It Isn’t the Veteran

I’m going to backdate this (I’m on vacation, which has involved a lot less free time than I anticipated and so I am behind on posts), so I think this post will “officially” come out around Memorial Day but I will note it is “actually” several weeks later. I wanted to talk about what I think is a particularly pernicious sort of attitude I tend to see around the holiday. I wish the following paragraphs were more elegant.

The attitude is that every single right you have as an American or even as a person is because a veteran fought for it and, especially on Memorial Day, died for it. Maybe it doesn’t pop up on your Facebook feed but it pops up on mine. A quick googling brought me “It is the Veteran,” a particularly direct and all-encompassing version of it. Credited there to Sarah Palin’s uncle (?), I’ll quote it here:

It is the veteran, not the preacher who has given us freedom of religion. It is the veteran, not the reporter who has given us freedom of the press. It is the veteran, not the poet who has given us freedom of speech. It is the veteran, not the campus organizer who has given us freedom to assemble. It is the veteran, not the lawyer who has given us the right to a fair trial. It is the veteran, not the politician who has given us the right to vote. It is the veteran who salutes the flag, who serves under the flag and whose coffin will be draped by the flag.

I think I first heard some version of this sentiment during my Plebe year at the Naval Academy. Even then I didn’t like it, but that might have been because I’m just a contrarian instead of some precocious political awakening. I don’t quite get why military veterans and their fans are so eager to claim every good thing that’s ever happened. Veterans are already pretty well lauded, why not let some of the love be spread around?

I think “It is the Veteran” is wrong, and so wrong that it is a full 180 degrees out. I don’t think you get rights because a veteran fought on the battlefield. I also don’t think you get rights just because someone says you have them or because they’re written down on some piece of paper. I think rights come from exercising those rights. Freedom of the press comes from the press writing about politicians that don’t want to be written about. The freedom to assemble comes from assembling when someone doesn’t want you build a movement. And the right to vote comes from voting when vested interests do everything they can to keep you from being heard.

More importantly, the attitude isn’t pernicious just because it is wrong. It is pernicious because it implies that people didn’t really earn their rights. The majority of people aren’t veterans and never will be. Saying that rights come from what veterans did means that the majority of people didn’t earn their rights, but owe their rights to the actions of this very small minority. Their rights are therefore far from being inalienable but instead have been granted.

The eagerness to claim that all rights stem from veterans is therefore I think an eagerness to be able to claim who does and doesn’t get them, or how people get to use them. If rights come from the sacrifices of a group most people will never be in, then it’s valid to say that freedom of speech doesn’t apply when supporting Black Lives Matter. It makes it valid to say that the freedom to vote is only really for people who vote the “right” way. It makes it valid to systematically deny whole groups of people their rights because in your eyes they simply don’t deserve them.

I suspect most people that share the sentiment that we should thank veterans for our rights aren’t thinking about what that actually implies for their rights or for the rights of others. But it is another part of an American way of thinking that allows us to say we’re the greatest nation on Earth without thinking about for whom that is and isn’t true. We are still in an era where people have to struggle every day to attain those rights that Sarah Palin’s uncle would say veterans already granted them. When those rights finally come, it won’t be because they shot enough people. It will be because they broke through the forces holding them down to stand up and exercise those rights.

Veteran Privilege

A much younger me.

The prompt for this post is that yesterday, as I am writing this (you won’t see it until later), I received the first shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. My super amazing girlfriend pointed out that it was the one-year anniversary of the pandemic. The reason it is causing me some internal angst is that I only got it because I am a veteran.

Here in Connecticut, they’re deciding vaccine eligibility (at least at the time of this writing, which is gonna be the caveat for this whole post) based purely on age, which I think is probably the best way to go about it. Given my youth and vigor, that would have made me eligible May 3rd at the earliest (at least until President Biden bumped up the time table slightly). However, turns out the Connecticut VA was providing vaccines for any veteran enrolled for health care, regardless of age.

I fretted about whether or not to go get it. I’m very enthusiastic about vaccines in general, and will take just about any I can get. However, during this particular vaccination drive we’ve seen wild disparities in access to the vaccine. As usual, people with money and resources have been able to get vaccines no problem while marginalized communities (I gotta figure out less sanitized language for those groups) have been turned away and maligned despite being eligible. So it felt very weird to me to be able to just waltz in yesterday and get it without even waiting in line.

The level of privilege we afford to veterans in this country is absolutely wild and it has always seemed that way to me. The photo at the top is me as a young Midshipman and it all started there. Even back then I was thanked pretty constantly for my service, despite never ever actually done anything besides go to school. I went to the Naval Academy from 2007-2011, so that was still in the era when 9/11 was a fresh memory and anyone tangentially related to the military got all sorts of free stuff. I think every single one of us felt weird about the whole thing, but I mentally justified my free tickets to Busch Gardens by imagining that one day I would actually do something.

Now, post my military service, I constantly wonder what was so special at military service at all. This hedging might be moot, since no one ever reads this blog, but I know I lived a very particular brand of military life. I never had to face down an enemy trying to shoot me and all my friends, nor did I ever feel that I was in real danger anytime during my service. I was also an officer, which meant that not only did I get eggs to order even when our ship was on a “mission vital to national security” (as the parlance goes), but that I also got to jump right to the front of the waffle line. Even given that, whenever I am afforded a privilege like getting to jump the vaccine line, I’m forced to wonder why I’m so special for this job I used to do.

Military life in many many ways was not a whole lot of fun. We spent a lot of time out at sea away from the world, we worked constantly, and there were a lot of different ways it was potentially dangerous. But is any of that all that special? Long-haul truckers spend a huge amount of time away from their families, but they don’t get the GI bill. Amazon warehouse workers are worked so hard they’re barely allowed to pee, but they don’t get discounts all over the place. And there are tons of dangerous jobs in the world, like loggers and septic tank servicers, but those people don’t get preferentially hired for government jobs and contracts.

