By lex, on November 3rd, 2008
I’ve worked for a lot of great Americans in my time, and a couple of buttheads too. We’ve got our very own bell curve in naval aviation, but the tail is pretty thin on the left, and a little fatter on the right. Our average is pretty damned good. Beats most people’s best.
Best CO I ever worked for was Turk Green.
Turk came to us from Springfield, Missouri. Carried the accents of his youth into the fleet, and loved playing the role of the down home country boy. It was disarming and charming and some people who ought to have known better sometimes took him for granted. He did it on purpose, I think – he had a mind like a laser scalpel – and of those who wrote him off as just another farm boy from Podunksville, many were left burning in his wake. He never hung a man. Just gave him the rope.
Started out his naval career inauspiciously. Was a seaman on Nixon’s yacht, where his chief claim to fame was to get between a mooring line and the gunwale just before the line went taught. Got flipped over the side, across the dock and into the Potomac on national TV. Came back aboard as wet and mad as an alley cat in a thunderstorm. Loved to tell that tale, as much, I think, as a reminder to himself as a lesson to the rest of us. Always check the small things. Don’t take anything for granted.
An east coast guy, while I’d grown up west. Was first XO, and then CO of the Shit Hot World Famous Golden Dragons of VFA-192, deploying off the USS Independence, that ship deploying from Atsugi, Japan. Forward deployed naval forces. Tip of the spear, first to the fight. He loved every minute of it, and all of us. He must have already been near 50 by the time I worked for him as a department head. About the age I am now. He could rage with the best of them until the sun came up, slip off for half an hour’s rest and then show up to work the next day clear eyed and level headed.
He was tall and spare, with a voice you could cut with a butter knife. A voice made gravelly by the cigarettes he chain smoked one after the other. Life being short, and its pleasures to be enjoyed where you might find them.
I didn’t know him from Adam when I first showed up in Japan, fresh off an adversary tour and knowing everything there was to know. I came to love him slowly – we were very different men – and somehow he came to care for me as well. Like he came to care for all of us.
It’s all beer and skittles as a junior officer in the fleet. By the time you report for a department head tour, the fun and games are over, at least for a while – until you’ve screened for command. As a department head you still have fun but you mostly leave the games behind: You’ve made a “company man” decision, and everything trembles in the balance. You somehow felt both challenged and relieved knowing that Turk’s finger was on the scale. You knew it wasn’t going to be easy. But you knew it would be fair.
In those days before we had become what we are today, Turk called us all “big balled sons of bitches,” – BBSOBs, for short – and about the worst thing he could say about any man was that he was small balled. It indicated a certain contemptible lack of conviction, a unwillingness to see things through, a reluctance to give everything there was to give, a lack of moral fiber. It didn’t mean you were an imperfect knight, because God knows there were things in my life that I regretted, but somehow he always understood. He even implicitly forgave, while always making it clear – without saying anything – that it wasn’t him who stood in judgment of me. That there was a higher power.
Being “small balled” meant you weren’t trying hard enough. You weren’t doing all you could.
You ended up not wanting to let him down.
Some guys are naturals in the air, and they rest on their God-given talents. They call themselves “pilots” rather than naval officers who also happen to fly. Other guys find that those subtle distinctions in fine motor control, eyesight and some ineffable combination of perceptive and reactive cognitive skills that, taken together, amount to SA – situational awareness – are not gifted to them. Most of the latter with ambition determine to be outstanding officers if they cannot be outstanding pilots. There can be an uneasy tension between the two. The officers – “staff officers”, in the eyes of the “pilots” – know that eventually they will win the great climb up the career mountain. They try their best not to make any fatal mistakes while setting themselves up for career enhancing non-flying jobs. The “pilots” claim not to have ambitions other than to become the most lethally forged instruments of war that they can become. In lieu of Pentagon tours they go to weapons schools. The former determine to outlast the latter, abide the petty humiliations, knowing that the Navy wants good pilots for a time, but has an enduring need for good officers. The latter airily decline to play the career game, and then all too often burn with envy when passed over when the time for flying skills are past, and the time for leadership and management is at a premium. There can be resentments.
