Archive for November, 2013

Please join us on 17 Nov 13 at 5pm (1700) Eastern U.S. for our Episode 202: “Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton”:

Are there lessons one can learn from the most exceptional edges of the military experience that can be useful to the civilian world?

Was there something from the experience of American prisoners of war imprisoned at the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War that had to do with their success in their subsequent careers?

Our guests to discuss for the full hour will be Peter Fretwell and Taylor Baldwin Kiland, authors of Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton: Six Characteristics of High-Performance Teams.

You might find the review of their book by one of the former POWs, CAPT Dick Stratton, relevant:

It is almost as if the authors were there beside Jim Stockdale while he was in the Maison Centrale (Hanoi Hilton).

Join us live or pick the show up later by clicking here.

This iconic piece of stone has graced the Academy’s grounds since 1860, and it has symbolized the completion of “Plebe Year” for almost one hundred years. Erected as a memorial to remember the heroism of one of the Navy’s early leaders, the monument has become the site of an ever-evolving set of traditions and customs held dear to the Brigade of Midshipmen. Jim Cheevers goes more in depth into its history, and the background of the plebe recognition ceremony.

Sailors “spin yarns” or tell “sea stories” which may contain marginal truth. They differ from landlubber fairy tales in that whereas a fairy tale begins, “Once upon a time,” the sea story begins with an assertion of truthfulness, “This is no s…”

My career of over 39 years has left me with no shortage of sea stories, all of which, as stated in the definition above, begin with (or at least contain) an assertion of truthfulness.

I think one worth sharing with you is the story of when I first “counseled” one of the enlisted men in my division in my very first ship, the USS ENTERPRISE (CVN 65). This yarn is not a “sea story” in the classic sense in that it isn’t rooted in an event that involved way too much liquor in a far-away liberty port, but it IS true and it came from a very important period in my career, a time that, I realize now, set the stage for everything that followed.

Let me set the scene for you…, I was 23 years old, just out of the Naval Academy and my year of nuclear propulsion training. I was assigned to the Big E in the Reactor department where we were responsible for the care and feeding of the ship’s eight nuclear reactors. Our job was to make steam, pure and simple – steam to drive our main engines, steam to make electricity, steam to send to the catapults to launch aircraft, steam to cook the food and steam to do the laundry. In Reactor department, it was all about making steam and making lots of it, 24/7 while underway.

And we were underway a lot. The Big E was the Queen of the Pacific Fleet, always where the action was and always sailing fast. I joined the ship in July, 1974 and we deployed that fall. I quickly qualified to supervise the propulsion plant and was immediately assigned to lead Reactor-4 Division, a unit of about 65-75 Sailors of varying technical specialties who operated and maintained the 2 nuclear reactors in the #4 propulsion plant. It was a big job and I had a great deal to learn, a very great deal and not a lot of time. We were expected to get up to speed quickly and start contributing to mission accomplishment right away. And on the Big E, the pace was always fast.

Now one of the very magical things about the Navy is the process that has developed over time to teach junior officers how to be officers and how to lead Sailors. As you might expect, there’s a great deal to this “educational” process (most of which isn’t written down anywhere), but the most important part is the role played by the division’s senior enlisted Sailor, the division Leading Chief Petty Officer (LCPO). This senior Sailor can make or break the junior officer assigned to his care.

Well, on the Big E in 1974, a very difficult time in the Navy as you may recall, the good Lord truly smiled on me because my LCPO in Reactor-4 division was simply the finest enlisted man I’ve ever served or sailed with, bar none.

His name was Senior Chief Machinist Mate Robert D. Neil from Riverton, Wyoming. Riverton was a small mining town and Senior Chief Neil knew his only job opportunity following high school would be to work underground, deep underground, like his father and grandfather before him. Senior Chief Neil had never gotten very far from Riverton while he was growing up and had never seen the ocean, but he knew that joining the Navy would keep him out of the mines and get him out of Wyoming, so he signed up to learn a skill and see the world.