I wonder what effect all the privilege granted to veterans has on both them, and currently serving military members. There is plenty of reason to provide veterans with extra resources when you consider that, as a group, veterans can have higher rates of homelessness and suicide than non-veterans (to caveat the other way, I also worry about even bringing that up, because there is another negative stereotype of veterans that they’re unstable and PTSD-riddled, which isn’t true either). My specific worry is that providing all this privilege to veterans is a way to avoid looking at the root cause of many of the problems that military members and veterans face.

I’m sorry I have no idea who originally generated this meme; if this Google image search link works, seems like it’s been reposted a lot.

The above meme caught my eye early in the pandemic. Even outside a pandemic scenario, I really hate martial metaphors in any discussion that doesn’t directly tie to actual warfighting, and even then I don’t like a lot of the terminology. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was especially queasy about all the “front line” language, and it wasn’t until I saw that meme that I really figured out why. The meme criticizes equating health workers with soldiers because it implies a certain number of health workers are going to die and that’s just something we should accept, instead of it being something avoidable.

In the same way, I think we need to interrogate how all the hero worship of veterans and the military implies about what we expect them to put up with. Another friend of mine from the Navy visited me the other weekend, and we were swapping sea stories when she told me that they recently figured out only at the last minute that one of the sailors she supervised had been planning to murder his entire chain of command (including her) and kill himself on his last day at work. This is a very normal story, actually. One night when I was on duty our topside watchstander (who was armed with a handgun) was talking about wanting to kill himself. I did not handle this situation well (no one was harmed in the end), but frankly it was just like, one of the many annoying things that happened that night. We had a number of suicidal sailors, and like my friend a sailor that I supervised who was armed seriously threatened to shoot a number of people. This event was too mundane for anyone to even tell me directly; I found out about it when it was mentioned in passing in the wardroom.

Suicide is the extreme end of the scale, but there are a whole lot of things that people in the military are just expected to put up with and are somehow considered just the normal and perfectly fine way of going about things. I think because we view military members as heroes that are making a sacrifice, and who will gain benefits for life for these sacrifices, we have no real motivation to actually make their life better. Or, at least, it keeps us from conceptualizing a world where we should do that. Every time I think about the terrible parts of Navy life, I think about the sailors on merchant ships, who do stunningly similar jobs to sailors in the Navy but somehow can also get months off every year just as a matter of course.

There are a whole lot of other things I’m not going to be able to eloquently weave in here that should also be interrogated on this subject (race and class are the obvious ones, but other things too). I think the progressive dream for America is in fact currently being implemented, at least in many ways, albeit it only within the confines of the veteran community. If the progressive dream is good, then it must be good that it is at least being partially implemented, right? But since it is framed as something that veterans “deserve” for their “sacrifice,” I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to work on making military service less of a sacrifice, or more importantly really remember why we granted veterans these privileges in the first place (veterans deserve a lot of things, but since when has what people deserve ever been a basis for governance in the United States?). Until we do the work of figuring out as a nation why we venerate veterans so highly, and importantly what effect and implications that has for every other American, I don’t know if we’ll be able to judge whether it’s more toxic than good.

Inauguration 2009

WASHINGTON (Jan. 20, 2009) Midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy marches down Pennsylvania Avenue during the 2009 Presidential Inaugural Parade in Washington. More than 5,000 men and women in uniform are providing military ceremonial support to the 2009 Presidential Inauguration, a tradition dating back to George Washington’s 1789 Inauguration. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Timothy Kingston/Released)

Reading this week:

  • Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh
  • The Tyranny of Experts by William Easterly (I don’t disagree with the premise, but I don’t think he makes a very cogent argument)
  • Stealth of Nations by Robert Neuwirth
  • You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers

I don’t have a lot of fun and unique thoughts about like, the attempted insurrection or riot or what have you that happened last Wednesday, and for a lack of much else to write about (I have just been trying to read as many books as possible while I have the time in order to reduce my backlog), I thought I would write about marching in the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Back in January 2009 I was a Youngster at the Naval Academy. The inauguration was coming up, and, as you may have gleaned from the caption in the photo above, the Naval Academy marches in the parade. If I recall correctly, each company got to send three or so people to march in the parade, and I remember them sending out an email asking if anyone wanted to do it. I decided that marching in the inauguration of America’s first black president would be a cool thing to be a part of, so I volunteered. There were enough volunteers that my company held a little tryout. I had to remember how to march (I think I even practiced a little?) because I was a Youngster and therefore actively trying to shed all my last vestiges of professionalism. I think I got the gig because I remembered what some particular drill term meant and executed it correctly. So that was cool!

I think we must have practiced once or twice as a whole group before setting off the morning of the inauguration to DC. They bussed us to the Mall, where there were some staging tents, and I remember driving past the crowds and whatnot. That was cool. The parade is very long, and we were towards the back, so the plan was for us to be in the tents for a bit, and then when it was about time for us to go (long after the parade had already started) to hustle out and form up and start marching.

What I remember most about the day is being very, very cold. I have just looked it up; it seems to have averaged about 24F that day. Furthermore, the dress uniform isn’t great for keeping you warm. You’re walking around in leather shoes and there are only so many layers you can stuff underneath that overcoat. No matter though; the plan was to bust out of our warm, heated tent and then just march march march through DC, past the President, and then onto the busses. This did not happen.

Ground-eye view.

