My First Chief

By lex, on Thu – February 10, 2005

I got an interesting email from a reader today:

He told me that he liked the things I wrote, and that they told the story of the Sea Service well from an officer’s point of view. And he asked me about my first, real Chief Petty Officer, and how that man helped my career. Or didn’t.

This is another huge topic – one to which it’s hard to do justice.

I tried to write about the Goat Locker and knew, even as I hit “save” and then “post” that I hadn’t gotten it all. And as a dilettante writer who’d like little more than to remove that adjective from the before noun, I can tell you that nothing is more frustrating.

But my correspondent’s request is more specific, and it took me back in time a ways. You see, from the time you’re in your commissioning program, through flight school, a matter of at least six of your first, most impressionable years, it’s all about you. Your education. Your training. Your needs.

If you’re young, and used to being the hero in your own tale, this does not come as a surprise to you.

But eventually you get to the fleet, and you join that band of brothers that is the ready room of a fighter squadron. And you will learn to love them like brothers, and they will love you and all of you will share that love in a hard and reckless way that you will never be able to talk about, because that’s simply not a part of the way things are. We blow stuff up – we don’t do sensitive.

But eventually you will be put in charge of a division of US Navy Sailors, some number of men between 30 and 80 in an aviation squadron, and this will be your first leadership role, the role you were trained for, before starting flight school. The role you pretty much forgot about, while in flight school. Because during flight school, it’s all about you.

But now you are done with training – you are on the line in a frontal naval aviation fighter squadron, and although you are still learning the airplane, and what it can do (you will never stop learning this), leading these men is what you are being paid for. These will be the men you are responsible for – their training, their work production, their welfare. Their lives. Some will be younger than you. Some your age. Some older. Some will have been in the service of their country since before you were out of diapers. All of them will call you “sir.” And at first, none of them will really mean it. They will come from a different background than you did. You will speak the same language, but use some of the words differently. For you, college will be a word which carries connotations of friendship, learning and contentment. The same word will sound like an insult, when spoken by some of them. For many of them, university or college was nowhere in the family expectation set, and the words “college boy” are an insult. This is not to say that they are any less intelligent than their officers – nothing could be further from the truth. But they have skills, tangible abilities – what do you have?

But they will call you “sir.” They are asked, and have conditionally agreed, to respect the rank, if not the one who wears it. If they are to learn to respect the man wearing it, it will be because that man has earned it.

And no one can help you learn to earn that respect more quickly than your division Chief Petty Officer.

Nominally, he works for you. In reality, his job is to train you. The sooner the young division officer realizes this, and gives himself over to instruction, the better off he will be.

The Chief has risen through the ranks. He has worn the dungaree of the Sailor, chipped paint, cleaned heads, learned a skill, learned to manage, learned to lead. For his performance and his potential (these are not the same things at all) he has been selected for advancement to Chief. In the other services, this advancement is a step up in pay grade – in the Navy, it is so very much more: We are the only service wherein a Sailor changes uniforms from E-6 to E-7. This is not mere symbolism- this has meaning.

The Chief knows what it is to be an enlisted man, he has trod that path – he knows what can be endured, and what cannot be. He knows what it takes to succeed, who has it, and who does not. He is a technical expert – he knows the job. He does not coddle, knows it is not a personality contest – but he does know how to lead. He knows that it is “Mission first, people always.” For him, there is no conflict in that statement. He has earned the knowledge.

My first division was the Aircraft Division of an FA-18 squadron: Sixty men, nearly a third of the entire squadron. My Chief was a no-nonsense man with a voice that rumbled like a freight train at midnight, broad of shoulder, with a gimlet eye and a soft spot for his Sailors that no one ever got to see. He looked at me when I reported to my desk on the lower deck, shook my hand, shook his head, and got down to training me.

I learned so many things:

I learned how the training jacket (file) was assembled, and what it meant. I learned that not everything a man was capable of could be captured in a training jacket.

I learned that men who came from backgrounds so different than my own that I could scarcely imagine them still had dreams of their own. Some of these were as grand or grander than anything I could envision. And as for the others, even when they weren’t what I would have considered “grand,” were still authentic, and deserved my support. I learned they were real people with real lives, and not just “resources” to be deployed on problems.

I learned that Sailors were capable of amazing feats, when motivated to accomplish the task. Things you would not dream of asking, they will provide willingly. I learned to be careful what I asked for.

I learned that Sailors didn’t do “marching,” and if I wanted to see more of that I should go and tell it to the Marines. Sailors were trained to think.

I learned that not all Sailors were angels. I learned that some could be helped, and some could not. I learned that there was no easy way to tell which was which. I learned that you had to act, one way or the other, even when you couldn’t tell. I learned that you would never, ever entirely forgive yourself for the mistakes you weren’t sure you made, and weren’t sure you hadn’t. I learned that that was OK too. That life moved on.

I learned that you might as well try to whistle in a hurricane as to bullsh!t a US Navy Sailor. Somewhere in boot camp or A-school, they are provided with exceptionally sensitive BS antennae. I learned that if you ever got caught trying to BS them, then you might as well go back upstairs to Ops, because you were done being useful on the hangar deck.

I learned all that and more.

What I really took away from my time with Chief Aviation Metalsmith John ************ was that there were 250 people in an FA-18 squadron, and only 18 of them were pilots. I learned that it wasn’t because we couldn’t use any more Sailors, but that we couldn’t stand any more pilots. I realized that while we got to fly the jets and reap the glory, nothing would be possible without the backbreaking efforts of those who really made it happen. Some of whom, if they were talented, and hardworking and demonstrated leadership potential, would eventually be selected to be Chief Petty Officers.

Did that help me in my career, learning that?

Didn’t hurt.

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, Lex, Uncategorized

4 responses to “My First Chief

  1. Pingback: Index – The Best of Neptunus Lex | The Lexicans

  2. Pingback: Epilogue – Neptunus Lex | The Lexicans

  3. Pingback: Neptunus Lex: Some Recommended Posts By Category | The Lexicans

  4. Pingback: Neptunus Lex: Essays On Leadership | The Lexicans

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