Senior Chief Neil spent ten years in destroyers before he entered the nuclear propulsion program; he had been around the Navy a long time and seen just about everything at least once. Although he only finished high school, it appeared to me that Senior Chief Neil had the equivalent of PhDs in human relations, life, the Navy and nuclear propulsion; he was unbelievably wise and totally dedicated to the Navy. I’ve never met another man like him, in or out of the Navy.

Fortunately for me, Senior Chief Neil took my education very seriously. He always started our conversations with, “Now that Naval Academy stuff is OK as far as it goes, but there’s a helluva lot more to this business than what you learned there. And don’t let your education get in the way of learning what you need to know …,” And off we’d go on yet another lesson on what he thought I needed to know.

One of the things I needed to learn, and learn fast, was how to counsel the enlisted men in my division. Now these Sailors were a very interesting group. Their ages generally ranged from the low 20s to the late 30s. Some, a very few, were in it for a career, but the vast majority had volunteered to avoid being drafted and sent to Viet Nam. Two things they had in common were that they were all pretty intelligent – the nuclear power program standards saw to that – and they mostly hated the Navy. So it made for some very interesting leadership experiences when my enthusiasm for the Navy ran head-on into their individual and collective attitudes. As Senior Chief Neil used to say, “Mr Harvey, you’re dangerously enthusiastic for someone who is so goddamn naive.”

But as smart as many of my Sailors were, and as experienced as some of them were, they were all still human and certainly had their fair share of human problems, big and small, with the additional stress of extended deployments far from home that comes with Navy life. On most occasions when one of the Sailors needed to talk about a particular problem, Senior Chief Neil would listen, ask a few penetrating questions that got right to the heart of the issue and then guide the Sailor to reach the best solution that fit the circumstances. Senior Chief Neil rarely imposed a solution on a Sailor; he always wanted to make the Sailor think he had solved his own problem, or at least resolved it as best could be done given the circumstances. A big part of my education in “Navy 101” was watching Senior Chief Neil in these counseling sessions and then talking with him afterwards about what he said and why he said it. Those discussions were pure gold for me and provided invaluable lessons-learned I applied throughout my own Navy career.

Finally the big day came when Senior Chief felt I was ready to “solo” in counseling. This step was a big one for me in my development as a junior officer and in the statement it made to the division; Senior Chief Neil was sending a signal to my Sailors that he considered me ready, not just ready to counsel Sailors, but also ready to lead them.

Senior Chief had carefully selected the time during the deployment and the issue for me to handle – one of our Sailors had received a “Dear John” letter with a twist; not only was she leaving and getting a divorce, she was taking their little daughter, too.

Now, we were operating in the Indian Ocean and would be for several more weeks – that meant no mail, no communications with home (except emergency Red Cross messages) and no ability to leave the ship to try to get home and deal with the situation. In effect, there was absolutely nothing I could say or do that would have any real impact on this Sailor’s very real problem. The bottom-line, I couldn’t really solve anything; I knew that and the Sailor knew that. But what Senior Chief Neil also knew was that no matter what I said, I couldn’t make things worse. And that was the key factor as far as he was concerned – I’d get some “street cred” in the division for taking on a very tough problem of one of our good Sailors and there was no way for me to screw it up. Theoretically.

Before I sat down with the Sailor, Machinist Mate Second Class (MM2) Vernon Oyers from Oklahoma City, Senior Chief carefully reviewed all the facts with me and gave me what were, in effect, my redlines.

Senior Chief knew that MM2 Oyers was going to ask me to go to the head of the Reactor Department and request that MM2 Oyers be given permission to return home and try to reconcile with his wife and save the marriage. Our department head was a very tough, no-nonsense officer who would, of course, deny the request as there was no way to make it happen and the rationale was not, in the Navy’s eyes in 1975, compelling.

What Senior Chief Neil wanted to ensure was that I would also deny the request and so appear to my department head as a junior officer who had the guts to say “no” and wasn’t afraid to potentially be seen as the bad guy.

