About that retirement ceremony

By lex, on March 16th, 2006

Got some pics back. To go with the speech, I guess.

A lovely day aboard ex-USS Midway. My goram sword came out of the spindle just as I took the podium and started to pontificate. I had an awkward moment trying to put it all to rights, before finally giving up, unsnapping it, and laying it across the lectern. The sour lemon face you see below is the realization that I’m about to give a speech to a bunch of chief petty officers out of uniform…

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After that the Master Chief got his medal. Promptly turned around and gave it to the missus. Which is something I’ve got to remember to do, when it’s my go.

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As to the speech itself? Below the fold, if it do ya…

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen, families and friends, Captain PL, CO of Fleet ASW Training Center. Also in the audience are CAPT PS, former XO of the FASW Training Center, CDR MM, XO of Fleet ASW Training Center. Welcome too, officers, men and women of Hunter Air Control. I can’t tell you what an honor it is to be with you here today with you, on such a deeply significant and joyous occasion as the celebration of Master Chief RN’s 30 years of service to his country in the United States Navy. You know, I have to tell you something: This is the second retirement speech I have made in the last year for a retiring master chief petty officer, one of whom was a whole lot younger than me while the other one is in a whole lot better shape – I’ll let you figure out which is which –  the point of which is that it’s hard to stand up here and not believe that someone is trying to tell me something.

But what a celebration this is, and how lucky we are to be a part of it: This is the celebration of a life well-spent in the pursuit of excellence, in the continuous striving towards perfection, in an organization dedicated as our Navy is to the service of our great nation. I’m very happy – to be here, to share this with Master Chief N, his wonderful wife B, and their sons G and R. B, 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 career, through good times and bad, lean days and long nights, none of us would be here today. My hat is off to you ma’am, and I am also grateful to you for your service. It is even more valuable perhaps than ours: The Master Chief and I, along with all of our brothers and sisters in arms, dedicated our lives to ensuring that the opportunity exists to raise our children in relative peace and prosperity. But it is you who seized the opportunity we strove to provide, and who made our service worthwhile. You were mother and father when the Master Chief had to be away, and having had the opportunity over many a late night talking with him about this and that, I learned a fair bit about magnificent job you did raising the family, and keeping the home fires burning. We both thank you.

What does it mean to be a Master Chief Petty Officer? What does it mean to dedicate oneself to the art and science of naval warfare, of leadership? What does it mean to epitomize our core values of honor, courage and commitment?

I’ll tell you what I think it means, having commanded a strike fighter squadron, having led young men in combat, having fought a ship as an Operations Officer in war time: I have been in the Navy, man and boy, for going on 28 years now, since I was 17 years old. The Navy is my home. I believe in the Navy. And I know the Navy. And in this Navy of mine, while there are many pieces and parts that work well, there is no institution, no organization that is so routinely excellent as the CPO’s Mess. We officers can have grand ideas, talk airily about high-flown strategy and policy and use words like “effects-based targeting,” and “five vector models.” 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. It has been said that the Navy floats on a sea of paperwork, and while that may or may not be true, it is indisputable that 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.

And who does the Chief look up to? It’s not the commanding officer, and it’s not the department head. The Chief wants to impress the Master Chief. Who wouldn’t?

But Master Chief N didn’t spring fully formed upon an amazed world with the chief’s creed in one hand and two stars on his anchors back in 1976. He came to boot camp and OS A school at Great Lakes after an unfortunately abbreviated first career racing Kawasaki motorcycles in Oklahoma City. Only problem was, there wasn’t any racetrack in Oklahoma City back then, and the authorities asked our future OSCM was asked to take his skills elsewhere. His first sea duty was aboard USS ROANOKE, AOR-7. The Master Chief correctly surmised that there was very little future in fleet oilers for a tactical Operations Specialist, and took an abbreviated leave of absence to seek greener pastures, without going through all the formalities of putting in an actual leave chit. Doing so resulted in him getting the opportunity to advance to OSSN for a second time, but it also got him duty aboard a guided missile destroyer, the USS JOHN PAUL JONES. From then on, I don’t think he much looked back, cruising three times in his first enlistment, twice aboard the JPG and once aboard BROOKE, FFG-1. He did take time off to make the best decision of his life by marrying Beth in 1979. The next year he graduated from AIC school right up there in Point Loma before taking his first shore duty at the Navy and Marine Corps Reserve Center in Long Beach. Now, the operations specialist rate, as most of you realize, is a “sea going rate,” and OSCM was already a sea-going sailor. He got out of Long Beach and back to San Diego as quick as he could, having made OS1 in the meantime.