After some time in the tent, we were hustled out and formed up. I think we started marching pretty quick. I forget who was in front of us but for some reason behind us they put the US Navy Ceremonial Guard. Maybe this was to make them look extra-good, but they didn’t need it. You see, those guys are professionals at marching, unlike us, who were just a bunch of schmucks. They should have been in front of us, or maybe far from us so we didn’t tarnish their reputation. I spent a lot of time that day looking at them. You see, despite our quick start, the parade was slow. Very very very slow. I don’t know what the holdup was, because I was so far in the back, you see, but it is simply the nature of long parades that towards the back they don’t go so smoothly and we were feeling it. We started off standing at attention for all this time that we weren’t moving, but before long, as we stopped and started our way through DC, we transitioned to parade rest during the stops and then at ease and finally we were just lolligagging about whenever there was a stop in the parade. The Ceremonial guard, however, I think on purpose always stayed just one step above us. If we were at parade rest, they were at attention. If we were at ease they were at parade rest. And so on. They looked great.

But like I said it was very very cold. My primary motivation for wanting the parade to move was so I could finally get to that long-forgotten place that was warmth. I was pretty sure I was starting to get frost-bit on my toes. I came to the conclusion that if I was ever President I probably just wouldn’t have a parade to spare people standing around in the cold so much.

Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

But finally! Finally we marched past the President. The above photo I got from NASA, which you can tell from the astronauts, but that is about what the stands looked like when we finally marched past too. It was long since dark, and there was almost nobody left in the stands. As a good little marcher, I should have kept my head straight ahead, but I decided to swivel a bit to get a glimpse of the newly-minted President. Much like in the above picture, he looked warm in the reviewing stand, and was very cheerfully waving at us with a huge smile. So that was really neat! I got to be there and be a part of history or whatever! After we walked past him I think it wasn’t far to the busses and I was glad to have made it through with all my toes intact. So that’s my story of marching in Obama’s first inauguration. I hope you liked it.

YPs!

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Inspired by spotting that YP last week, I thought I would spend some time writing about them this week. YPs (technically short for “Yard Patrol,” Wikipedia, US Navy) are 110 foot long boats that are more or less designed to be a standard boat. Their purpose in life is for midshipmen to practice driving ships without having to like, go through all the time and expense of driving a destroyer around. Plus they’re smaller, so they fit in the Severn River a lot more nicely. They have two propellers and two diesel engines and a bridge and lookout stands and you can take ’em out and practice driving them around.

Every midshipman has some interaction with YPs. If you ask me, they should put a lot more effort into training midshipmen into surface warfare officers (SWOs), but nobody asks me. But you do things like seamanship classes and the like, and the practice evolutions for these classes are going out on YPs and driving them around. Some midshipmen interact with them even more and go on summer cruises on them for training. And then some midshipmen, some midshipmen are on the YP squadron.

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Some YPs from above.

For my first three years at the Naval Academy, I had less interaction than most with Yard Patrol craft. I was on the sailing team, you see, and we had a particular disdain for YPs. Why motor around on a YP, practicing going in straight lines and then turning on command, when you can sail around on the sleek, clean lines of a sailboat? But then halfway through my 2/C (junior) year, I decided to quit the sailing team when they wouldn’t give me a slot on a donated boat. Everyone at the Naval Academy is required to do a sport, and for that spring semester I was on my company’s intramural basketball team.

Senior year, however, I had come to miss my days on the water with the sailing team, and chose instead for my sport to do… YPs. I joined the YP Squadron, mentioned above. So this is wild. Like I just said, everyone at the Naval Academy is required to do a sport. Everyone. But one of the “sports” you can choose is to join the YP Squadron. What is wild is that it counts as a sport. What the YP squadron does is go out on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and drive YPs. This mostly involves different people standing around in different, discreet spots, and maybe moving their hands or something and then saying things to each other. Absolutely wild that is a sport, but that is the sport I chose so I could get out on the water again.

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Looking into the bridge from the starboard bridgewing.

The Naval Academy, as far as I could tell from my time there, does not have a chess team. It was my opinion that all the people that would have joined the chess team instead joined the YP squadron. You had to be a special kind of nerd to do this. What you practice on the YP squadron is standard commands and docking and undocking boats and then like, navigation. All of which I love, but YP squadron is your sport, so you had to love it more than like, playing dodgeball. Rare breed at the Naval Academy indeed, despite what you’d think. The YP squadron actually gets a fair number of Plebes to sign up every year, because over Plebe Summer the squadron gives them a talk about how amazing and awesome it is and Plebes sign up, not knowing better.

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Down in the galley, with our zoomie on the left.

The squadron itself is in a lot of ways pretty bonkers. If you’re an officer at the Naval Academy, and you just love SWO stuff, you try to help out with the YP squadron. The squadron also attracted the exchange officers. The British guys were always a special kind of crazy because they have a longer naval tradition, and their deck officers are just deck officers; they don’t tend to do engineering stuff too like American officers. So they are fanatical about navigation and try to instill this fanaticism on the YP squadron members. I don’t know if it worked but it was fun to watch. When I was there, the squadron also managed to attract an exchange cadet from the Air Force Academy. I guess he just wanted the full experience. If I didn’t care much about what we did, the zoomie really didn’t. Plus one time we toured a destroyer and he kept calling it a “boat,” much to the annoyance of the officer showing us around, and that was funny.

I actually had a great time on the YP squadron. I was a 1/C (senior) at the time, so no one really like, tried to tell me what to do. And you got to be on the water twice a week, which was fun. And no one got too mad if I just missed it (I actually had a chemistry lab scheduled concurrently, but it usually ended early). I actually did love navigation, and was pretty good at it, so I spent most every afternoon with the YP squadron taking one of the hapless plebes and teaching them navigation, which was relatively undemanding and pretty rewarding. I hope there are navigators out there who might not remember but at least picked up a practical tip or two before their navigation class. Plus it was nice just being out on the water.

