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"Command at sea"
Old 12-10-2010, 01:41 PM   #1
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"Command at sea"

Our kid returns home next week for three weeks of holiday break, and what an interesting four months she's had.

When I started my Navy career at USNA, most officers went into the "big three" line communities of surface warfare, submarines, or aviation. They all offer command at sea. Their officers were considered a cut above the restricted-line and staff communities, and they were easy to spot because they wore distinctive warfare insignia tattooed on their chests pinned on their uniforms. In many cases, the only way to end up in another community was to be somehow declared "non-physically qualified" with color-blindness or other problems. Engineering Duty Officers might be a lot smarter, and Supply Corps officers might know more about finance, and Civil Engineering Corps officers might earn a lot more in civilian careers, but only the line officers were considered qualified to command at sea. Leading a battleship squadron surface action group into combat became one's highest aspiration. Even today only line officers can be CNO or VCNO, and IIRC one of them still has to be an aviator.

There are other line communities but those three (SWO, subs, & air) consume the majority of officers-- perhaps as high as 75%. Very few ensigns are able to move directly into restricted-line communities upon commissioning. Almost everyone is expected to serve a few years in the "big three" to see whether they're really cut out for command at sea. Then they can wimp out apply for a "lateral transfer" to one of the other communities.

Hey, it's the system I was raised on. It's not necessarily the right one, and I think the U.S. Marines and the British Navy do it a lot better, but it's an effective way to make sure you have enough sea-duty officers on the pointy end of the spear instead of in REMF billets. It's been in place for at least four generations.

Enter the next generation. Our kid picked up our home-improvement hobby as soon as she could swing a hammer, and in high school she discovered civil/environmental engineering. Now she's enthusiastically geeking out at one of the nation's top engineering schools and having a wonderful time playing with mud & concrete. She's also been raised around the Navy, so she thinks that getting a commission is a good idea too. She found enough information to make her own USNA vs NROTC decision and she seems to be very happy.

When we explained the line-officer system she decided that she'd prefer to drive destroyers out of Yokosuka or Italy for a few years (SWO) and then lateral to the Civil Engineering Corps-- the SeaBees. My spouse and I have been smirking as we think of the phone conversation she'd have with her first SWO assignment officer ("Lemme get this straight, Ensign Nords, you're VOLUNTEERING to go to a destroyer in Italy or Japan?!?") and we expected that she'd have no problem going to the SeaBees in 4-5 years when she reached the end of her service obligation. ("OK, Lieutenant Nords, if you're going to resign from active duty unless we let you go SeaBees, then I guess SeaBees it is.") NROTC sends midshipmen to sea on platforms of all three communities for a few weeks, so by the time she reaches her senior year she'll have plenty of info to make a decision. But for the last several years I've become accustomed to thinking of her as a SeaBee, and later on as one of Hawaii's top sewage experts civil engineers.

We did our share of mentoring, of course. She knows the submarine force's history, she's toured the USS TEXAS (SSN 775), and she's heard my PG-rated sea stories. My spouse has shown her what the Navy can offer for oceanography, meteorology, and anti-submarine warfare. But by the end of high school our kid had decided that submariners & aviators were pretty much nuts (that's one way to put it) and she preferred SWO + SeaBees. Fair enough.

When she started NROTC, the Navy announced that it was going to open the submarine force to women. We all agree that this is a great idea and a wonderful opportunity, but she'd be breaking ground (as my spouse did in the fourth class of women at USNA) and the submarine force would not want to let her leave to be a SeaBee. They'd play hardball and she'd HAVE to resign to join the SeaBees from the Navy Reserve. Besides, submariners are nuts-- just look at your father. Listen to your mother.

Four months later I've been surprised by the skill of NROTC's persuasive marketing campaign. During one phone call our kid said SeaBees sure seemed like fun but that she'd never get COMMAND AT SEA (her pronunciation) like she would in the SWO or submarine communities. (In her opinion, aviators are still nuts.) The other day I mentioned how well her engineering skills would server her in the SeaBees when she interrupted me to say "Or in submarines, Dad." Upon further inquiry I've learned that one of the NROTC lieutenants just reported to her unit from a Pearl Harbor submarine, and apparently his sea stories are a much more compelling view of being a nuke. He's the one who pointed out that SeaBees don't have COMMAND AT SEA (technically correct) and that submarines are a much better deal than SWO. (Also $$$$ correct.) Yesterday my daughter told me that the NROTC unit's library includes a copy of Gene "Lucky" Fluckey's classic "Thunder Below", and she loves it. Next she's reading my copy of Dick O'Kane's "Wahoo". She's abso-freakin'-lutely thrilled at the idea of command at sea, especially as a submariner.