In 1984 he reported to he still stubbornly refers to as “his” ship, and what I keep reminding him is “our” ship, the USS Constellation. Even though he was the junior OS1 aboard, he was chosen to be the OI LPO. Between 1984 and 1987, the Master Chief finished his fourth deployment, made Chief, graduated as an AIC supervisor, graduated from TOPGUN and ran his first marathon. He made senior chief in 1988 and Master Chief in 1991. He had a brief fling with the Kitty Hawk, the second best ship of her class, serving as the CDC LCPO and OPS LCPO while making his fifth and sixth deployments.

Are you getting the idea that he’s not the kind of guy you want to compare sea service ribbons with?

But we’re not done, because he came back to Connie again after fooling around ashore for a bit on the PHIBGRU 3 staff, serving again as OPS LCPO and making his 7th and 8th deployments. He finally ended up here at Fleet ASW Training Center, in what he tells me is the only shore duty he every really cared for. It was a place where he could make a difference, surrounded by other people who also wanted to make a difference. Which is all, really, that Master Chief N ever wanted to do.

The Master Chief served through one long cold war, and two hot ones, including one that is not yet over. Back in 1976, when the Master Chief enlisted and a depressing number of you were not yet born, our country was a very different place than it is today. Our president at that time looked across a nation 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 San Diego, 2006, the fall of the Soviet Union due to its inherent inconsistencies looks inevitable. In 1976 it was not nearly so clear. In 1976, our president looked upon our hardships and declared that we were in a period of “national malaise.” But the service of men like Master Chief N denied that this was so. We had available to us then, as we have always had before in times of trial and challenge, good Sailors, 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.

We took different paths to get to this dais, the Master Chief and I: I went off to a trade school, and the Master Chief went off to the fleet. I earned my khakis by going to college – he earned his by performing at sea. In thirty 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.

The Master Chief and I are much the same age, and share similar tastes. We both drink coffee by the barrel, but insist on quality, if we can get it. We both listen to R.E.M. And we both of us fell in love with the same girl, way back in 1987. Her name, as you’ve probably figured out by now, was Connie, and she was a local girl. A big one too, weighing in at a little over 80,000 tons even before the air wing embarked. She was my first ship, and she was my last ship, but when I went aboard her to serve as operations officer half way through her 2001 deployment, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. And that’s when I met OSCM N – call sign K-Mart.

We quickly realized that we had served together before, and also that we shared some of the same passions – we both of us were strong believers that there weren’t any medals for second place in combat. He was the ship’s Ops Department LCPO, and one of the first things he told me when I came aboard was that he wouldn’t much be available from 1200 to 1600 every afternoon, on account of the fact that he was standing watch. My first instinct was to blurt out, “How can you do your job as an LCPO when you’re standing watch?” but fortunately I remembered my father’s advice way back when I was a midshipman: “Son,” he told me, “If, in a new situation, you get the opportunity to keep your mouth shut, do whatever you can to take that opportunity.” So I kept quiet and watched and learned. I came to understand that Master Chief N didn’t only want to stand watch as a way of leading his Sailors by example, and keeping his finger on the departmental pulse, he needed to be there, to be a part of the ship’s tactical nerve center there in CDC. Like the time he’d spend on the treadmill every day, staring at the rivet on a bulkhead while he pounded out mile after mile, he stood watch to keep his edge sharp. And when we took the ship to war in 2003, knowing that Master Chief N was on a console down in Combat was one of the most reassuring things I’ve ever experienced in my life.