Where other sports go to competitions or whatever, the YP squadron went on MOs (Movement Orders). That is, we would just drive the boats somewhere. This was usually pretty neat, because navigating the boats around was fun, and you got some good parking spots. When we went to Norfolk we parked right next to the Wisconsin, and when we went to Baltimore we parked right in front of the aquarium. The squadron also went to the Army-Navy game in Philly, which compared to the bus is a pretty luxurious way to travel. Then we parked next to the Olympia.

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Dad at the helm.

The trip to the Army-Navy game was especially fun because on the way back I got to bring dad. Turns out dear ole’ dad was actually commodore of the YP squadron back when he was a Mid, cementing him as an absolute bonkers NERD. But he had YP experience, and I asked nice, and he got to come with us on the way back down. I told him to not miss our underway time, and he was diligently waiting in the mess decks on the ship before the sun came up and before anyone was even awake. He spent some time at the helm while I was driving (standing officer of the deck), so I was ordering him around and that was fun. He tried to be chill about it all but he had a grand time, even digging up and busting out his old deck jacket from when he was driving destroyers around.

YPRON Cool

Imagine like, a bald eagle screeching too, please.

All in all my time on the squadron was absolutely great. For a professional writing/communications class my senior year, I even made a poster that was meant to promote the YP squadron, depicting some Mid on a lookout post looking patriotic (pictured above). I was hesitant to go to the YP Squadron annual dinner, feeling a bit like an interloper, but due to all the Plebes being underage and the organizers accidentally ordering too much toasting port, we had a great time talking YPs long into the (Tuesday) night. So I stand by my opinion that the YP squadron are all nerds, but for a bit… they were my nerds.

Navy Life Story: Sub Ride Part II

Reading this week:

  • Mimi and Toutou’s Big Adventure: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika by Giles Foden (a perfectly normal adult book, besides the name)
  • Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (I worry this is a feel-good book for white people)

One of the more exciting times came when we did Midshipmen ops. During 2/C (Second Class aka Junior) Summer, Naval Academy Midshipmen go on PROTRAMID (PROfessional TRAining MIDshipmen), which involves a lot of stuff, but includes 24 hours on a submarine. The submarine pulls into port, a whole bunch of Midshipmen board, the submarine goes underway, dives, does some typical submarine-y type operations, serves everyone pizza, and then pulls in and discharges its Midshipmen cargo with them hopefully buoyed by wonder at the submarine life. Midshipmen ops on the Montpelier started about three days after the rest of us had come aboard, so by this time I was practically an expert in all things submarine-related. The Midshipmen that came aboard where actually ROTC Midshipmen, so I didn’t know any, but we had the same rank insignia and therefore I was a friendly face. I guided them in the essentials of Midshipmen life on a submarine, such as “how to ask to go up to the bridge to look at the ocean” and “where are the bathrooms.” That was fun showing off, but I was equally glad to be rid of all the other Midshipmen, and hear the crew complain about how annoying Midshipmen ops are. “Ah but you’re different,” they told me, a Midshipman, mostly because I was sitting within earshot (to be fair to me, Midshipman ops are annoying because doing all those different activities in 24 hours is taxing on the crew, and the Mids take up a lot of space and force people out of their bunks so the Mids have a place to sleep, whereas the longer-term ride-alongs like us don’t really impose any additional requirements on the submarine except that we occasionally bother people by pushing the “test lamp” button on the Tomahawk firing panel to make all the lights light up).

I remember being most impressed by the captain of the ship, who’s name I entirely forget. One time I came up to the bridge to find the captain already there. He had both the legs and sleeves of his coveralls rolled up, and his hat on backwards, enjoying the weather and driving around his nuclear-powered warship. I remember thinking that was just so cool, him relaxed as can be in total command of his domain. This trip was also my first real glimpse of the terror a Navy captain can instill. One of our limited duties as Midshipmen onboard the submarine was to get the movie ready every night in the wardroom. This involved loading up the DVD and getting the popcorn ready. One night we finished watching the movie, and the captain said “Tomorrow we’re gonna watch Talladega Nights.” So the next night we go to set up the movie, and flip through the wardroom’s large binder of movies, but we don’t find the ballad of Ricky Bobby. We ask around, and no one’s got it. So, being the enterprising young Midshipmen we are, wanting to forge ahead and not bother Garcia (I hate that book), we simply chose another movie. Shortly before the movie was about to begin, we casually mentioned this to the XO. “Oh no,” he said, fright evident in his eyes, “that’s not good.” This initiated a flurry of activity. People were woken up. Audio-visual systems were to be rerouted. Additional potential sources of movies were hunted down. Panic commenced when none of these options were bearing fruit. Suddenly, the captain walked in! We told him that we didn’t have the movie. The captain then simply walked out. We figured we were doomed. We couldn’t find the movie! How much of an abject failure could each of us be? But then shortly thereafter the captain simply returned to the wardroom, tossed a copy of the movie on the table, and stated flatly “Man to do a man’s job,” and we watched the movie.

Other exciting things happened during our time on board. We had two swim calls, to take advantage of the Caribbean weather. These are what it sounds like, where the submarine surfaces, stops, and people can go topside and go swimming. Also during this event we had a gun shoot (on the opposite side of the ship as the swim call). The ship came up with some excuse that they needed to shoot the 50-cal they had onboard for force protection, and we got to fire it and some boxes they had wrapped in plastic bags (submarine cruises are very very much recruiting trips). In the battle of AUTEC, the boxes lost, let me tell ya. Smoking was banned on submarines in 2010, but on this trip I also made sure to smoke a cigarette or two just for the novelty of smoking underwater. I had been given the advice to bring a pack of cigs or two onboard even if you didn’t smoke, because hanging out in the smoke pit and giving a away a few cigarettes was an effective way to make friends. I also fondly remember the ship’s gas-station-style cappuccino machine; the galley was small enough that in the right spot you could sip your cappuccino and then reach over and refill your cup without getting up from you seat. Heaven, truly.

