A Retirement Speech

By lex, on Sat – April 23, 2005


Fifteen minutes to capture 26 years of faithful service.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen, families and friends, Commanding Officers and Officers-in-Charge, men and women of the CNATRA detachment. It truly is an honor being here today with you, on such a significant and joyous occasion as the celebration of Master Chief KC’s* 26 years of service to his country in the United States Navy.

Because that’s what this is, this retirement ceremony: It is a celebration. A celebration of a life dedicated to service, and professionalism and all of our core values of honor, courage and commitment. And more than that – more even than dedication, it’s a celebration of success – of an exceedingly difficult job, done exceptionally well, over an extraordinary period of time. You know, the longer I am in the service, the more I come to appreciate that it’s not about missions accomplished, or promotions received. Not about medals and decorations. No – it’s about the people you get to work with, people like Master Chief KC.

It’s happy opportunity and an honor for me to be here, to share this with Master Chief KC, his wonderful wife Denise, and his children Evan, Jordan and Caitlin. Denise, although I’m going to spend a lot of time this morning talking about the Master Chief, you should know that I know that without your support all throughout his naval career, none of us would be here today, taking this opportunity to celebrate a life of accomplishment and achievement. My hat is off to you ma’am, and I am also grateful to you for your service to our country. It is no less noteworthy than the Master Chief’s – it is in fact, perhaps more important. The Master Chief and I, along with all of our brothers and sisters in arms, have dedicated our lives to ensuring that the opportunity exists to raise our children in relative peace and prosperity. But it is you who seized that opportunity, and who made our service worthwhile. You were mother and father when he had to be away, and having met your family, I can tell you that you did a magnificent job. We both thank you.

It is a signal honor to be asked to perform this role, and I am very grateful. I have commanded an FA-18 squadron, led young men in combat, served as a TOPGUN instructor, fought an aircraft carrier at war as her operations officer and trained carrier strike groups for deployment into the Global War on Terror. I have been in the Navy, man and boy, for 27 years now, although it seems scarcely possible. The Navy is my home. I know the Navy. And I believe in the Navy.

And the point of all that is this: What you should know about me is that I firmly believe that of all the parts of our great Navy that work well, none works better in my humble opinion than the Chief Petty Officer’s mess. No institution, no organization, is so routinely excellent, and routinely necessary, as the Goat Locker. Oh, we officers can have grand ideas, talk airily about high-flown strategy and policy and use buzzwords like “effects-based targeting,” and “intrusive mentorship.” But without a Chief to turn our imaginative vapors into tangible action, someone who will see through strategy and determine tasks, we are nothing but dreamers and romantics. The Navy may float on a sea of paperwork, but it swims by the efforts of Chief Petty Officers. You want to see something important done, and done well, you don’t call on a lieutenant, and you don’t call on a captain. You call on a Chief. The chief is where it gets done, where the rubber meets the road. With the Chief on your side, all things are possible. Without him, you are lost, nothing can be done – it is as though you were paralyzed.

And who does the Chief look up to? I’ll tell you a little secret, if you aren’t already read in to it: It’s not the commanding officer, or the officer-in-charge that he looks up to. The Chief wants to impress the Master Chief.

And who wouldn’t?

Because I tell you, after re-reading the Master Chief’s biography and reviewing all of his many accomplishments over the years? I only hope that I am up to the challenge of speaking for him today. I look over what he has done, in the time he’s had available to him, and I am truly humbled.

We graduated high school in the same year, in 1978. I cannot tell you how old that would tend to make me feel, to have graduated high school in the same year as a retiring Master Chief Petty Officer. But then you know Master Chief, I reflect upon how very old captains and master chiefs were when we when I was a lieutenant and you were a first class petty officer, and I’m very pleased to report that they’re picking us at much younger ages, these days.

So we are much of an age, the Master Chief and I, although you wouldn’t believe it to look at us. When you see him sitting there as an example of physical perfection and contrast him to myself as an example of rapidly accelerating decrepitude, do not for a moment believe that my decay is due to the fact that my job was more stressful than his: No – I prefer to believe that I am a victim of genetics, while he profits, no doubt, from the effects of a virtuous life. All contrary evidence will be politely ignored.