It’s easy of course, or at least easier anyway, to throw oneself into the tactical elements of naval warfare – that’s the stuff of Tom Clancy novels, and enhanced self-esteem. It’s not as easy to lay the painstaking bricks that build a tactical team, and it’s certainly not as easy to wear your flash gear while running a trackball, or pick up candy wrappers in the passageway, when other folks feel content to turn a blind eye. But the amazing thing about RN was his absolute inability to ever do the wrong thing, or let a wrong thing go uncorrected. Everyone knew the standards he set for his Sailors were no higher than those he set for himself. Everyone knew that around him, things didn’t slide. In many ways he was old school – he wasn’t harsh to his people, but neither did he coddle them. They were grown-ups in his eyes and responsible for their actions, but they were also people he genuinely cared about. And if a young sailor got in trouble, well, the master chief knew the story from both sides himself. He took the time not just to correct but also to teach, I mean really teach, looking people in the eye and pitching it where they could hit it. He was always looking for the guy with a little spark of fire, the guy who really wanted it – he didn’t just train people, he made them hungry. The master chief set an exceptionally high standard for professionalism, and then challenged his people to meet it.

And meet it they did. Our ship performed magnificently in workups and at war. Our advancement rate was the highest of any large department on the ship. Our petty officers in every division were routinely dual warfare qualified, and when the ship came home, they all had places waiting for them, anxious to profit from the expertise and professionalism of Master Chief N’s “Connie Sailors.”

I’ll give you just one more citation of the Master Chief’s ability to lead by example, and it’s almost unbelievable to me: When our return to homeport in 2003 was delayed a month, he missed the chance to run in San Diego’s Rock ‘n Roll marathon. Undeterred, he not only set it as a goal for himself, but also led seven other people in the department to run the 26.2 miles on the ship’s treadmills on the same day as the race, in what was for him his 16th marathon. Imagine four hours on one of those machines, staring at the wall. I can tell you I was so inspired I almost ran a marathon myself, last summer. I was that close. Except of course, that I didn’t have the Master Chief around any more to motivate me, and 26.2 miles is rather a long distance.

In just a few minutes we’re going to pipe the Master Chief over the side, and then we’re all going to have to learn how to keep ourselves motivated without him around to set the example for us. We’re going to have to learn how to pick up the pack that he’s carried so well for so long, and throw it over our shoulders. We’re going to have teach the generation that follows after us what it means to be passionate about perfection, how to do the right thing every time, and that there’s no points for second place in combat. And the good news is that we’re going to be able to do so, because all of us have had the opportunity to work alongside the consummate naval professional.

In closing here I’m going to share with you a little secret – I hope you won’t mind: Being up here today, speaking at the retirement of the finest representative of the Navy’s most superior organization is not just an honor for me – it is also something like a pilgrimage. Master Chief N happens to be one of my personal heroes. I only regret the fact that I met him rather late in my career. I know I could have been a better officer and better leader if I had had the opportunity to work with a man of his caliber earlier, and I envy those of you who are replacing us, and who have had the benefit of knowing him at the start of your careers. If you spend a couple of decades in the Navy, you’ll get to meet some wonderful people. I’ve worked with and for a number of fantastic leaders in my time, but there is only one I’ve ever worked with of whom I said these words and meant them: “He is the kind of leader I wish I could be.”

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, and your excellence. B, I want to thank you again for all your support to the Master Chief, thank you for your service to our country, for making that service worthwhile, for giving it context. Thank you, both of you, for 30 years. G and R, I hope you’re as proud of your dad as he deserves you to be. I know he’s proud of the both of you.

Well Master Chief, I guess we’re closing in on the end, and you can stand easy, – you have finished the race, and you have kept the faith. Well done.

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

 

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Lex, Navy

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