Like I said at the beginning, this trip is what convinced me to go submarines. What I liked is how small and tight-nit the ship and the crew seemed. No one seemed aloof or distant, and there were few enough people it seemed you could get to know everyone. People were friendly, or at least willing to give you their time. The crew was irreverent that seemed especially appealing to 19-year-old me. I remember one Chief yelling to another that was disembarking “DON’T FORGET MY GOAT PORN” for when he was to return to the ship. It was a short ride, and after nine days we were off, loaded onto a tugboat that came to meet us and bring us back to shore. Quite the good time.

Swim call cigars.

Navy Life Story: Sub Ride Part I

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Reading this week:

  • The Savage Wars of Peace by Max Boot
  • A Problem From Hell by Samantha Power

If you’ll allow me to briefly skip over the entirety of Plebe Year in my Navy Life Story, I’ll talk about my submarine cruise during Youngster Summer. Every summer at the Naval Academy, you have professional training. This was split up into several different blocks, and on one of those blocks you went on a Fleet Cruise, wherein you did something with the fleet, aka the Navy outside of the Naval Academy. Each summer is named after the following school year, so Plebe Summer becomes before your Plebe (Freshman) year, and Youngster Summer comes before your Youngster (Sophomore) Year. My Youngster Summer I went on a submarine cruise.

During your Youngster Summer, your options for your fleet cruise are limited to either a surface cruise, where you go on a surface ship, or a submarine cruise, where you go on a submarine. The point of this cruise is to give you a taste of what life is like for an enlisted summer. Back in the day, like 1900, you would actually do like, work, but I think these days mostly Midshipmen just sorta wander around the ship looking lost. I can’t remember if submarine cruises or surface cruises were the more popular choice (you did whatever the Academy told you, but you got to put in preferences). Anything submarines-related was generally unpopular at the Naval Academy, but the submarine cruises had the advantage of tending to be shorter. The surface cruises were all for a month, but I wound up on a submarine for a whopping 9 days. I had put in my preference to go on a submarine because I was genuinely interested in submarines, I promise.

This cruise really cemented my desire to go submarines. Usually when I tell the story, I pithily say that “I found my people; they took me in, fed me coffee, and I was quite happy.” The first step was reporting to the Naval Academy, where we stayed overnight for some processing. I was to go on the USS Montpelier, which was stationed in Norfolk. Since it was pretty close, they just drove me down there, along with some other Mids. There was to be three of us on this particular submarine. We were driven by a newly-minted Ensign, who was at the Naval Academy on temporary duty, and had no real idea what was going on. He drove us to Norfolk Naval Base, and then drove along the pier until he found a submarine, and tried to just drop us off. We objected to being dumped on the pier next to some random submarine, so he next drove us to the squadron headquarters. This went better and we checked in with squadron and eventually checked into the on-base hotel for the night. Our submarine was leaving the next morning, and we’d come on board then before departure.

Now that I am writing this I am struggling to remember anything about the first day or so of being underway on the submarine. It must have been fairly overwhelming. Honestly I’m not even sure about the hotel thing, but it seems right. I do remember two officers from the ship picking us up and taking us out to dinner, which was fairly exciting because like, here we were meeting real life officers out in the fleet doing fleet stuff. Also they bought us dinner, after one guilted the other into it, citing the fact they got paid way more than we did. The next morning we must have gone to the submarine with our stuff. We probably sat in the wardroom for a bit while doc got us our TLDs (thermo-luminescent dosimeters, aka radiation detectors) and someone briefed us on the ship and had us sign whatever paperwork we had to sign. We were assigned bunks. I do remember getting the “Iron Cross,” as that particular bunk in 9-man berthing is known. Unlike most bunks, it is half hidden behind some other bunks, leaving a relatively small hole where you can enter it. And it’s the top bunk, all of which means you have to do some particular gymnastics to get up into it. I tried to minimize the number of times I had to crawl into that thing, unusual for a Midshipman.

There frankly wasn’t a whole lot for us to do on the submarine. We were assigned crew buddies, who we were nominally supposed to shadow. I don’t remember his name, but my buddy was a firecontrolman, who stood his watches in the control room. That was convenient because it gave me a pretty good excuse to hang out in control and sit at the fire control stacks. The major advantage there is that was the easiest way to figure out where we were in the world, by looking at the chart on those stacks. This was my first time underway on a ship, and since a submarine doesn’t have windows, it’s a little disorienting figuring out where you are in the world. Over the nine days we were on the submarine, it was slated to first drive down to Cape Canaveral for some Midshipman ops (I’ll explain later), and then to AUTEC in the Caribbean to do, uh, something I guess. I tried to spend a reasonably large amount of time with my crew buddy there to learn the ins and outs of submarine stuff. I eventually figured out someone friendly on each shift I could hang out with and so that’s mostly what I did, hanging out with people on watch. Quite the life.

Please come back next week for Part II, so I can stretch this into two weeks of content. Thanks!

CelNav

IMGP0802

This story doesn’t really have a point, but I was asked in a conversation recently if I had ever learned to navigate by the stars, and I didn’t really get to answer, and there is a pandemic going on. The short answer is yes.

