CPOs, Arriving

I love September 16.

Every year on this day the Navy refreshes its cadre of deckplate leaders by making new Chief Petty Officers. Today 7th Fleet and USS BLUE RIDGE held a traditional pinning ceremony, as did most Navy commands around the globe.

Chiefs run the Navy, as any senior officer will avow. Without our Chiefs’ Mess the ships would not sail, the airplanes would not fly, the sailors would not get paid, supplies would not move, healthcare would not happen, the Navy would grind to a halt. Any sailor worth his salt knows what to do when faced with high challenge, stress, or ambiguity. Just ask the Chief. 

As an honorary Master Chief, this is the one day of the year that I really get to feel like I’m a part of that special community of Navy leaders. I proudly don my service khakis, my khaki combination cover, and my Master Chief’s anchors, and I stand up with the real Chiefs to proudly salute these new Chief Petty Officers and welcome them to The Mess.

Officers who achieve success in accomplishing mission or furthering their own career will tell you, by name, the Chief Petty Officers who pointed them ever so subtly (or not) in the right direction on their way to success. 

I have been honored to serve with many outstanding Chief Petty Officers, and I respect and appreciate every one of them. Six played particularly cogent roles in my development and success as a senior officer. For our newest Chiefs, I fondly hope that they will some day stand alongside those true giants whom I am extraordinarily proud to call, “Shipmate”:

Master Chief Paul Thomas
Master Chief John Prus
Master Chief Beverly Leedom
Master Chief Laura Martinez
Master Chief Marcos Sibal
Senior Chief Chris Moore

Navy Chiefs! Navy Pride!

Watching Matt

Watching Matt play sports: Not always easy, not always kind, but usually good and with a dynamite ending.

We often cringed at his very young age soccer games when he stood planted in one spot, only to move from there when the ball approached him. His soccer career peaked early when he scored his first and last goal at the age of six. He kicked the ball off from mid-field, from whence it rolled past several distracted meandering boys and through the goal…a total distance of about 15 yards.

We later agonized for him as a first grade basketball player when the game was stopped while the coach tied his shoe for him. He just didn’t have that psychomotor skill yet. We fumed five years and three schools later when, with shoes now securely tied, he waved his arms wide open under the basket yet no one would pass him the ball. He was the military kid, the new kid, and these boys had played together since first grade. He wore the same uniform as they, but he was never really on their team.

In baseball he played for the Marlins, the White Sox, and the Cubs. The high point of his baseball career was when his team won the league championship and got to be on the field at Harbor Park with the Norfolk Tides. He never quite mastered the “bat off the shoulder” approach to hitting, but he relished his first winning team.

Later in Bethesda a Navy pediatrician suggested that he try karate. The discipline and routine of martial arts would not only help his psychomotor coordination skills, but would also assist his focus ability. Indeed, he excelled and moved quickly through the ranks. He attended two different schools in two different cities in two different states, each with its own philosophy and style. In Norfolk he met one of the best coaches he would ever have in any sport…a man who inspires and instills self-confidence through competence and dedication. 

But Matt is a military kid, after all. He moved to Japan before he completed the course that would surely have earned him a black belt. 

When he got to Japan and started high school he elected to forego his martial arts career to play football. Football? Had he ever seen a game, let alone touched an actual football? “Never mind,” said we. We are not star-struck sports parents. We don’t expect to fund our retirement with his major league salary. We just want him to have fun and fully tap whatever potential he wants. So, okay, football it is. He tried out for the JV team as a freshman. He got cut. Cut!?! That had never happened before at this DoD high school. They had never cut anyone…until that year. He was one of only four boys, all new to the school, who didn’t get to join the team.

So he just went and got a varsity letter instead. A wonderful man who worked for me arranged for Matt to join the varsity as team photographer. He excelled. His films were used to market graduating seniors for football scholarships. He earned that varsity letter without ever taking a hit on the field. More cogently, he studied and learned the sport.

