A Different Badge of Courage

YOKOSUKA, Japan (Nov. 20, 2012) Operation Specialist 2nd Class Barrett Lafferty, from Grapevine, Texas, greets his newborn child after the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) returned to Yokosuka, Japan. George Washington and embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5 provide a combat-ready force that protects and defends the collective maritime interest of the U.S. and its allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Brian H. Abel/Released)

The photo above packs more than pathos into a single image.  

Among sailors, it tells a familiar story. Whenever a Navy ship returns to home port, some seagoing dads meet their newborn children for the first time. Absent complications, deployed dads don’t get to leave the ship and go home for the birth of their children. That Navy fact of life struck me as odd when I was a newly commissioned Navy medical officer. But I learned that to “provide a combat-ready force that protects and defends the collective maritime interest of the U.S. and its allies and partners”  requires the constant presence of sailors sworn to protect and defend. Keeping that oath often requires absence from home and family for a gamut of life’s milestones, including the birth of one’s own child — first or otherwise.

Under current operational tempo, sometimes those children aren’t so newborn by the time Daddy finally gets to sprint down the ship’s brow and sweep the infant into his arms. Yet these scenes always bring joy to our hearts and tears to our eyes. 

A deeper story exists in the photo above: the location is Yokosuka, Japan, the headquarters of the U.S. 7th Fleet and many of the Navy ships forward deployed to protect and defend. Two tours of duty in Yokosuka marked the highlights of my Navy career. Among the benefits of those tours, I learned about the resiliency, commitment, and outright courage of our Navy’s young sailors and their spouses.

Imagine being a 19-year-old (or even a 25-year-old) recently married woman. Such is your love and commitment to your sailor-husband that you’ve accompanied him half-way around the world to an unfamiliar country where not only the language but even the alphabet presents a mystery. Behind in the U.S., you left your parents, siblings, close friends, extended family — the entire support group on which you would otherwise rely for that blessed event, the birth of your first child. 

Did you know when you said “I do” that you would bring that baby into the world in a foreign land without any of the traditional helpers, not even the father of your child? Your husband went through boot camp and other training to prepare for his deployment on the gray ship that took him away for months — not long after you arrived in Japan. Who trained you for the challenges of birthing your first baby away from everyone you love?

On the brighter side, the Naval Hospital and the Navy community in Yokosuka rise to help meet that challenge, and make a positive experience under the circumstances. I’ve heard that the community support makes Yokosuka a good place to have babies. True that. But it does not minimize the courage and endurance of our young Navy couples and their families. And that’s why it is good to highlight the photo of one such family, each of whom — mom, dad, and baby — deserve to be called American heroes. Without their willingness to make personal sacrifices to support the sailor’s oath to protect and defend, the 7th Fleet would not have sailors in Japan, and the U.S. Navy would fail in its mission to support one of our nation’s most important alliances.

At the end of his tour, someone will pin a well-deserved medal on that sailor’s chest. No such award will be given to his wife, the mother of his child. Perhaps she doesn’t need a medal. Perhaps she knows in her heart that she has done her part, contributed to the mission, and will be justly proud of her own service to our Navy and our nation. 

At at time when we give thanks and celebrate family, let us honor all Navy spouses — men or women — who sacrifice and give so much to our Navy and our nation. 

Cutting a Different Cloth

What do The Caine Mutiny, Midway, In Harm’s Way, Run Silent Run Deep and our own Officers and CPO Messes have in common? I could make the answer obvious if my current limited bandwidth and/or firewall constraints allowed me to post pictures (he whined), but I must attempt verbal descriptions and hyperlinks instead.

The first four citations refer to epic mid-twentieth century movies starring our own U.S. Navy during World War II in the Pacific. Each features a legendary hero of the silver screen depicting a larger-than-life (albeit somewhat quirky) naval officer whose courageous escapades contributed to our grandest moments on the sea-stage of battle. Indeed, those characters so manfully portrayed by Heston, Gable, Wayne, Bogart and equally impressive supporting casts, inspired the dreams of many a future naval officer, including me during my own youth. (Well, okay, maybe we would not aspire to be Captain Queeg, but even that movie portrays some high naval drama.)

So how do these old movies relate to our own Officers and CPOs? You might expect a comparison to the heroic protagonists of those historic naval dramas. That thought would have credibility, but it’s not the theme of this particular post. I’ve been recently accused – with modicum accuracy – of writing “gushing” posts, so I’m determined to take a bit more controversial tack with this one.

Those epic cinematic naval heroes all display an impressive visual image in the uniforms they wear… the distinctly Navy wash khakis donned by officers and chiefs on underway naval vessels throughout the glory years of our sea service. For sure clothes do not a man (or a woman) make, but even a casual observer recognizes the iconic look of that traditional garment and the honor, courage and commitment under fire of those who wear it. This is the uniform in which we won World War II, and it is the very same uniform that officers and chiefs still wear today as they go about–

What’s that you say? Really? When did that happen? Whose idea was…?

It’s true. The revered wash khaki Navy uniform, and all the history that goes with it, will become “no longer authorized” by the end of this year. Instead, officers and chiefs will shell out some $600 per set to replace our historic wash khakis with the new, recently prescribed Navy Working Uniform (NWU). So by next year we all will supposedly wear a sea blue and gray digital camouflage outfit smartly dubbed “aquaflage” by some of our local pundits. That uniform will certainly blend right into the seascape if its wearer suffers the misfortune of falling overboard.

Other than the sea blue/gray color and some barely visible Navy logos, there is nothing distinctively naval about the new NWU. Rather, these new uniforms poorly imitate the traditional battle dress uniforms (BDU, or “camis”) typically sported by members of our sister services. You see camis, you think Army or Marine Corps, not Navy. Further, since it is prescribed for all ranks, our new NWU almost completely blurs the visual distinction between enlisted sailors and the officers/chiefs (heretofore honorably referred to as “khakis”) who lead them. The color and design of the rank insignia and embroidery is all that differentiates. Finally, the only movie that this uniform has thus far inspired is a tiresome training video that drones on endlessly about the only “prescribed” way to wear it, down to the “authorized” color and texture of socks and tee shirt.

No amount of earnest imagination suceeds in drawing an inspirational mental image of Charlton Heston or John Wayne on the silver screen, all decked out in this ridiculous getup while leading a flotilla of Navy ships in a cinematic recreation of our Navy’s finest moments.

Even more disturbing is the visual image of aquaflaged true naval heroes like Nimitz, Spruance, or Arleigh Burke. May they rest in peace.

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!