I guess it's my job to ensure the full disclosure that she's not getting from NROTC. In the first half of the 20th century, line officers could move fairly easily among the warfare communities. (Admiral Nimitz was a submariner.) Naval aviators commanded aircraft carriers. There was competitive rivalry, but it wasn't exclusive.

However since Rickover revved up, nuclear specialization has reared its ugly head. This is not a good thing. The "general submarine officer" community was phased out in the 1980s and today all submariners must complete nuclear power training. Since all aircraft carriers are now nuclear-powered, all aviators who aspire to carrier command must complete nuclear power training. (They won't make admiral without it.) SWOs can't command nuclear ships anymore because nuclear cruisers are no longer with us and the aviators have the carriers locked up, so nuclear SWOs are dead-ended and must eventually return to conventional ships for command at sea. Conventional SWOs are frustrated at being the "dumping ground" for submariner wannabes who flunked nuke power school. The inter-community rivalry has become a tad bitter & vicious.

Although each community has its cute pejoratives for the others (like "bubblehead"), submariners are more frequently designated as "f#$%in'nukes" (one word). Perversely, we seem to deserve regard this as a badge of honor. Spouse has been living with nukes for over 30 years and has her own opinions of our obstinacy tenacity and persistence, as well as our personal issues and our stunted social skills. She's not exactly thrilled to learn that she's bred another one. Once the submarine force has our kid in its clutches as one of the very few women, let alone a 2nd-generation nuke, I'm pretty darn sure that she won't be able to transfer to the SeaBees without resigning for the Reserves. To my surprise, my kid suggested that maybe she won't want to transfer to the SeaBees-- not if she wants COMMAND AT SEA.

Of course these are her career choices, not my problem. This is not a gender issue with me, and in fact the submarine force will be lucky to get her. She'll have a week at sea on a submarine next summer and she'll probably get a few more weeks on one a year or two later, so she can make her own lifestyle choice. She won't have any trouble with the nuclear academics but she'll hear plenty of horror sea stories about the training and the qualification. I guess I'm going to add a few of my "R" rated sea stories to that rotation. I don't want her to think she's been tricked by Dear Ol' Dad.

However I must admit to being a bit surprised to find myself thinking of my kid as a "f#$%in'nuke"...
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Old 12-10-2010, 03:56 PM   #2
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Hi Nords, this sounds so different from my (civilian) thoughts on employment. So it's kind of fascinating, thanks. We've been visiting our son down at San Diego and as you know there is a lot of Navy presence down there. Toured the Midway and that was fun. Had a few dinners at the Fish Market and looked across the water at those two nuclear aircraft carriers docked on Coronado. I think one is the Reagan.
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Old 12-10-2010, 04:20 PM   #3
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Just got a call from our son. Selected for O4. He is currently flying four different helicopters out of Quantico. We are going up there for Christmas.
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Old 12-10-2010, 05:58 PM   #4
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He is currently flying four different helicopters out of Quantico.
Wow. He must have some really long arms...

J/K. You should be very proud and I hope you have a great visit over the holidays.
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Old 12-10-2010, 06:28 PM   #5
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Nords,
Congrats. You should be honored--apparently she wasn't turned off about traveling the path her old man followed.
Will the Navy nuclear safety folks allow her kids to follow the same path, or will they want to give the Nords family genetic material a chance to recover a little?
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Old 12-10-2010, 08:36 PM   #6
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Hey Nords, that must be some strong Kool-Aid that you shared with your girl! I've had a somewhat non-traditional career path during my 13 years, including time as ship's company and working with all the other services including the USCG. The quality of life that a Naval aviator has is tough to beat, compared to just about any other part of the military. The only problem is that no one is getting out, so in the past 6 or 8 years, it has become a little tougher to promote than it is for SWO's, SEALs, Submariners, and just about anyone in the other branches. Heck, the Army was early promoting everyone to O-5 as of about 3 years ago. Anyways, I'm glad there are people like you and your daughter, who are willing to go on subs, so I can fly planes instead.
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Old 12-10-2010, 08:49 PM   #7
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You and Ms. Nords have every reason to be very proud of your daughter. What a remarkable young woman she's turning out to be.
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Old 12-10-2010, 09:42 PM   #8
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Thanks, everyone, to us parents this sounds like a repeat of the "Holy crap our kid thinks USNA is the best school in the world" situation.