The next year he eschewed the video camera for another shot at playing the actual game. He gutted it out and landed a spot on the JV team. The season was one of his best in any sport. He impressed his coaches with his spirit, dedication, and enthusiasm. By the end of the season, after only partial playing time on defense and special teams, he achieved his pre-season goal of playing wide receiver.

The spring of his freshman year he ran track, “to get in shape for football.” The next year he ran track again, because he liked it. As a recreational runner myself, I truly admired his willingness and dedication to compete against himself, to constantly strive for a better time. Perseverance.

But, he is a military child. For his junior year he moved from a DoD school in Japan with 300 students to a Catholic high school in Virginia with 1300 students. Most of those had known each other for years, and did not readily welcome new kids into their inner circles. It was not an auspicious year. He didn’t even consider football. Instead, he ran cross-country, and his times steadily improved as the season rolled on. That year, in addition to ubiquitous mom and dad, his sister got to watch him too.

And then Fortune smiled on the entire family when we got to return to Japan for his senior year. He made the varsity football team. In professional or NCAA parlance, it was a “rebuilding year.” Not as much fun as that winning JV season. Dad was deployed for most of the season, but did manage to catch one game by riding the Shinkansen all the way to Misawa and back over a brief labor day port period. Would do it again. Would love to have the chance to do it again.

Now, with graduation and a move on to college looming, this era draws inexorably to a close as Matt achieves a new level of personal excellence in his final season of his final high school sport, track. Consistently bettering his times in the 800 and 1500 yard events, he peaked by setting personal records in both events at the last meet, the last event, the last sport that his parents will likely ever get to see him play.

So just like that, it ends. That six-year old boy who accidentally kicked a soccer ball through a miniature goal 12 years ago is now a young man standing on a podium receiving his ribbon. In the interim he’s attended 8 different schools in 3 different states and 2 countries. He has played six different sports with varying degrees of success and acceptance. He’s felt that proverbial agony of defeat and thrill of victory. He’s been very up and very down and all stages in between. 

Through those years he never once gave up, never once quit trying, never once quit learning, and never once quit believing in himself and his ability to achieve his goal. I call that commitment, and I call it courage. And, Matt, of whom I am as proud as a father can be, I call a WINNER!

117 Years and Counting

No. That’s not my current age. Though some may think that’s feasible.

Tonight I humbly presume to write a short tribute to a corps of men and women who are not only the backbone, but also the soul of the world’s most powerful Navy. I refer to U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officers, who yesterday celebrated the 117th anniversary of the establishment of their rank. I’ll make this short, because there is little I can add to the robust history this cadre has written for itself – often in its own blood – over those 117 years.

Just as a powerful lion without a backbone or soul is only a lifeless bag of bones and tissue, our Navy would be nothing more than a jumbled mass of steel without the seasoned, dynamic leaders who make up the Chiefs’ Mess, or Goatlocker, at all Navy commands afloat and ashore.

For me, it’s a bit more personal. In addition to the prescribed uniform elements that I wear as a senior Navy Captain of the Medical Corps, under my right pocket flap I proudly sport – at all times, Chiefs – another uniform device. Here’s an excerpt from a website that describes it:

The Fouled Anchor is the emblem of the Rate of Chief Petty Officer of the United States Navy. Attached to the Anchor is a length of chain and the letters U.S.N. To the novice, the anchor, chain and letters only identify a Chief Petty Officer of the United States Navy, but, to a Chief, these have a more noble and glorious meaning.

The “U” stands for Unity, which reminds us of cooperation, maintaining harmony and continuity of purpose and action.

The “S”stands for Service, which reminds us of service to our God, our fellow man and our Navy.

The “N” stands for Navigation, which reminds us to keep ourselves on a true course so that we may walk upright before God and man in our transactions with all mankind, but especially with our fellow Chiefs. The Chain is symbolic of flexibility and reminds us of the chain of life that we forge day by day, link by link and may it be forged with Honor, Morality and Virtue.

