October 20, 2004

Tailhook and the Ugly Side of the Navy

Filed under: — Chap @ 7:15 pm

Lex relates a tough story inside a great flying story. I’ve got a reaction to the nonflying part.

In nuke school the second time around, we had a guy in the class who was way older than us. Commander. His name was “Shifty”. It took a little while to figure it out, but eventually I learned that aircraft carriers are commanded by aviators, and that they get a speedy initiation into the Nuclear Brotherhood in order to understand what the carrier’s reactor officer is telling him about the engine on the ship. So we had Shifty, an “old guy”, in our class. Usually those guys are Anointed; if they survive the process of getting to the job, and they survive the preparatory tours and command tour on a carrier, they wind up with an admiral’s star. There’s no rule on it; that’s just how it is. There are a couple of jobs out there that just indicate Anointed status.

Shifty was a good classmate and nice to have among us prior enlisted ensigns trying not to sneer too loudly at the Direct Input Limited Duty Officers (college kids hired to teach at nuke school; LTs to us lowly ENSs). He hated hated hated nuke school–it is the antithesis of everything tactical air in attitude. We could empathize and would rather be somewhere else too.

Something odd was going on around Shifty. We were too busy to notice, what with post-Tailhook “sensitivity” sessions led by officers who we knew were in the strip club the night before, who didn’t exactly treat people with said sensitivity, and who spent the session pretty much gay bashing. Or so I heard–I found something else to do instead of wasting my time. (This was a time of big social change–my A school classes only a few years back had naked chicks on the presentations to “wake you up”, and first class petty officer instructors bragged about what they did on liberty in the Philippines and all that. That was going the way of the druggie and the casual drunk driver, but it took a while and some of the corrections were ham-handed.)

At the end of school in Orlando we moved to New York State for the second part of the training with a live reactor attached. I drove Shifty’s piece-of-crap K-car for him up to New York for a coupla bucks–one of those cars that talked to you, and had an unhappy talent for both Zen conundra (“Your door. Is ajar.” It’s not a jar, it’s a door, isn’t it?) and inappropriate commentary (unhealthy speed on the onramp on NJ 17, pitch black, raining, slippery, is the wrong time to tell me “Your windshield washer fluid is low“.).

Shifty passed prototype–just as bad a personal trial as nuke school, but a different flavor of suck–and I never saw him again. He was selected for O-6 before I met him–and I don’t think he ever put it on. He languished in D.C. until the bureaucratic game was done with him. I don’t think he was ever charged with anything, either.

This guy’s experience is what Lex is talking about. Mystery status, long Kafkaesque experiences, NCIS mistakes, some people doing bad things, some not; some people punished, some not–but no perceptible connection between bad thing and punishment. The system failed.

And it showed that failed status earlier, when the Iowa blew up.

I mentioned I went to nuke school in Orlando twice. The first time, I went as an enlisted man. One of my classmates, an electrician, failed out. Failure happened–I did the math once and noted that one third of my class didn’t finish every place I went until I went back to college. But this guy took it hard, as people do, and requested something East Coast.

My buddy was in that turret.

After some ridiculous investigation, some flag officers reported that a Suicidal Homosexual Sailor blew up the turret. Riiiight. A few weeks later Navy Times came out with a leaked ammo test that noted the propensity of World War Two-era gunpowder, rammed a little too hard, to blow up. Like in a 16″ gun turret, such as could be found on Iowa with my friend in it.

The investigating and correcting arms of the Navy failed miserably and caused more pain than was there in the first place.

Then came Tailhook. The Iowa explosion wasn’t bad enough to force change, but Tailhook was. Iowa involved many deaths. Tailhook involved very bad behavior, but no injuries, no deaths. Go figure.

This book made many people mad. I read it. The other side of it is here–Lehman’s bio. I read that too.

And somewhere in those books and others lies the point of this story. Organizations change. The early 80’s Navy was coming out of the doldrums foisted upon it by the 1970’s–drugs, social change, drawdown, the Soviets, you name it. Zumwalt started addressing the ugliness. He forced some change at a fairly high personal cost–earlier this year I remember some retired one star bitching about how Zumwalt’s easing of haircut rules Ruined The Navy in a national magazine, decades later. Haircuts. Such a depth of feeling about that change.