Turk was an outstanding officer, but not a naturally gifted pilot. He came into his own kind of aerial excellence not through genetics, but by a sturdy, stubborn refusal to take second place in anything. He might come up short in any one of several competitions, but he’d never give up, and he’d never disparage the game. He was rare, that way. Refused to give in. Took chances. Thought outside the box. Accepted no orthodoxies. Loved his family.
Rare enough, taken together. But rarer still was this: When he met a guy with better hands, he didn’t resent him for those things that he’d been blessed with, those things he’d received through no merit of his own. He celebrated them, like a good man will celebrate the extraordinary fortune of a best friend.
We flew out to the ship one day for an embark, and somehow he ended up navigating to the wrong waypoint. The place the ship had said it was going to be, rather than where it ended up being. I was on his wing, and waited a decent interval before calling a “Magellan, 30 right.” It meant that I thought he was off course, and after a moment’s consideration, he checked us back towards the ship.
It’s a hard thing to call your boss out on the radio, and one could be forgiven for expecting a certain surliness afterward. The CO is, after all, The Man. God’s chosen vessel. But after we landed, he thanked me for backing him up. For helping him get the job done. There were no explanations, no excuses.
Me? I had, for the first time in my life, certain envies of my own. Having come up out of the ranks, Turk could speak to the enlisted guys in a way that I never could have carried off. Knew their dreams, had lived their lives, spoke to them in a language that they understood, without any sense that he was speaking down to them, or patronizing them.
By the time I was a lieutenant commander, I was already a better stick and throttle pilot than Turk – as he often, joyfully admitted – and I hoped to someday be as good an officer. But I knew, with a sinking feeling in my heart that I hated acknowledging, that I would never be as good a leader as he was. Knew that I could never have his rapport with that 93% of a strike fighter squadron which was not composed of a strike fighter pilots, the deck plate sailors that made everything else possible. While also building an airborne team that would have gratefully flown through hell with him.
I’d come up against a limit for the first time in my career. It would be good practice for all the other times that were to come. Turk, meanwhile, reassured me that I would find my own way.
There’s much more I could tell, but it wouldn’t scratch the surface. I don’t need to tell you how he went on to burn through Nuc Power School, how he served as the CO of the USS Camden, XO of USS Harry Truman, and how he stepped in to heal a wounded ship when the CO of the USS John F. Kennedy was suddenly relieved. How he went on to command the USS Theodore Roosevelt. I don’t have to tell you how he came down with cancer, fought it valiantly off, and how it returned again with a vengeance, springing on him from the darkness.
I won’t tell you how so many of those he touched came to visit him one last time as he entered into hospice care at last, when fighting hard wouldn’t do it anymore. How they all celebrated a life well lived. How I begged off, citing previous engagements, not knowing how I could have gotten through it.
But I will tell you know how I learned that Turk Green passed into the clearing at the end of the path. I got this note tonight from my old roommate aboard the USS Independence, a current commander of a carrier air wing:
Turk departed this life at around 7:30 this evening with Barb at his side. As the Marine general said at the BBSOB event, we will see him again someday “on the high ground.” He is certainly in a better place now, a place where he deserves to be.
Turk was truly a special person. He was a one-of-a-kind, larger than life character that Naval Aviation produced and God allowed us to enjoy for a few years. Turk’s gifts of leadership and “BBSOBness” were that he made us all believe that we are all something special. Since our time in Japan, I had never seen Turk that he did not brag to me about my family or some small success that I have had. Everyone who knows Turk had that same relationship with him I think. He was always about others…never about himself.
Even during the BBSOB Weekend — the tribute to Turk — his focus was always on something other than himself: faith, family, friends, service to our great country. Only Turk could have pulled that off. Thank you Turk for everything. Fair winds and following seas on this your most important journey. Our prayers are where you would want them to be right now, with Barb and the kids.
Best to you all and God Bless.
Great American, departing. Bosun, strike the bell