We have served, he and I, through one long cold war, and two hot ones, including one that is not yet over. In 1978, when KC enlisted, our country was a very different place than it is today. Our president at that time looked across a country that was plagued by rising prices and diminishing economic output and employment, increasing moral quandary in a post-Vietnam world, where all previous assumptions were open to question at the same time that we faced an increasing challenge from an implacable overseas adversary, a statist tyranny that had not yet played itself out, nor frankly, shown any sign of doing so. In the retrospective light of a sunny day in April, 2005, the fall of the Soviet Union due to its inherent inconsistencies looks inevitable. In 1978 it was not nearly so clear. In 1978, that president looked upon our hardships and declared that we were in a period of “national malaise.” But the service of men like KC denied that this was so. We had available to us, as we always had before in times of trial and challenge, good men, willing to work hard to protect the birthright our parents left to us, to build the wall of our nation’s defense brick by brick, using their own lives as the raw material. He stood the watch, and sailed the seas, back when it was not yet popular, back when it was perhaps most necessary.

Back when we finished high school, I went off to trade school, and the Master Chief went off to the fleet. I earned my khakis by going to college – he earned his by performing in our trade. In twenty-six years, he has risen to the very top of his profession. And I am, I suppose, in the upper middle-tier of mine. I am better paid, but he is, by the virtue of his position, more respected. In our world, this is an important distinction.

He advanced quickly in his first tour, rising to Second Class Petty Officer in only four years. And then he headed to the reserves for just a bit, before deciding that the fleet had so much more to offer. He had spent his time fooling around with P-3’s and C-131’s in his first tour, and after all of that, I don’t blame him for seeking new horizons. But he came to his senses, and realized upon returning to the active service that light attack was the place to be. Two cruises with VA-97 aboard the Carl Vinson got him to First Class Petty Officer with a warfare qualification pin – he was on his way, and never looked back.

The Master Chief reported to the Naval Maintenance Training Group detachment in Lemoore after a brief stint at instructor school in Bremerton, Washington. There he earned the coveted designation of Master Training Specialist, and there in Lemoore, he was selected as Sailor of the Year for all of NAMTRA in 1993 – he was number 1 of 48 first class petty officers – all screened for instructor duty. Think about what that means, to be number 1 of 48 screened instructors, first class petty officers all – career men. Hard chargers. Performers.

Charmed no doubt by the many attractions of the central San Joaquin Valley, a place which I would wager that neither of us have spent a moment thinking of since we transferred, KC spent his next tour with the Argonauts of VFA-147, where he did all the important jobs: Work Center Sup, Line Division Chief, Flight Deck Coordinator and Maintenance Control Chief. For those of you who know, the Line is a burden to be borne gracefully, the Flight Deck is an opportunity to demonstrate either brilliance or mediocrity – this is where the business of Naval Aviation gets done, out there on the carrier deck. Out there on the tip of the spear. And the Maintenance Control job, the qualification to certify aircraft as “Safe for flight?” This is a reward for having demonstrated brilliance, up there on the flight deck. It is, like so many things in the Navy, simultaneously the recognition of a job well done, and a challenge to do more. He started there as a first class petty officer, and left as a senior chief, three years later. Think about that.

After that came “sea duty” in E-6A’s – sea duty in Offut, Nebraska. Only two years of that reminded him that the only real way to earn your spurs in this trade of ours was aboard an aircraft carrier at sea. His realization was my good fortune.

I had the honor of serving with the Master Chief at VFA-94, the World Famous, Orange-Tailed Shrikes, at NAS Lemoore, California, the squadron I had the honor of commanding. It was a wonderful experience for me, and in my more fanciful moments, I sometimes imagine that I had something to do with all the great things that we accomplished together. But then I remember the CPO’s mess, and Master Chief KC. Who was “only” a senior chief, at the time.

He served at first in quality assurance – a difficult job, requiring a combination of technical expertise, leadership and tact – no one particularly cares to have people who are competing with you come look over your shoulder and evaluate your program. But nothing is more important to the health of a squadron, than that someone should take the rules that we have written in blood, and teach them to our supervisors, someone to pass the lessons down. Doing this poorly will wreck a squadron – doing it well will ensure its success.