Then came the young Secretary Lehman’s Navy, where big change was afoot. The times allowed rapid growth. Bad morale improved, then surged. Top Gun came out. Rickover got fired. Strategic Homeporting. Libya. Grenada. You name it. People in high places worked hard to find ways to break through the stultifying rules and get change made.

But after that change, while the organization was riding high, came massive ethical failure. By that I do not mean the incidents at Tailhook or on Iowa or any number of other things. I mean the followup. Bad things happen; what counts is how you deal with those bad things.

Now think of this paradigm in terms of Global Crossing or Enron.

I swear there is a parallel there. Change is good. Unrestrained change after a time is very bad. Ethics matter, even when saving the organization.

3 Responses to “Tailhook and the Ugly Side of the Navy”

  1. Curt Says:

    This story is one I’m connected to through the second degree and then the work that followed. I think I’ll spend some time on it this weekend to add to the comments by Lex on the Navy of the 80’s and 90s.

    In 1990, I reported to the COMNAVSURFLANT Combat Systems Mobile Training Team. I stood up the Combat Systems Assessment Department, which had been a collateral function before I arrived. I was given GMCM(SW) Dave Cress and ETCM(SW) Lynn Lilla to get going. We “borrowed” people from the warfare training departments to conduct the exams, and eventually grew some.

    One of the major programs we inspected with a fine tooth comb was the Explosives Handling Personnel Qualification Certification Program (EHPQCP in acronymese). This program was a critical piece in the IOWA explosion. I had three points of first person experience with the aftermath of the explosion. The first was as XO of CARR, one morning, CDR Parrish from CNSL arrived at the brow for a “surprise PQS inspection.” This was only a few short days after the IOWA’s incident. We were one of the sample units checked for establishing a benchmark of PQS accomplishment. I left you a comment regarding my work with PQS for the next several years a few nights back. This is how I really got motivated to get moving for the Fleet. Secondly, The AOIC of the CSMTT that I worked for had been the one who, about 4 months before the IOWA explosion, had been the CSA Team Leader and the one to “inspect” the EHPQCP on IOWA. He ended up in front of the Board of Inquiry and, as with many life changing incidents, the modus operendi for that part of the CSA changed dramatically. No longer was it the “seems to have enough paper in the notebook, and, yep…it’s the srandard forms with writing on them” look as you can imagine. I was blessed with then LT Russ Wyckoff as my assistant doing the EHPQCP work. As an LDO, he was a seasoned sailor and supeior officer. He made Captain, but not sure if he finally went home. When the first Gulf War cranked up, I had my bags packed to fly to the PG, if the AOIC didn’t get back in time. He did, so I stood down, as Adm Kelso sent Capt Pete Bulkeley (son of Adm John Bulkeley), CDR Gail Connoly, GMCM Cress and the head of the AirLant Ordnance Cerification team, CDR Ray Fone, to go and validate the WISCONSON was safe to shoot. in 1993, I also got lucky enough to be the “staked goat” leading the certification that all the East Coast ships with NATO Sea Sparrow were safe to operate after the SARATOGA (CV-60) fired a dual salvo into the TCG MUAVENET. Much of the problems were the people thins time, yet the EHPQCP was universally poorly managed. That was interesting work, particularly when they sent LCDR Don Deal, an LDO Ops Tech with me. He had to sit through the Board of Inquiry and testify as AirLant’s expert witness. He had the whole story and it’s an amazing one.

    In all of that, there were many essential lessons abouot how leadership at all levels is crucial. I’ll make a point to lay some out. The sad fact is so many of them are already known to us all, yet for some insane reason, we keep doing them again and again.

  2. lex Says:

    Chap =-> Shifty was my XO when I was in my first fleet tour as a LT. A great officer, widely respected in the FA-18 community on both coasts. You’re right that he was a victim of the Tailhook process – he did his CVN XO job (no fun, that one) and never got a deep draft, far less a carrier. We served together in Fallon again, and I correspond with him still – he’s recently been hired by FEDEX, and has kept a positive attitude.

    Most of the victims have, and few of them hold anything against the company – they tend to be rather philosophical: there’s the way things are, and the way things ought to be. No institution is perfect…

  3. Chap Says:

    I suspected that the community was small enough that perhaps he might be recognized. I would have liked serving under him.

    The organization endures, and in the aggregate does people right–but sometimes the organization fails individuals. Similar happened with the XO of LA once, and a few others. Could have been a lot worse, though.

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