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Nords,
Congrats. You should be honored--apparently she wasn't turned off about traveling the path her old man followed.
I think the phrase is "blissfully ignorant". She'll have to get back to us after she has a little sea time this summer.

As an example, during her TEXAS tour the guide made her speed-don an emergency air breathing mask. The goal is one minute, and after a couple practice attempts she was just getting into it by 90 seconds, but she still thought it was neat. During her summer training time she'll do it 40 or 50 times to get proficient, and she'll wear it for an hour or two at a time. I suspect the novelty will wear a little thin, as will the "neat" factor.

My time was under 30 seconds. (I know from experience that the smoke/fumes spread faster than a minute.) I've stood six-hour watches in them. Don't miss it a bit.

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Will the Navy nuclear safety folks allow her kids to follow the same path, or will they want to give the Nords family genetic material a chance to recover a little?
Clearly it's already sustained significant damage, so it may be difficult to detect any additional degradation from further exposure. She may think she's ready for the submarine force, but I'm not sure the submarine force is ready for another Nords. Hopefully the name's reputation has eased up a little by now...

On the political medical retention health side of the "women in submarines" issue, we've been told since we were baby nukes that if men take a significant radiation dose (~100 REM) then we can produce "fresh" sperm after about a month. (That's what they tell us, anyway.) For at least 40 years we've also been told that women cannot repair or replace their ova if they're damaged by radiation. Yet while female physiology didn't suddenly change a few months ago, somehow that's not a concern anymore. I'm going to guess that each new generation of submarine berthing reactors has been so much cleaner to the point where today's radiation levels are so low that the medical effects can't be predicted. We'll get back to you on that in 20-30 years...

I've also learned that after they finish putting women crew in the first four of the OHIO class, then they're going to start putting women crew in the VIRGINIA class. Maybe she thinks it'll be easier to get stationed in Pearl Harbor.

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Hey Nords, that must be some strong Kool-Aid that you shared with your girl! I've had a somewhat non-traditional career path during my 13 years, including time as ship's company and working with all the other services including the USCG. The quality of life that a Naval aviator has is tough to beat, compared to just about any other part of the military.
Ironically it wasn't me-- it was the PBS "Carrier" series that came out a couple years ago. Somehow she's gained the impression that submarines have much less drama than carriers.

It's gonna be a looooong summer training session.

I shouldn't kvetch. 30+ years ago all I wanted to do was to be a Marine Harrier pilot. Then I learned exactly what went into bazooka puking flying one of those, and a few weeks later I had a submarine cruise.
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Old 12-11-2010, 09:39 AM   #9
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Four months later I've been surprised by the skill of NROTC's persuasive marketing campaign. During one phone call our kid said SeaBees sure seemed like fun but that she'd never get COMMAND AT SEA (her pronunciation) like she would in the SWO or submarine communities.
Well, if nothing else, it's nice to see that the brainwashing is not confined strictly to service academies. At West Point, infantry, armor and artillery have traditionally been the big 3. I entered shortly after the Gulf War and memories of large, force on force tank battles were still pretty fresh in everyone's minds. As a result, armor and artillery were pretty popular branch choices the year I commissioned. Over the last decade or so that we've been engaged in a predominantly counterinsurgency fight, though, things have changed a bit. Infantry has continued to fair pretty well as a branch choice, but the armor and artillery branches have lost ground to some of the other branches that are getting a lot of use in the current fight like aviation and military police...I'm sure a good old fashioned tank battle or two would rectify that.

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Heck, the Army was early promoting everyone to O-5 as of about 3 years ago.
I wish. The Army accelerated promotions to O-4 to the 9.5-10 year mark about 5 years ago, but there hasn't been a change to the O-5 promotion point in many years (officers get looked at for promotion at the 16 year mark...generally pin on about 17). I'd be pretty pleased, though, if they did decide to move that promotion forward a few years...it'd help me hit that high 3 mark a little earlier.

And, since "America's Game" begins here in about 4 hours, I'll take this opportunity to say Go Army...I think the old Army team is just about due a win after the losing streak we've had over the last several years.
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Old 12-11-2010, 12:22 PM   #10
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My nephew the Army Ranger was using the "CPT" designator right around the three-year point. I thought DOPMA was four years!

