alone (Yes, alone, finally!) with just my thoughts. Here, watching the coast roll lazily along, I can ponder life’s mysteries and breath a little easier.

But the humidity doesn’t get any easier to take. I soon retreat back to the pilothouse which is cooled by an asthmatic air conditioner. I walk through the door just in time to meet my relief. We do a quick turnover and then I lurch down the ladder and back aft to the wardroom.

I raid the gedunk drawer and pull out a couple whole grain poptarts (These are just like regular poptarts, but with a better marketing team). It’s been a long day and I just want to decompress. As I munch and munch and think over how uneventful the watch is, I feel the ship come alive beneath me. Both gas turbine engines are now online and are screaming at full grunt. I know that the bridge team have spotted a drug runner and are now giving chase.

And such is the life of a warship at sea: Long periods of boredom unexpectedly punctuated by moments of sheer terror and excitement. As for me, I cleaned up my garbage and went to bed.

A Helluva Birthday

I know that posting has been light as of late, but work has gotten in the way. I am currently halfway around  the world showing the flag for the United States. As you might imagine, internet connections are not the greatest at sea, nor is my free time as bountiful. But, I have not forgotten about you, dear readers.

About a three days before my twenty-fourth birthday, I received travel orders from Big Navy for to go meet USS FIRST SHIP out on the wild Atlantic. So, in keeping with one of the longest standing Naval traditions, I dropped everything I was doing and hopped on a plane on the eve of my birthday and flew thousands of miles to points untrodden. I actually turned twenty-four somewhere over the Atlantic.

I am now working hard, trying to get up to speed on the steep learning curve that are daily operations aboard a warship. I will update the blog as I am able, and will hopefully be able to return to three posts a week. But, fret not, Kipling Friday will continue unabated.

The Navy and Bio-Fuel

For the last few years, the Navy has been pouring a lot of valuable money into bio-fuel research. The way that the project has been sold has been as a way to make the fleet more environmentally friendly, reducing emissions and the like. Now anyone who knows much about the engineering of ships knows that for the majority of our fleet, we use gas turbines in our main propulsion plants, and gas turbines burn through an exorbitant amount of gas in under the most “economical” of conditions. Because of this, the bio-fuel campaign has come under great scrutiny as a waste of money, including just recently from the Honorable Randy Forbes (R-VA).

The Navy used 20,000 gallons of algae-derived fuel for a November test in San Diego. Here, Lt. Cmdr. Frank Kim compares sample bottles of traditional diesel fuel and the alternative blend. Photo Courtesy of Dept of the Navy.

But the idea of “greening” the fleet isn’t all bad, it’s just being sold the wrong way. Having the ability to power our ships using bio-fuel as well as regular marine diesel provides us flexibility in the event that standard oil supplies are cut-off. Flexibility is crucial in warfare, as our adeptness at being able to roll with the punches can mean the difference between being victorious or having our rear-ends handed to us. And that being the case, we need to sell to Congress that we need to pursue bio-fuel alternatives in order to maintain superiority on the sea.

The only caveat is that bio-fuel isn’t the most economical way of providing independence from the vagaries of the oil market. The best way to do this is to convert as much of the fleet as possible to nuclear power. The joy about nuclear plants is that they don’t produce carbon emissions, they don’t need to be fueled up for decades, and they can run nearly indefinitely, meaning that a ship’s range is only limited by the amount of food and fresh water it can carry.

The only downside to a nuclear fleet is the amount of money required on the front end to install the reactor and propulsion plant. In the end, both initiatives are necessary, as well as increasing our domestic oil production as much as possible.

Counter Piracy Done Right

This video was making the rounds on the internets over the weekend. It depicts a skirmish between private security contractors aboard a merchant vessel and would-be pirates attacking said vessel. The contractors repel the pirates with force, saving the merchant vessel, its crew, and the contents of its hold from ransom.

This is the only way to deal with pirates. The mercurial political situation and rampant poverty affecting most countries that sponsor or are home to pirates are complicated issues that leave the citizens of said countries with few other options than to engage in illegal trafficking or piracy. Also, many of the governments of those countries realize that they can make tremendous profits by charging said pirates and smugglers for safe harbor.

In short, the only real true way to easily ensure the safe passage of a ship bearing the flag of the United States is to show the pirates that to trifle with a US flagged ship is lunacy and will end with their sure demise. And the only way to do that is have American warships sailing with consistent presence in said pirate-infested waters, providing forward presence and deterrence.

It worked for Stephen Decatur, it’ll work now.