I had a chance to change things. During my outchop brief—a sit-down with my Skipper and XO for my final Fitness Report in my squadron—my skipper asked if I had any constructive thoughts about my time on the E-6b Mercury. I did. I had specific feedback from my experience that would have improved the lives of my peers on the E-6b and the entire program.
But that’s not what I told him. Before my skipper asked me that question, he had his own constructive criticism about my performance in the squadron. So, instead of addressing his query, I talked about my feelings.
“It’s like…” I said, trying to put words to a feeling I had been having for a while. “A lot of the guys around here swing their dicks at anything within arms reach.” The Skipper and XO exchanged looks and laughed. “And that was never going to me,” I said.
They had nothing to add to that.
That was the first time I put into words a very specific issue I had the military. It’s not an issue that necessarily needs to be corrected, and not an opinion that I expect other people to share. But it’s one that felt representative of my experience, and may have been a hindrance throughout my Naval career. It was an issue that didn’t prevent me from becoming proficient at my job, but may have prevented me from becoming a “player”.
In brief, my issue is the large number of officers who think they are always the most important voice in the room. I took issue with the fact that such behavior was looked on favorably by the bureaucracy. Officers who only talked and never listened and who used the rank structure as a valid excuse to mistreat anyone more junior–these officers were rewarded for their behavior. It felt like being an asshole was more valued than being a good person.
I first noticed this behavior day one at the Naval Academy. Plebe Year. It’s a year-long indoctrination into the military, where the upper class, and especially the 2nd class (i.e. Juniors) were charged with “training” the Freshmen in the standards of the institution. I had a lot of issues with Plebe year-most Plebes do. Midshipmen two years older than me (and in some cases, younger than some of my classmates) were in charge with a considerable number of aspects of our lives. This was in many ways expected. It’s what we signed up for. What most of us did not sign up for was when they sometimes acted as if they were in charge of our thoughts, too.
Every evening, except Saturdays, the Plebes had to line up on either side of the hallway outside of our dorm rooms to sing “Blue and Gold,” the Academy’s alma mater. Before we sang, however, the Training Officer—1st class, or senior—and the Training Sergeant—2nd class, or junior—would pontificate on anything they felt was pertinent. Rarely, this information was positive—praise, for example. Most of the time it was not. They would usually tell us that something that someone in our class (there were over a thousand of us) had done wrong–talking where they weren’t supposed to be talking, walking where they won’t supposed to be walking, holding their covers in ways that were anything but appropriate—observations they would relay as examples of what not to do accompanied by warnings of hypothetical punishments should any of us be caught committing a similar crime. Then, when the Training Officer and Sergeant were finished, it was open season for remarks from other upper class.
As Plebes, we could only stand there and listen as we were browbeaten by the upper class with whatever insights a 21 year old could formulate. After ten minutes (sometimes twenty) of listening to this we would then put our hands over our hearts, and sing “Blue and Gold.” Then, we would square our corners in silence, go into our rooms, and send emails to each other about the assholes that were in charge of us. We were being conditioned to associate our alma mater–the song that should be most precious to every Midshipman—with negative reinforcement. Some Plebes would become optimistic upper class and Officers in spite of going through this. Some would not.
It wasn’t very different in the fleet. During my first day of “Primary,” a phase of flight training that would take me out of the classroom and into the cockpit, two Lieutenants got up to the front of the classroom and played “Good Cop/Bad Cop.” Good Cop congratulated us on making it this far, and remarked on how excited we should be as future Naval NFOs. Then he left the room. Bad Cop’s turn. He told us not to fuck it up. That the Navy had invested a lot of time and money in us and we better fucking put in the work required. And that we better not fuck it up. Then he left the room.
Then we went flying.
After a while, I learned that the show those two Lieutenants put on was mostly just that: a show. And as far as my flight instructors were concerned, there were nice ones, and there were hard-asses, and there was everything in between. Most instructors were doing the best they could to teach a lot of students how to fly and not get killed in the process. I don’t say that as a euphemism. In the middle of my Primary flight training, two pilots—a student and an instructor—were flying through fog in Alabama and crashed into Chandler mountain, killing both of them. So maybe Good Cop and Bad Copy were right: flying was fun, but it was also serious.