In his final guidance to me Senior Chief said, “Mr Harvey, there’s just no way to do this from the goddamn middle of the Indian goddamn Ocean. And no one, no one, expects you to say yes, not even MM2 Oyers – he just wants to see someone in authority care enough to listen to him. And that would be you. So just goddamn listen…, sir.”

The time for the meeting finally came and MM2 Oyers dutifully appeared at the small, battered government-issue gray desk near the back of the engine room that served as Senior Chief’s and my office. There was some privacy there due to the equipment arrangement and you could actually converse without shouting.

MM2 Oyers was a very solid Sailor; he did his job willingly, pitched in when extra effort was needed and was a very steady watch-stander. He was respected within the division as a shipmate you could depend on. He was also a very proud “Okie” who lived and died for Sooner football. He was the kind of Sailor every division needs – one of the guys who just gets it done.

We started talking; actually he started talking and I just listened. And I wasn’t ready at all for what I heard. I had expected a kind of rushed statement of the facts followed by an expression of the desire to go home and sort everything out and then a question concerning if there was anything I could do to help.

What I heard was the story of high-school sweethearts who grew up together in a very small town. I heard the story of how their love grew and how they eventually convinced the parents to give their blessings to the marriage. I heard the story of the drive across country after the marriage that served as a honeymoon and damned if I didn’t hear about the honeymoon, too. I heard about everything

I was stunned. I had rehearsed this meeting a hundred times in my mind, imagining every twist and turn the conversation could possibly take, but I hadn’t imagined this.

Petty Officer Oyers kept talking and I kept listening. But when he started talking about his daughter, he started crying. I was sitting there in a panic. After all, I had never even had a serious girl-friend and here was this Sailor asking me advice on how to save his marriage and keep his daughter. This wasn’t in the script! Finally I started tearing up myself and I said, “Oyers, give me the special request chit; I’ll approve it and see what I can do for you.” Tearfully MM2 Oyers gave me the chit and thanked me profusely for my help and support.

As Oyers left, Senior Chief Neil came in. He took one look at me and said, “You screwed this one up, didn’t you?” He stuck his hand out and asked for the chit. He glanced down to where I had signed it checking the “request approved” box, then glared at me and said, “I’m going lose this chit and get Oyers to re-do it. We’ll do this whole goddamn thing again and this time we’ll get it right. There’s no way you can take this to Cdr Read (our department head) – he’ll have your ass and you’ll look pretty f*&^ing stupid to boot.”

I stood up and took the chit back, “Senior Chief, it’s my division so it’ll have to be my ass.”

Senior Chief looked at me, smiled and only said, “Aye-aye, sir.”

CDR Salamander joins Matt and Grant for a podcast on writing as a member of the military, anonymity, and some sacred cows military planners hold dear: benefits, high-end systems, equal budgeting, etc… Join us for Episode 8, Sacred Cows and Amphibians (Download).

Articles from Sacred Cows Week:
Quantity over Quality (Michael Madrid)
Holy Bovine, Batman! Sacred Sailors! (Matt McLaughlin)
American Defense Policy: 8 Reality Checks (Martin Skold)
Ain’t Ready for Marines Yet? The Sacred Cow of British Army Organization (Alex Blackford)
SSBN(X): Sacred Cow for a Reason (Grant Greenwell)
Why the United States Should Merge Its Ground Forces (Jeong Lee)
Sacred Cow: Military Pay and Benefits By the Numbers (Richard Mosier)

Sea Control comes out every Monday. Don’t forget to subscribe on Itunes and Xbox Music!

Maunsell_Army_FortIt is not unusual when things are rough and appear to be of poor going in the military, to look at the top of the chain of command for the problems. That is smart, because that is usually where the problems are.

Over the years I have called for the “Burke Option” to deep select a vibrant, young CNO to break the adhesions of the lost decade that started this century. Others have called for it too as another way to break up the intellectual logjam up top. Would it help? It did last time it was tried … but then again they had Arleigh Burke.

Is this general malaise towards the performance of our uniformed senior leadership fair? Is it just a Navy problem?

