Fifteen Years in the Making 12DEC2007
Before I start the story in earnest, I should first tell you a bit about how I found myself going off to war. It started when I was a child and listened to my father’s sea-stories from his days as a radioman and then a line officer in the Navy during the Korean era. He in turn had been influenced by his cousin, Sam Lumley, who served as a merchant marine during World War II. Add to the mix, were occasional family references to my grandfather’s experience as a doughboy in World War I and my grand-mothers confederate relatives. In college, I met my wife and learned of the proud service of the Marines in her family. In all of these stories, two recurring themes could be found – the duty to serve one’s nation and the adventure that military service afforded. Of course, as a boy I seldom heard the stories of hardship and sacrifice from my elders. I learned of these things on my own by reading the history of our nation and studying the lives of heroes.
As I came to the end of my college education, I gradually decided that I would like to be a Naval Aviator – no doubt due to my dad’s unintended influence and my dreams of flying jets. I was accepted into the Navy’s Aviation Officer Candidate program in 1983 and went to Officer Candidate School (OCS) in 1984. Unfortunately during my last flight physical, the Navy determined that I could not be an aviator due to astigmatism in my eye. There was some real irony here since they also confirmed that I had 20/10 vision. With a heavy heart, I decided to leave the program instead of pursing a commission as a Naval Flight Officer. Once home, I found employment with IBM Corporation and moved to New York state. I assumed that my military dreams had come to an end.
Five years passed, in which time I was married and had two children. One day I noticed a picture of a colleague in the khaki uniform of a Naval Officer on board a Navy warship. He told me about a great program for civilian engineers in which they were directly commissioned as an Ensign in the Naval Reserve and trained as naval engineers. After a long discussion with my wife, I applied and was accepted for a commission in March of 2001. A week before I move back to North Carolina, I was sworn into the Navy in the Poughkeepsie Reserve center on the 18th of April 2001. We moved to Raleigh and I start a new career as a Citizen-Sailor.
Those first few years can be very daunting for direct commission officers. Unlike our counter-parts who are trained through a traditional pipeline, we do not have years of preparation at the Naval Academy or a ROTC program. Even OCS graduates have far more military training than the newly commissioned Ensign in the Engineering Duty Officer Program. Much like the fledgling pushed from the nest with out any prior training, you either fly or crash – I was determined to soar with Eagles. To succeed, I immersed myself in all things naval. Each month for four years I drove to Norfolk to spend time with the “gray” ships and shipyards. I visited countless ships and learned the inner workings of their convoluted labyrinth of pipes and equipment, I went down to the sea on ships (a carrier and a cruiser), digested countless manuals and correspondence courses, studiously learned every lesson a chief would share, and carefully studied my fellow officers. As I learned more about the Navy, I came to understand that I was being trained the way midshipmen of the 18th and 19th century were trained – hands on with little time for schools or special courses. This was the same system that produced Jones, Porter, and Farragut – maybe it would all work out. After four years, I had completed the training regimen proscribed by the Navy and was finally ready to take the boards to complete my qualification. In retrospect, I had worked, prepared and studied harder for that board than for any exam I took as an undergraduate or graduate student in Engineering.
The day came for my board – I traveled to the Naval Sea Systems Command Headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. The Navy’s Engineering Duty Qualification Program (EDQP) defines the process and the participants. I had heard many stories of officers sent home as an embarrassment to their command with further study or even failure assigned by the board. I will never forget the first few moments of my board. I stood at one end of a long conference table and arrayed across from me were three very senior Captains. I remember looking at the rows of ribbons and qualifications they wore on their chests and contemplating the experience that represented. I also knew that a certain rivalry amongst the Eagles could spell my doom. My qualifying officer, Captain “Jack” Bruckner, had led me to this point. I had spent years obtaining the knowledge to take the board and he had placed his trust in my preparations. Much like the relationship between the prize fighter and his manager, it was now up to me.
As I stepped into the ring a flurry of butterflies added a quiver to my voice. I soon settled down as we spent the first hour discussing my civilian specialty – electronic packaging. I lead them a merry chase through the world of micro-circuits, wire-bonding, and the physical implications of computer architecture. At this point my confidence was up and I was ready for their salvos. They knew they had a live one on their line and he would be hard to land. The intense questioning started. How many admirals can dance on the head of a pin and what are their names. Describe in detail a ship’s steam plant. Tell us all you know about AEGIS cruisers. What was John Paul Jones middle name? At last, Captain Bruckner gave me a slow pitch right over the plate – describe in depth the entire process to replace a broken pump on a warship from its discovery by the enlisted watch-stander through its replacement during a shipyard repair visit (called an availability) until its acceptance during sea trials a year later. I had selected Maintenance of Ships and Ship System as my specialty – I knew this one stone cold and had spent years as a participant in this arena. I spent an hour smacking it out of the park.
The board decided it was time to deliberate and asked me to step outside. A few minutes later, a beaming Captain Bruckner came out and congratulated me. The board had decided this bird could fly after all. In fact, to my utter delight, he told me the board wanted me to know that I was the best prepared officer they had ever witnessed. I was beaming! I had made the transition; I requested a change in my designator from Engineering Duty Officer in Training (1465) to a fully qualified EDO (1445). This is the ticket I needed to pursue bigger dreams. I was no longer tethered by the restrictions of the EDQP. A few weeks later I transferred to the reserve HQ unit for SURFLANT (Naval Surface Forces – Atlantic) and started working maintenance issues for the Atlantic fleet’s deploying forces.
In time I moved to other units and positions of increasing authority within the world of the Naval Reserve. All of this time, my civilian career progressed, my family rode the roller-coaster of personal tragedy and triumph, and our country edged closer to a ground war in the mid-east. Each of these contributed to the person who was ready now ready to board a plan for Memphis. I will touch on these factors in more depth in future posts.