When I showed up to my squadron, I had to climb the ranks yet again, spending the next year completing the syllabus to become fully qualified. There was a lot of time spent studying and flying, and also just listening. Each three-week deployed flight crew had one qualified NFO and one trainee, and each qualified NFO had varying ideas on what it meant to be proficient at our job. Many of their ideas were not up for negotiation, yet all were different. I would listen. I would nod my head. I tried to live up to their standards. It’s the obedience that I knew.
After a while, though, I grew tired of it. Actually, I was tired of it before I showed up the E-6b, maybe since the time I left the Academy, but it took me a while for that lethargy to become a conscious thought. “It” was, as a Plebe, being called a “Sea Lawyer” if you “talked back” to your upper class, when maybe all you were doing was trying to have a conversation, in situations that merited such communication. “It” was constantly being told what to do, by the junior officers, and the senior ones, who wanted our participation, but only while that participation remained within prescribed framework of the squadron. “It” was the senior junior officers who thought that the Boot JO’s were nothing, that they had nothing to offer, and that they would only have something to offer when they had earned it. “It” was the all-officer meetings, which were never-ending displays of soap-box behavior, men beating their chests to the Skipper who out-ranked them and to the junior officers whom they out-ranked. A lot of “it” was a necessary process that junior aviators have to go through to earn his or her way, a process I was aware of from my time at the Academy, but the knowledge of which didn’t prevent me from being over “it.” An “it” that I had to learn to be a part of, or to accept, even just a little, otherwise I risked being the guy who always thought himself better than the process rather than a member.
I would eventually earn my place and my voice in the squadron. When an opening presented itself, I took the lead for the entertainment at the squadron Dining Ins and Dining Outs. I earned this designation by first impersonating one of my Department Heads, Sparky, when I criticized the Master of Ceremonies in the same way that Sparky had recently criticized me on my Mission Commander oral board. At the next squadron function, I created a meta-time travel skit about the previous sea tour of the senior officers, ending with a live performance rap to the beat of “Lose Yourself,” which was also a parody of Sparky. I made videos. I performed stand-up. I created an outlet by which the others in the squadron would be forced to listened to me and not be able to provide feedback.
I was doing to them what had been done to me for all those years. And I grew very self-conscious of this fact. I was concerned that I was becoming the thing I had always resented. A lot of the other officers praised me for my performances, but I was concerned about the ones who didn’t. And even about the ones who did, I was concerned that they weren’t praising me for the right reasons. Maybe I was becoming the thing I was parodying.
I can’t deny that performing skits provided me with a sense of self that benefited my performance on the airplane. The lessons of the stage can sometimes be applied to the real world. Some people were probably put off by my behavior, just as I had previously been put off by the behavior of people more senior to me. I can’t control what other people think. But I can control my actions–I have to be me. Within the framework of the stage, I may have been “swinging my dick” at things I shouldn’t have been, but on the plane, around the squadron, and, most importantly, with the other JO’s, I felt like I was a better person because of it. I led in the situations that required me to lead. I listened in the situations that required me to listen. I stood up for what I believed in.
Point being: sometimes, in the right situation, swinging your dick (or lady equivalent) is justified. A leader has to lead. A leader is human, too, so the ways in which he or she chooses to lead may not be perfect, but it will usually be their best attempt. A pilot in the flight envelope has to make a decision. He doesn’t have time to write a 2,000 word essay about his feelings. I do. I may not agree with everything my Skipper and XO did, but I respect them and the way they went about making those decisions. I feel that way about a lot of the other officers who acted in ways that didn’t sit right with me.
But about some of the officers, and Midshipmen, I still think their actions and their intentions were wrong. When it was my turn to lead and have a voice in the squadron, I did so based on the knowledge acquired from the positive and negative examples set for me and by the mistakes that I made along the way. I didn’t always succeed, but at least I tried. It’s a lesson I can still apply today.