I think it is DOD wide. Back in 2007, LTC Paul Yinling penned what started a serious challenge to the performance record of our General Officers and Flag Officers (GOFO) in his zero-elevation broadside, A Failure in Generalship;

America’s generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy. The argument that follows consists of three elements. First, generals have a responsibility to society to provide policymakers with a correct estimate of strategic probabilities. Second, America’s generals in Vietnam and Iraq failed to perform this responsibility. Third, remedying the crisis in American generalship requires the intervention of Congress.

An entire book was written by Thomas E. Ricks covering the shortcoming of today’s – and past – GOFO in The Generals.

Another Army Lieutenant Colonel, Daniel L. Davis, this August went to the well again in the Armed Forces Journal (subscription required) ;

The U.S. Army’s generals, as a group, have lost the ability to effectively function at the high level required of those upon whom we place the responsibility for safeguarding our nation,…

In August on this blog, I hit the topic too. I think this tilting against the GOFO windmill is pointless.

For such action to take place such as clearing the deck would take the right civilian leadership in the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch – and I see neither the appetite nor huevos to do such a thing.

DFCSo, we will continue course and speed unless otherwise directed … and in a fashion, that is fine – until it isn’t. If you judge what some see in the mid-grade leadership … the next few decades may be interesting on the way to “isn’t.”

If we are looking for leadership problems to address, is that the right part to look at? Some don’t think so, and instead point a worried finger to the incoming, not the soon to be outgoing. I don’t agree, and here is where I have a disconnect with what I have been reading not about the top of the chain of command, but at the generation coming in the entry level.

I have a lot of faith in this generation of junior officers – but I am starting to read a lot on the civilian side that makes me pause; am I missing something?

Is a civilian-military divide a bad thing? Maybe not if this is what is going on in the civilian side with recent graduates. Via Martha White in Time;

… the problem with the unemployability of these young adults goes way beyond a lack of STEM skills. As it turns out, they can’t even show up on time in a button-down shirt and organize a team project.

The technical term for navigating a workplace effectively might be soft skills, but employers are facing some hard facts: the entry-level candidates who are on tap to join the ranks of full-time work are clueless about the fundamentals of office life.

A survey by the Workforce Solutions Group at St. Louis Community College finds that more than 60% of employers say applicants lack “communication and interpersonal skills” — a jump of about 10 percentage points in just two years. A wide margin of managers also say today’s applicants can’t think critically and creatively, solve problems or write well.

Another employer survey, this one by staffing company Adecco, turns up similar results. The company says in a statement, “44% of respondents cited soft skills, such as communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration, as the area with the biggest gap.” Only half as many say a lack of technical skills is the pain point.

The argument, at least inside the Navy, about the lack of critical thinking and creativity, predates the present generation. At least for my generation, we have pushed back against it from day one as a byproduct of too much emphasis on technical training and too little on thinking.

White’s comments, and of those she interviews on the civilian side, do not – at least from this seat – ring true. I don’t see a problem with our junior officers’ performance, attitude or critical thinking – if anything we are repressing all three. Are we getting the pick of the litter?

I just left active duty four years ago – but even that is getting stale, so let me roll this back to our readers: where does our stable of officers need the most attention? The war horses long in tooth, grumpy, set in their ways, and graying about the muzzle – or the rambunctious colts and fillies snatching reins when you’re not looking? Maybe we’re getting the pick of the litter – but I don’t see the problem in leadership with the twenty-somethings.

Or, if you look at the pic above and follow the link next to it – are the challenges we are having separate from the civilian world and totally of our making – and we’re a few decades in to making it?


A Poppy on your Lapel

November 2013


[republished from 11/11/12]

When I see someone walking around with a poppy on their lapel at this time of year, I always feel very nostalgic and pleased that someone has donned a symbol synonymous with service and sacrifice. It may be worthwhile to remind ourselves of the precise connection between the poppy and the day in which we take time to recognize and thank all of the Veterans who have sacrificed for our freedom.

Growing up the son of a Canadian Armed Forces officer, I was always pleased when my Dad would break out his collection of poppies every year and pin one on the lapel of my blue blazer in the days prior to November 11th. Both his father and my mother’s father fought in the First World War. Both saw horrific combat and both were highly decorated for their service.