Back at the Naval Academy, I was on the sailing team and over the summer we would compete in various races with the team. That year I competed in the Marion-Bermuda Race, which runs in the years that the more famous Newport-Bermuda race doesn’t. The exciting part of this race, unlike its more famous cousin, is that it is a celestial navigation race. You got more points (or more accurately weren’t penalized) if you navigated the entire race using celestial navigation instead of GPS.

So that was pretty exciting! We got to learn how to use a sextant and stuff! I think I was officially the assistant navigator on this little journey, but firmly the celnav guy, and dove right into it. I was already firmly a Bowditch fan, so this was a lot of fun. I learned all about how celestial navigation worked, got pretty familiar with a variety of stars, and would plot sun lines by hand even though we wound up using a computer program to try to plot star shots. Before the Bermuda race we also did the Annapolis-Newport race, and although that was a GPS race we took the opportunity to practice our celnav skills and it was all pretty great! (that photo up top is of me doing navigation stuff on the sailboat)

Then came the actual race itself, which was overcast the whole time. It is pretty hard to do celestial navigation when the sky is covered in clouds. We got exactly one star shot during the trip, and we frankly weren’t sure whether to trust that more or our dead-reckoning position more. The most significant lesson I learned on that trip is you can dead-reckon your way across an ocean. The rule was that you could turn on your GPS within like, 30 miles of Bermuda, so when we thought we were within 30 miles we turned it on, discovered we were really like 50 or something out, turned it back off again, and repeated that process until we were in fact like 30 miles out. We got second in the race! Pretty good!

Anyways, flash forward about five years when I was a submarine officer and held the title of Assistant Operations Officer which, due to reasons, put me in nominal charge of navigation department. My most significant task in that role was approving the maintenance schedule, which is how I discovered that we had an annual maintenance item to check the ship’s sextant. This is how I discovered that we had a ship’s sextant. That was cool! A sextant onboard! Sextants are cool! I have no idea why we had one. I mean, presumably in was in case of emergencies, but I really cannot conceive of the scenario where a submarine would use a sextant. Like first the GPS system would have to go down, and then with all the backup and inertial navigation systems on board, and then the fact we would have to surface to use the sextant, there just isn’t any way we’d use it. I also had trouble figuring out how you would actually go about using it, even if you were on the surface. Not that anyone on board would know how. Except, you know, for me.

Since I knew how to use a sextant, navigation division decided to have a training on celestial navigation, which I would lead. I was looking forward to this, the division was looking forward to this, it was great! Until I was in the wardroom happily putting together my training PowerPoint. I didn’t usually hang out in the wardroom, almost entirely due to reasons like what happened. The squadron ops officer, who used to be our navigator, was on board for an exercise or something. He saw me putting together the Power Point, and asked what I was doing. I explained what I was doing, and then he asked why the hell I was doing that.

There’s actually a lot of use in learning celestial navigation, even if there is no conceivable reason a submarine would ever use a sextant. There’s a lot of really basic navigation concepts that you get to flex in interesting ways. And lemme tell ya I think submarine crews (maybe not navigation division itself but officers for sure) lack knowledge in basic navigation concepts. You have all these systems and computers that put a lot of it out of sight and out of mind, and so people just come to expect a magical box to give them their position and don’t think much about it, but things can go wrong and it is important to both understand what the magical box was doing and the thought behind it so you could actually rely on the magic box. Somethings the magic didn’t work right and when you run a $2 billion submarine aground people don’t really accept the excuse that “well I didn’t really question the magic box.” So there was a lot of use to it! Plus people were excited for it! No one is ever excited about training!

But the SQOPS apparently didn’t approve of celestial navigation training despite my reasoning. But that didn’t matter, he’s not in my chain of command. But then I guess he told the XO, who yelled at the current navigator, who was my boss, and who yelled at me. This was mildly annoying because the navigator APPROVED the training plan! That said I was going to be training on celestial navigation! And now he was yelling at me for trying to carry out the training plan he approved! It’s things like this that made me quit the Navy. But thankfully nav bought my “it’s really training on basic navigation concepts disguised as celestial navigation training” and so I got to do the training and play with a sextant and everyone loved it and it was a great Power Point to boot.

Lying II

VOST 143

Pic also unrelated; before I was on YPs I sailed.

Reading this week:

  • Do Morals Matter? by Joseph S. Nye (this was not, as I was hoping, an analysis of how moral frameworks impacts presidential foreign policy decision-making)
  • Disasters and Development by Frederick C. Cuny
  • Famine, Conflict, and Response by Frederick C. Cuny with Richard B. Hill

It was a lie by omission, to be sure. I very purposefully didn’t tell the Engineer what I had done. Instead I frantically tried to call the divers back down and get them to sign my tagout sheet, because if they signed that then there would be no evidence that I cleared the tags improperly. I guess that’s more than just lying by omission, and I was trying to implicate others (unbeknownst to them) into my scheme. Eventually the diver came back down, because he realized he had not signed the sheet. He signed it, and we were Good to Go. Until I was discovered the next day when my Shutdown Reactor Operator reported me to the Chief of the Boat. He didn’t actually know I lied, he just thought there were double standards at play over what an officer would get in trouble for versus an enlisted sailor. But he made the right call and I never begrudged him for reporting me.

Once I was discovered to have lied, everything I thought would happen did in fact happen. I was removed from watchstanding, issued a letter of reprimand, and it affected my reputation with the crew and the chain of command. I learned lessons from all of that, but that’s not really the lesson I wanted to share with you. I learned that day why people lie.

I learned that it isn’t stupid people that lie, or lazy people, or bad officers, or bad people. I learned there isn’t anything inherently wrong with someone that lies (let’s except sociopaths and the like from this discussion). I learned that people will take the easiest path, and people lie because it is the easiest path.