But nobody wants to serve in an environment that allows rapid promotions.

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And, since "America's Game" begins here in about 4 hours, I'll take this opportunity to say Go Army...I think the old Army team is just about due a win after the losing streak we've had over the last several years.
Navy's game to lose through overconfidence and undertraining. No pressure, right? There are also a lot of local Hawaii players on the team (and the coach) who'd have to answer to their families living on an island whose military population is predominantly Army.

The urban legend has been that when Navy wins four or more in a row, the country goes to war. Maybe there's a plebe cadet eager to debunk this claim...
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Old 01-30-2011, 08:03 PM   #11
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The sales pitch continues.

This week our daughter's NROTC unit at Rice U. got a recruiting visit from a submarine CO, COB (senior enlisted leader), and a junior officer. Their boat is stationed in Pearl Harbor so they were happy to talk story with a local midshipman. Here's what she says:
Quote:
They explained a LOT about the policies for the women coming into the force and what I can expect in submarine life. I'm still worried about being able to handle the work-- only getting 4-7 hours of sleep, finding time to exercise, and going (basically) months without communication with the outside world. I'm so drawn in to working with the best minds in the Navy and the coolest gear they offer, going to so many foreign ports (they call all over Asia, the Persian Gulf and some parts of Europe-- including Holy Loch) and the Philippines, and the fact that the sub force is entirely voluntary (as opposed to surface ships having those who don't want to be there). It's slightly more possible than either of us expected for me to laterally transfer from submarines to SeaBees--although women are new, we're held to the same standards and expectations as the men, and thus won't be held in the sub force simply because we're women. But I'm still so torn about all this!
I went into "rest of the story fine print" mode and told her about my liberty ports (mostly Guam & Yokosuka with a couple calls in Subic Bay). She knows about Holy Loch from my being stationed there in the 1980s. I explained that "personnel shortages" would keep both men and women from being able to leave the submarine force for the SeaBees. No gender discrimination there!

I also pointed out that I never got seven consecutive hours of rack time. A four-hour nap and a two-hour snooze, maybe, but even then you'd be conscious of the public-announcing system or rockin'&rollin' at periscope depth or getting awakened to sign paperwork. And then the fire alarm would go off.

She's just going to have to get some time on the pond before she's ready to make an informed decision. This summer she'll have four weeks of training split among the four communities (surface ships, aviation, subs, and Marines) and over the next two summers she'll have a month each aboard a ship or a sub. With each of these, though, the problem is that the host crews and wardrooms are generally admonished to be on their best behavior-- because these impressionable young mids will one day be their division officers and their reliefs. So the sales pitch never ends.

This is not my problem and the submarine force is not necessarily a bad place to be-- with full disclosure-- but it's interesting to watch yet another generation getting sucked into the irresistible challenge.

Maybe I'm going to have to polish up my gold dolphin insignia.

You other nukes and you parents of engineering geeks-- anything else I should remind her of before it's too late?
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Old 01-30-2011, 08:20 PM   #12
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Old 01-31-2011, 07:14 AM   #13
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Nords,

" I'm so drawn in to working with the best minds in the Navy and the coolest gear they offer, going to so many foreign ports (they call all over Asia, the Persian Gulf and some parts of Europe-- including Holy Loch) and the Philippines, and the fact that the sub force is entirely voluntary (as opposed to surface ships having those who don't want to be there)."

Hmmm - she's enamored of the people she'd be working with and places she'd go. Perhaps you could remind her that people like that can be very difficult to work with and/or be around. Too many egos sometimes makes for horrible work environments and if you can't get away (as in a submarine), it can be hell. Add sleep deprivation and it just compounds the situation.

However, I think she wants to be part of the 'best and brightest and a trailblazer.' You can't change that as it's a character/personality thing. I've tried for many years :-) She may just have to learn the hard way and/or may end up being the most awesome female nuke who really enjoys her job :-) But you are correct to have her figure out the gap between reality and the marketing hype. She's fortunate she does get the chance to see the different perspectives - I don't remember much of that when I was in ROTC.
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Old 01-31-2011, 07:25 PM   #14
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My FIL went the Seabee route - Tarawa, Eniwetok, Kwajelein, Truk - circa 1944. Things have probably changed since then.
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