My Dad and his brother fought in the Second World War. My Dad arrived in Normandy after the invasion in July 1944 and in his words, crawled across Northern Europe through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and into Germany before the end of the war in 1945. He did not talk much of the war, but when he did, he always told me how violent and horrible an experience it was. Fiercely proud of his unit, The Lord Stratcona’s Horse Regiment, he donned the poppy every year on the anniversary of “Rememberance Day.” He captivated my attention with the story, as told by his father, of the end of World War One on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of November 1918. Both belligerents fired every artillery shell possible across the lines to kill as many men as possible before the clock struck 1100. Many men died in those last minutes of the war. How senseless… how tragic… and how prophetic of a peace that would not last, requiring my dad to don the uniform and go overseas to finish the job that his father could not.

Every year at this time, my dad also loved to recite the poem, “In Flanders Fields” by the Canadian surgeon, LCOL John McRae from Guelph, Ontario. He was very proud of the fact that a Canadian had written this timeless testament to the brave young soldiers who lost their lives in the Second Battle of Ypres, near Flanders, in Belgium. McRae was a Major when he wrote the poem after an unsuccessful attempt to save the life of a young Canadian wounded in battle. He jotted down his emotions while looking across a brilliant field of poppies that peacefully swayed back and forth in the breeze and in stark contrast to the carnage that existed nearby in the trenches. The poem was published in London in 1915 and became world renowned almost overnight.

My dad had it memorized and I always listened intently when he repeated it to me.


In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses row on row, 

That mark our place; and in the sky 

The larks, still bravely singing, fly 

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, 

Loved and were loved, and now we lie 

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw 

The torch; be yours to hold it high. 

If ye break fait

h with us who die 

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow 

In Flanders fields


Sadly, McRae never made it back home as he died in the field of pneumonia and other complications while taking care of the troops.

Almost one hundred years have passed since Major McRae wrote the poem. He is but one of millions of selfless men and women under arms who have served and sacrificed for their country.

As we spend time with family and loved ones on 11 November, we remember the sacrifice of the countless young men and women who have served or are now standing the watch. Many have paid dearly for their service in Iraq and Afghanistan with life altering injuries. Others, sadly, have paid the ultimate sacrifice. It is essential that we take time out to remember them and thank them.


If you are so inclined, don a poppy… I will.


Transitioning the training of midshipmen from an on-board apprenticeship to an academic curriculum on shore supplemented by time on training ships was a significant change in thought when it came to the development of the navy’s officer corp. The man who guided this transition was Franklin Buchanan. He founded the Navy School at the direction of George Bancroft, Secretary of the Navy in 1845, on the banks of the Severn River in Annapolis, MD. Today, we look at two objects that mark this transition from ship to shore: Buchanan’s own training journal when he was a midshipman on board U.S.S. Franklin, and a copy of the first rules and regulations of the new Naval School, signed by Buchanan himself.

It is relatively well-known that students at the Naval Academy are called midshipmen. But what is less-known is where that term comes from. How were officers prepared and trained prior to the founding of the Naval Academy and other, later commissioning programs like ROTC? For the month of May, we are looking at the midshipman training process at the Naval Academy, and we begin with a discussion of the origin of the term midshipman using today’s object, a dirk owned by Stephen Decatur.

CIMSEC-LogoGrant Greenwell and Chris Barber join us for the 7th edition of Sea Control. We careen around the road, covering with particular attention intelligence collection, the DDG-1000, and force planning for Amphibious Operations. Join us for Episode 7, the Defense Knitting Circle (Download).

Sea Control comes out every Monday. Don’t forget to subscribe on Xbox Music or Itunes!

This cannon was taken from HMS Confiance after the Battle of Plattsburg in 1814. Clearly visible on the muzzle is the indentation from when the gun was struck by an American cannonball, sending the cannon crashing into George Downie, the commander of the British naval forces, killing him instantly. The Americans went on to defeat the British forces, bolstering American morale and helping to bring about the final end of the War of 1812.

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