That sounds disingenuous to people. People make the tough decision all the time. They take the courageous path and certainly don’t take the easy way out. But I think it is a matter of framing. We train people on integrity so as to make the thought of lying so distasteful and so unimaginable that it won’t be perceived as the easy way out. We try to make it so that to lie would be to condemn yourself to endless days of questioning your own identity and self. We punish lying severely so the consequences of lying are clear to all. But still I lied that day about the tagout violation, and I lied because the consequences of telling the truth and reporting myself seemed so unimaginably overwhelming that lying was simply the easier thing to do, and I did it.

The lesson I learned about leadership is that if one of your subordinates lies, that is a huge and immediate signal that something has gone wrong with your leadership and the system you have set up. If someone lies, they are still responsible for that lie, and that lie should be met with the appropriate consequences. But if a person lies that means that you, as a leader, have set up an environment where telling the truth is no longer the easy answer, and you need to immediately rectify that. Sometimes that is hard or impossible. The sheer nature of the submarine service means that there are huge pressures on everyone nearly all the time, and so a lot of times the only option is to make lying have even more devastating consequences.

But nonetheless analyze the rest of the situation. Why did this person feel like lying was the easy way out? Is it that when they tell the truth, it is met with such negative consequences that it doesn’t make telling the truth worth it? Have you set up bad incentives? Do you shoot the messenger so no one wants to tell you the truth and only tells you what you want to hear? Maybe instead your subordinate has been heaped with such responsibility and innumerable tasks where it is impossible to get them all done. If they’re honest that the tasks they have been assigned are impossible, is something done about that, or are they told to just get it done anyways? And if the answer is that these impossible tasks have to get done, no matter what, why wouldn’t they lie? What other choice were they left?

When a subordinate lies, look at the situation they were in and figure out why the choice they made was the easy choice to make. Expand your scope to the other people that work for you. See if they are in a similar situation, and be proactive to make telling the truth the easy and obvious answer. Training people on integrity is important, and it is important to do it regularly. But people only ever act in response to the situation and environment they are placed in. You, as a leader, don’t get to make people’s choices for them. But you are the one that creates the environment in which they make those decisions. Make sure it is an environment in which people can make the good choices you want them to make.

Decisions II: Regret

Emory S. Land Executes Operation AJAX

US Navy again.

Having just written about decisions, and having just watched a documentary on Robert McNamara, I wanted to write a follow-up. Towards the end of the documentary the interviewer asks Bob there if he had any regrets about the war. I decided a while ago that when it came to regret in decision-making, that would have a very specific meaning for me.

If you make enough decisions clearly some of them will go poorly. But as I wrote in the last blog post, you can never know the counter-factual about your decisions. If decisions go poorly, you should look back and analyze what went wrong and how it could have gone better, in order to extract lessons learned from the event. If there was a bad outcome, you should look back and be sad about the negative consequences of the decision. But that’s not the same as regret. A lot of things become more clear in hindsight, and forces and factors will play out how they play out after your decision is made. Instead, I would reserve regret for decisions you knew you had made wrongly or poorly at the time you made them. Regret is reserved not for decisions that necessarily went poorly, but for decisions where you did not do your best in making them.

Back on the submarine, we would have critiques and a common “root cause” people tried to cite for when things went wrong is that they felt rushed, or had an “undue sense of urgency.” This usually actually translated into “it was near the end of the work day and I wanted to go home, so I rushed the work.” So our XO called us into the wardroom one day and clarified that “an undue sense of urgency” would be reserved for situations where someone was holding a gun to your head and telling you to get it done.

Flash forward a bit and we’re in the shipyard in shift work. The days in shift work are endless and we were coming up on a deadline to get out of there. I was the Reactor Control Assistant at the time, and the division was supposed to get a piece of testing done. If we didn’t get the testing done, we couldn’t leave the shipyard when we wanted, and this would have made people upset. I got relieved from my shift as Engineering Duty Officer, and was trying to help get the maintenance started per the schedule. The on-watch EDO didn’t want to do the maintenance. I pushed where I thought appropriate, but it was getting late and the the guys that were supposed to do the maintenance were coming up on 20 hours without sleep, and the maintenance was supposed to take several hours. So I gave up and went to the wardroom to work on my own qualifications.

There I found the XO. I sat down and he asked me about the maintenance my division was supposed to get started. I explained that I Just Couldn’t Get It Done. Then this man, that had explained that an “undue sense of urgency” was “someone holding a gun to your head,” he looked me straight in the eye and said to me “you know, sometimes you wish you could just take people out back and shoot them.”

The XO and I did not have the greatest relationship. This was not friendly banter. I understood that he was talking directly to me and about me. And reflecting on the gun comment, I thought I had top-cover. This was exactly the undue sense of urgency he talked about, and if things went poorly I would walk into the critique and say proudly exactly why I thought that sense of urgency was undue. So I got up, left the wardroom, and went back to the engineroom to Just Make It Happen. I cajoled the EDO, and told him the Division Chief and I would personally supervise the thing. So he relented and let us do it.

The guys were pissed. They were not happy about this. They needed sleep. They too were going to just be coming back up on watch soon. They were exhausted. But we felt like we needed to make this happen, and I felt like I had been threatened. So I “supervised” the maintenance but mostly I was standing guard to wake guys up in case the XO or the Naval Reactors rep came around the corner. My guys were falling asleep in the midst of this maintenance. This was Reactor Controls Division maintenance too, on the systems that monitor the nuclear reactor. I was myself falling asleep standing up but since I was standing I was slightly more awake than the guys.

And the whole thing went fine. We completed the maintenance. No mistakes. We reviewed and submitted the paperwork. We did our bit and after a lot of other stuff the ship left the shipyard on time (well, way delayed, but “on time” on the delayed timeline).