The Anchor is emblematic of the hope and glory of the fulfillment of all God’s promises to our souls. The golden or precious Anchor by which we must be kept steadfast in faith and encouraged to abide in our proper station amidst the storm of temptation, affliction and persecution.

Roughly two years ago, the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy pinned to my uniform that very device, including a Master Chief’s two stars, and welcomed me into the Goatlocker as an Honorary Master Chief in the United States Navy. I do not ever expect to enjoy a higher honor in this great Navy than to be counted worthy of sharing that cherished device with the likes of Paul Thomas, John Prus, Beverly Leedom, Lou Cruz, Laura Martinez, Marcos Sibal, Chris Moore and scores of other Chiefs who have mentored and supported me on my journey to higher Navy leadership. Because, you see, the real job of a Chief is to teach officers how to lead. That’s our secret naval weapon. That’s why we are the world’s most powerful Navy.

Without my Master Chiefs, my Navy career would be worth no more than a bag of bones, or a clump of steel.

Navy Chiefs! Navy Pride!

A True Officer and Gentleman

The following announcement on our 1MC just interrupted work on my next Hong Kong post:

“CAPT Scott Butler, United States Navy, Departing.”

“BH”  had just stopped by my stateroom to say farewell en route to his final trip across this Flagship’s brow.  In deference to OPSEC and personal privacy, I usually don’t disclose full names on my blog, but this officer deserves recognition.

A bit of background for non-Navy readers: The “bonging” of officers aboard or ashore from a naval ship is a traditional rendering of honors dating in time to the early British Navy. Like many of our traditions, the practical reason for this little ceremony long ago ceased relevance. Nowadays we employ it simply to respect our senior leaders, and for other special recognitions. Three elements constitute the simple ceremony: 1) A number of bell rings corresponding to the rank of the honored officer (e.g., four bells for CAPT, eight bells for VADM); 2) The announcement of the honoree, usually by position instead of name. (E.g., “Seventh Fleet, Arriving.”) 3) All stand at attention and salute as the boatswain’s mate pipes the dignitary across the quarterdeck.

A typical naval vessel will bong aboard/ashore anyone of the rank of Captain or above. However, on a 3-Star Fleet Flagship, Captains are as plentiful as corn dogs. So it would be impractical to bong each of us as we go about our daily sojourns. But when a senior officer departs the ship for the last time en route to his next job, as BH did today, we do render these special honors to say, “Fair winds and following seas, Shipmate. Bravo Zulu, and thanks for your service.”

A word about CAPT Scott Butler as he departs for command on the other side of the world. He just completed a stellar tour as Flag Operations Officer, arguably the toughest and most unforgiving job on the staff. Think of being the conduit and control point for all the naval activity in the world’s most expansive area of operations. Think of being on call 24/7, ready to coordinate the movements of this massive naval force in response to any number of contingencies. Think of maintaining a standard of excellence that demands nothing less than perfection. Think of being the mentor, confidante, and advocate for a team of junior officers and enlisted sailors who must adroitly perform a myriad of tasks to get the job done right. Think of that officer also being a person and family man, periodically experiencing issues that accompany any life, irrespective of the demands of your job. Think of all that occurring in a daily double-time battle rhythm, because that’s just the way it has to be here.

And then consider how lesser men or women might crumble under that pressure, or might resort to maladaptive ungentlemanly behaviour in shifting the load and the stress to their shipmates or minions. Think of how they might abandon family and friendship out of some ill-conceived notion that the job always comes first. And then consider that this one Scott Butler, this quintessential Naval Aviator and former winning “Price is Right” contestant, not only executed his job with extraordinary panache, but did so with infectious, self-effacing, morale-enhancing wit and humor; never once laid an undue burden or took out frustration on anyone else; and never forgot nor ignored the really important things in life. In ways we will not completely understand until his absence, Scott embued our staff with team spirit and a winning attitude. Such is the hallmark not only of a true leader, but also of an extraordinary human being.

