As I look back over the past forty five years, I keep wondering what it was about serving on submarines was the part of my life that had the most impact on my life. As I look around social media, it’s not too hard to see that I am not alone in that view. Don’t get me wrong. My marriage to Debbie and my parents were impactful and meaningful in many ways that transcend the service, but no other single thing has been as much of a driver as those days on board the boats I was a crew member of.
You can get a little tunnel vision looking back across all of those years and forget there were bad things. Not enough sleep, separation from the family and real world, stress that was off the charts surrounded by unbelievable boredom and sleeping on a foam mattress in a space the size of a coffin (if you were lucky). But there are the good memories that seem to overshadow most of those. When you are young and new to the game, it’s getting a signature on your qualification card. Not just an easy one but one of the really complicated ones that require an inordinate amount of knowledge and skill. With each succeeding signature, you come closer and closer to that goal. Not just the physical symbol of the dolphins, but knowing that you will be seen as a fully qualified member of the crew.
The current trend for many millennials is something called person branding. Personal branding is the practice of people marketing themselves and their careers as brands. While previous self-help management techniques were about self-improvement, the personal-branding concept suggests instead that success comes from self-packaging. Tom Peters, a management Guru, is thought to have been the first to use and discuss this concept in a 1997 article.
Personal branding is the ongoing process of establishing a prescribed image or impression in the mind of others about an individual, group, or organization.
Being a submariner has always been about personal branding but in a bigger way. The focus as you qualify is very inward. You are trying your best to learn the knowledge and become an expert in the skills that make a good submariner. From damage control to operating the ship’s systems, you must be able to contribute in every sense of the need when the ship is operating or when it is involved in a casualty (real of practice). And everyone on board is a member of the combat and casualty teams. You might be a phone talker or you might be the nozzle man on the hose preparing to fight the infamous deep fat fryer fire but you will play some role.
My first experience on an aircraft carrier as a Chief (I was teaching classes while the Nimitz was underway) was a real eye opener. A drill was announced over the PA system and I was trying to rush to my battle station. What stunned me is that not everyone was moving at the speed of light to get to where they should have been. Only designated “Flying Squads” of DC men were in motion. I cannot even imagine that happening on any submarine I ever served on.
But the inward focus gives way to a crew focus once you qualify as a submariner. You have about five minutes to gloat that you have achieved something many never do or could do. Then you start to focus on actually learning how your role is part of the crew’s success. You qualify increasingly more complicated roles on the boat and you learn that you are now expected to train the ones that will come behind you. It is stunning when I look back how quickly the transition from non-qual to subject matter expert comes. Not because you are that amazing of a person but out of necessity.
The first time I found myself “in charge” was when I learned what real challenges are. Even on submarines, there is a small team for nearly every task (with the exception of the Corpsman and sometimes the Ship’s Yeoman). All of the other divisions have work related to their equipment and division’s responsibility. Each of those divisions need leaders and when you suddenly find yourself in charge on that special day, you pray that your training and the coaching you have received will be enough.
The branding for a submarine is twofold. You want to come back to the surface every time you dive and if you have any pride at all, you want your boat to be known and remembered as being the best. To be the best, you must first outperform the enemies abilities but you must also consistently rise to the top among a group of submariners that already think they are the best crews; your Squadron Mates.
To get there, you drill. Drills mean getting more proficient and better able to manage the unlimited challenges presented by operating in the ocean’s depths. All of that means sacrifice. Since there is no place to hide, sleep deprivation and personal sacrifices become common place. Tempers can often flare and we are often pushed to the limit. But the ship’s that drill the hardest are the ones who are rewarded with the recognition of external teams and the personal satisfaction of knowing you can take almost anything the ocean can throw at you.
All of this binds you together as a crew. The longer you serve on a boat, the more your personal brand is overshadowed by the brand of the boat. If you are really lucky, this will last for the rest of your life.
I have been away from the Navy and submarines now for many years. But I still proudly display my dolphins as the single greatest achievement of my career. More than my rank, more than my awards, more than the letters and medals that came from those days. I will always be glad that when my nation needed me, I was lucky enough to volunteer twice and serve with the greatest crews I could have ever asked for. That certainly includes my non-submarine crews but I am eternally grateful to have earned my fish.