The decision to go ahead and push that maintenance is one of my bigger regrets.

That maintenance did not need to get done. It was going to prevent the ship from getting underway if it wasn’t completed, and a delay would have delayed other things, but no lives were in the balance here. It would have been annoying and caused a lot of headaches to get delayed, but no one would have been unsafe. But because I felt some pressure from my chain of command, I went ahead and made it happen. I set a bad precedent for my guys, and overturned every discussion we had ever had about fatigue and safety and the importance of doing reactor controls division maintenance right.

And most importantly, the whole time I knew the right answer. The right answer would have been to push back, to say, look, it’s impossible to get this done right now, my guys are too fatigued, and here’s the schedule for getting it done. It doesn’t matter what the XO said or a theoretical threat to get taken out back, I was there as an officer in the US Navy to make the right decision even when there is pressure to do the wrong thing. And I failed that test. I reflected and learned and grew from that experience, and I was young and inexperienced as a leader and decision-maker, but I don’t get that decision back. If I had just been stupid and made the wrong decision out of stupidity, I could forgive myself for that. But because I didn’t do my best in making the decision that day, I regret it. It wouldn’t be the last or the worst decision I came to regret, but it was an early one and indicative of the framework I would eventually develop.

Plebe Summer Part V: A Love Story

This is hopefully my last “Plebe Summer” post, though depending on how long this pandemic lasts I reserve the right to circle back around.

The story I should have actually told by now in my Plebe Summer series is that I was dating another Plebe at the time. This has gotta be fairly unique. Sure, you meet a lot of people over Plebe Summer, but it’s not exactly a great time to meet someone.

Let’s call her K. I was in love. I was in love with that teenage love that made her seem like she was the only part of the world really in focus. We had started dating in High School. We were in the same program, and it was a small program, so we knew each other. Senior year I finally asked her out and she accepted. We didn’t start dating because of our mutual desire to go to the Naval Academy, but I guess having mutual interests doesn’t hurt. Like the majority of women in my life, she was much more dedicated and organized and tenacious than me, and she had been much more successful far earlier in the application process than I was, and was accepted way before I was. We talked briefly at one point about my backup plan if I didn’t get in, which consisted entirely of hitchhiking to Florida, stealing a sailboat, and going to the Caribbean.

Thankfully, I did eventually of course get in. The first thing I did was drive to K’s place to show her my acceptance packet. That was a good day. So we knew we had the rest of the semester together, and our short summer, and then it was off to the Academy. We didn’t plan on seeing each other much over the summer. You don’t want to draw a lot of attention to yourself as a Plebe, and having another Plebe as a girlfriend would have been a pretty big way to go about doing that. We also didn’t think it would work, or maybe it would just be suspicious, to send letters directly to each other, so we planned on sending them to our respective parents, who would then forward them to us. I think we only did that once. She also managed to get a note passed to me via some mutual contacts, and we wound up being able to see each other about once a week.

You know I was about to write “in a lot of ways it was nice to have a girlfriend going through Plebe Summer with you.” On reflection I don’t know if that was true. I was going to say that it was nice to have someone who knew what you were going through. But then again everyone I knew at that point knew what I was going through. I guess one advantage is that she, specifically, knew what I was going through, so I didn’t get the breakup letter some other people got. But I think I was probably a burden on her, and the relationship, or rather the existence of the relationship, probably mostly worked to feed my ego. We (I) managed to keep our relationship a secret for about half of Plebe Summer, I think. We wound up being able to see each other on most Sundays, because the Chaplains hosted a thing on Sunday mornings where they served donuts and Cadre weren’t allowed in. So we met up there, though sometimes I worried about shining my shoes and cut our time short. We’d also occasionally run into each other during PT or events like that. Later in the summer, when I was getting dangerously brave, I even wandered up to her room.

I was the one that let our secret out of the bag. I was stupid man. All Plebes are stupid, the act of becoming a Plebe makes you stupid, but I was stupider than most in a lot of ways, as I have mentioned. It was breakfast one morning and our Squad Leader decided to ask us all where our girlfriends were. So we were going around the table shouting (Plebes are always required to shout) various towns. I could have just said “Annapolis,” which was technically true and also very reasonable because I was local. Instead I got the bright idea to shout “SIR FOXTROT COMPANY SIR.” I still regret doing that. I mean at the time it fed my ego but the poor woman was just trying to fit in as a Plebe and not make waves and there I went blowing our secret out of the water. Man I was dumb. In some ways letting the secret out was nice. I remember during the Plebe Boxing Smoker I was allowed slash forced to go over and hang out with her and her squad. It was nice to see her, though again all I was really doing was attracting attention.

I don’t know if Plebe Summer was good or bad for the relationship. It probably wasn’t great? I thought about her a lot. At some point I thought it would be romantic to write her a letter that mostly consisted of the lyrics to a particular marching cadence, but thankfully I came to my senses before I wrote that out. That note she got passed to me was actually a note saying that we should talk, because she intended to break up with me. For better or for worse, by the time the note got to me and we could steal away for a tête-à-tête, she had changed her mind. Plebe Summer just changes you so much that we were really two new people figuring out who we were and who we were in relation to each other. Since in a lot of ways you change in the same direction it can kind of cover that up. The first time we got to spend any real amount of time together was Plebe Parent’s weekend, when we finally got some liberty. We of course went home and hung out with each other there. But we both refused to wear anything other than the proscribed PT gear, and kept our shirts tucked in, in accordance with the uniform regulations.

We survived Plebe Summer as a couple, and the rest of Plebe Year. We technically lived in the same building, though in different wings, and were busy enough that we would go days without seeing each other. She would eventually dump me early on in Youngster Year, and rightfully so. She hasn’t talked to me since.