The title of our daily devotion this morning was “I was.” The story was about a man’s reflection when he heard another person talk about what they were before they retired. It occurred to me that at a certain point in all of our lives, we become that person. All of the titles and jobs and work you did along the way probably defined who you were.
I’ve thought about it most of the day today. To be honest, my life didn’t turn out quite the way I thought it would as a kid. There have been so many twists and turns along the way and I am not sure I can even remember what it was I wanted to do when I grew up. I’m fairly certain that the Navy was going to a part of that journey since I really wanted to travel and see as much of the world as I could. The Navy just seemed to be the right path for me to take.
I liked music and history too and thought that each would be a part of what I would become. Certainly not in a rock star kind of way, more like someone who would always be a part of a brass band or orchestra. That part of the journey ended rather quickly when I went on submarines. Apparently brass bands and stealth are not really compatible. At one point, I just gave up playing my horn and have never seriously returned to it.
But over the course of the last 64 times around the sun, I have been many things that defined who I was at that point in my life.
I was a submariner.
My journey in the Navy was not exactly the one I thought I would take. I started out in the nuclear field but like many of my shipmates at the time, I did not make the grade. Washing out of the pre-nuc selection process was a shock since I had already told everyone who would listen that I was going to be in nuclear power. Finding out that I volunteered for submarines was also a shock since I had thought that I was a bit claustrophobic. Turns out I was wrong. So when I went to submarine school in January 1973, I was pretty surprised to find that I actually liked the program.
Qualifying was hard and a true test of my personal ability to overcome adversity. The knowledge combined with skills made me a part of a pretty unique community. I still value that title as one of my greatest achievements.
I was a Chief Petty Officer.
Making the transition from E6 to E7 in the Navy is a pretty big deal. The higher you go in any rank structure, the less they need a large number of you. To get to that point, you have to do a lot of course work, know your rating pretty well, keep high performance marks in a complex and sometimes political environment, pick up a few awards along the way and eventually pass a test. Then you are scrutinized along with all of the other people who have done pretty much the same thing. The board that meets may or may not contain people who know you but they are given a charge to find the best candidates for a very limited number of openings.
I was camping with some friends when we found out we made Chief that year. Of the people from our community that did make it, I knew most of them.
I was a Chief Warrant Officer
I had actually wanted to be a commissioned officer since I was very young. I had no idea at the time what that actually meant nor did I know what a Chief Warrant Officer was until I was much older. I just knew it was a path to putting on the Eagle and crossed anchors without a degree. Being one of the 13 guys selected the year I made it was also pretty special. Again, I knew nearly all of the other guys on the list. The Navy picked some pretty good guys. They also picked me.
For the next few years, I would have a lot of titles.
I was: a Division Officer, a Department Head, a Damage Control Officer, a Docking Officer, a Safety Officer, a Quality Officer, an Engineering Officer of the Watch and probably a dozen other “Officer” collateral assignments.
Then one day, I was retired.
For a couple of years I was a Chamber of Commerce Executive. Then I was a consultant for nearly twenty years. It was a good run. Then for a lot of reasons I was retired again.
Once in a while people ask me what I used to do in the Navy. When I think back on those days and how much we were all responsible for. I don’t always know how to answer in a way that would make sense to them or give them a real understanding of what we did.
Let me start this over again.
I was a submariner.
The lives of every guy on that boat and the mission were all directly tied to me being as good as I could be in my job. It was a series of ever increasingly responsible jobs that led me from a mess cook to a Diving Officer on a modern nuclear submarine. The equipment I ran made the difference between life and death for everyone on that boat. Mistakes could actually cost the mission. We operated in oceans that are unforgiving at best and routinely challenging. My word was my bond and I knew that any shortcuts could result in disaster. Our missions were pretty spectacular even when we can’t confirm or deny any of them. And I have been past test depth more than once and lived to tell the tale.
I prayed that every drill was just a drill but I promised to do the unthinkable if the mission called for it. I carried a gun to protect all of that but really hoped I would never be called to use it. And I would do it all again.
I was a Chief Petty Officer
As hard as I wanted the job and as much as I worked for it, I had no idea how isolated you could feel and how much people depended on you to be that “expert” that you were supposed to be. Every decision would have to be made with the best interest of the mission in mind and sometimes (more often than not) you were the bad guy no matter what the decision was. You had to set the example because every day, someone was watching to see what you would do in any circumstance. People who had once been your buddy and shipmate were no longer the same either. You have no friends once you have to lead in that environment. Even some of your fellow Chiefs are not that close. But that anchor means something. You are not allowed to fail. (By the way, this is not to say that Chiefs never fail. They do. They are just not allowed to)
I was a Chief Warrant Officer
You are no longer a Chief and the Wardroom in most cases isn’t sure what to make of you. In my field as a Submarine Engineering Technician (non-nuclear) The assignments back in the day were jobs that still supported the submarine community but were anything but routine. My first job as a drydocking officer on a floating dock that was built when my Dad was in the Navy was a real eye opener. If I made a mistake, not only could I damage the submarine but the dock I was landing her in as well. There were no details that were too small. Weights, distribution, building the blocks she would settle on, the weather, the time of day, the people who were waiting for me to tell them what to do. And those were the easy days. The kid that died on a stormy night while changing a light bulb on a flag pole and being the investigating officer after we sent him home in a casket. The complexities of having boys and girls working together in an overseas base that carried so much baggage with them before they got there. And worst of all, working for some officers who got their assignments by default and felt a mission to make both of your lives miserable.
But I would still do it all again. I am satisfied that at one point in my life, I was all of those things.
As a famous character (who was also a sailor) once famously said: “I am what I am.”
I am a submarine service veteran.
None of the other things that I was will ever mean nearly as much.