Because it is as true now as it was 60 years ago that pilots cannot defeat the enemy if the aircraft they fly are not up to the task. Without good jets, they cannot train. Without good systems, they cannot find the target. Without good maintenance, they cannot survive the counter-attack. Without good maintenance, we lose the jets, and we lose the pilots. It is not much of a stretch to say that without good maintenance, we lose the war.

The squadron was on the up-slope from a previous valley – we had been in a place where our air wing commander was truly almost afraid to fly our machines. The Senior Chief was a large part of us breaking free of that shame, of bringing us back to respectability. He had a way of listening carefully and thoughtfully to all that was said, and unerringly doing the right thing in response. It is tempting for those of us who are lesser men to think of this as some sort of blessing of genetics, or fortune – the truth is that it is a mark of character and of leadership. He was good.

We had come a long way from where we had been, but we were not yet at the final destination that I had envisioned for us. Towards the end of m XO tour, our senior maintenance chief was leaving the squadron, and we were due for a master chief replacement – we would be getting an unknown.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I could not imagine a better maintenance master chief than my quality assurance senior chief. He had the NEC, he had the skills, and he had the raw talent. But most of all he had the desire. He wanted to prove that he could do the job.

Senior Chief KC had heart. And all of you know what that means – it was no decision at all. Give me a man with heart. Give me a man that’s hungry. Give me a KC, and get out of my way.

I do not think I ever made a better decision. In short time, by gradual turns, through his leadership and professionalism, what had been an improving squadron quickly became a world-beater. We were the squadron that the CAG wanted to fly with in combat. We were the ones who led the pack. I took the credit for this turnaround, but KC was the chief author. He made the machines, and with them, I trained the pilots. We out-flew and outfought every squadron at NAS Lemoore. We ran wild.

I have done many things in my time that I am proud of, but there is nothing that I have done which was so important as giving KC a chance to lead, and run free.

As I said, we served together, although apart, through a long cold war. And I left the squadron six months before the 11th of September, 2001. That squadron was deployed aboard the USS CARL VINSON, when the time came to bring the fight to the enemy in Afghanistan. And I’ll tell you this and I’ll hope you understand: I trained those pilots who fought in that war, and loved them like sons, and I worried for their safety. I worried that I had trained them the best that I could. But I never – not for one moment – worried that the jets they took into combat were not the very best in the fleet, and fully ready for the task. I knew that with Master Chief KC running maintenance control, there would be no reason to worry about that.

When I left, he was still a Senior Chief, doing a Master Chief’s job, and doing it flawlessly. I knew he’d make it, and shared his joy with him when the list came out with his inevitable advancement, the recognition of all that he had done. And I’m not surprised to learn what a great contributor and leader he has been down here in south Texas – it’s about the people, after all – and all of those whose lives you’ve influenced will remember you. You leave a part of yourself behind in them. And now he’s moving on to greener pastures, but still hoping to contribute to the defense of our country. And I, I am proud to stand up here today, and bear witness to a life spent in service, and sacrifice, and professionalism and honor.

Master Chief – thank you for all that you have done for our country, and for me and for all of those that we served with. Thank you for your service, your professionalism, your excellence. Denise, thank you for all your support to KC, for your service to our country, for making that service worthwhile, for giving it context. Thank you both, for 26 years.

Stand easy, Master Chief, you have finished the race. You have kept the faith. It’s over. Well done.

We have the watch now, shipmate. You stand relieved.


* In order to preserve a shred of anonymity, the Master Chief’s initials are used rather than his name.

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, Lex, Uncategorized

6 responses to “A Retirement Speech

  1. Lex conveyed pretty much everything I felt about the good sergeants I had under my `wing` (including making the point that, in my senior command years, it was I who was actually under theirs) albeit in a very different career. I suspect this resonates with others who will read it. The difference will be that in my service (and again I suspect the service of others in this happy band), is that to have heard a senior officer say such things publicly, was a rare thing indeed.

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