Outstanding sailors like Scott Butler are the reason I remain an operational Navy doctor and flight surgeon. Their lives add meaning to mine. I am deeply honored to serve them..

BH: BZ, Shipmate! Fair winds and following seas…..”Doc”

A Different Reflection

Just about two years ago I stood on a broad expanse of black sandy beach on the island whose official name now is Iwo To. But to me and others of my generation and that of my parents, the name will always be Iwo Jima, two small Japanese words capable of stirring vast memories and emotions.

I sweated in my nomex flight suit as I gazed along the silent and placid beach toward Mount Suribachi at the head of the island, and I tried to imagine the bloody, chaotic scene there 63 years prior. I tried to picture the ships, the vehicles, the weapons, and the Marines who employed them, all prime targets of the fierce fire barrage emanating from Mt. Suribachi and other points around the island. These men would have been no older than most of my children, yet they were thousands and thousands of miles away from home and families, fighting an enemy desperately entrenched and fully resolved to fight to the last man in defense of their homeland.

Try as I might, I could not feel the aura of that day. Instead I gazed upon an almost idyllic beach that in many other parts of the world would be dotted with sunworshipping vacationers paying exhorbitant prices for the privilege of soaking in sun and sea as if the world had no cares at all. The iconic WWII battle was too far away in time, with no real emotional hook for an Arizona man who was not even born yet on the day that produced one of the most famous photos of all time.

I squatted down and scooped some of that black sand into a plastic baggy, sealed it, and stuffed it into the leg pocket of my flight suit. I took quite a few pictures, because the scene was very photogenic. Then I turned and began walking back up to the road to rejoin my colleagues. That is when the enormity of that day in 1945 did sink in, just as my flight boots sunk into the thick sand that rose abruptly up to a berm about 40 yards from the water. Laden with nothing other than my Nikon and that full baggy, I struggled up the sand to crest the berm. I could easily imagine being weighed down with a heavy ruck sack, a weapon…or perhaps medical gear…being totally open and vulnerable to anyone above taking a shot at me. It seemed an eternity as I slipped and trudged to the relative protection of the berm, and still had an open field to cross before reaching any real cover. What if I was carrying a wounded Marine?

As I made my way to higher ground I noted a group of young men in Marine camoflauge uniforms descending to the beach. Assuming that they were in fact Marines, I was prepared to give them my usual greeting of “Oo-rah, Marines” on passing. But as I got closer I noted the cadeuceus collar insignia on the leader of the group, and the embroidered “US Navy” above the pocket. This was a hospital corpsman, dressed per custom in the uniform of the men and women who know him simply as “Doc”. As I passed him by, a spontaneous ethereal voice arose inside me and proclaimed, “Corpsman up!” The response was immediate as always, “You got it, Sir!”

Hospital corpsmen assigned to the Fleet Marine Force are deservedly among the most well respected and cherished of all military members. In the heat of combat they willingly and bravely risk their own lives to save others…often at the highest personal price. When last I looked almost 40 corpsmen, all men and women in their prime, have lost their lives in OIF and OEF. Most of our Navy hospitals boast a wall dedicated to the many Medal of Honor recipients who were hospital corpsmen. Navy corpsmen are unique among all rates in all services, not only for what they do but for the spirit and dedication with which they do it. And they share a rich legacy and proud heritage.

This spring marks the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima.A visit to Iwo Jima can mean many different things and provoke a variety of emotions. For me, it was trudging up that hill and the chance encounter with that young corpsman, a direct descendant of men like John Bradley, the Iwo Jima flagraiser protagonist of “Flags of Our Fathers”.. The enthusiastic response to my greeting means that the true core values of Navy Medicine will endure, at least as long as there are young men and women of honor, courage and commitment ready to respond to the call, “Corpsman up!”