Nov 17

Beneath all the honor, my experience with military ethics

I graduated the US Naval Academy and was commissioned as an Ensign in the Navy. In school, I was taught that honesty was a hallmark of being a Military Officer. I was part of an “Honor Committee” that evaluated and adjudicated “honor offenses”. As if the committee name itself wasn’t Orwellian enough, there was “honor rehabilitation”. The offending Midshipman (Naval Officer Student) would be reintroduced into the righteous ways of honest behavior. We sat in ethics classes taught by former and current Naval Officers. We listened to lectures from Admirals, Generals, former Prisoners of war about “doing the right thing when no one is looking”. We repeated “never lie, cheat, or steal” ad nauseam. Yet my first year in the Navy threw it all out of the window.

After graduation, I reported to my first ship as Auxiliaries Officer (Auxo for short). The Auxiliaries Division is the team basically in charge of everything mechanical in the engineering spaces and isn’t the main engines and generators – Mechanical winch for the anchor, high pressure air compressor for tools, Reverse Osmosis unit (machine that cleans water). They also maintained galley equipment, CO stateroom and even the coffee machine on the Captain’s bridge. When I said “everything mechanical except the main engines”, I meant it.

My Division was comprised of 6 Junior Enlisted Sailors (the “do-ers” of the Navy) and a Chief Petty Officer (Chief for short). The Chief is the senior subject matter expert and enlisted leader of the division. Sort of like a platoon Sergeant in the army if you’re more familiar with that. I was told he was the top ranked Chief on the ship – 1 of 22! He made sure his division passed all inspections with flying colors – somewhat unheard of in these types of divisions in the Navy. Inspections are essentially audits and tests by a group of people from outside your ship. Careers are made or broken during such evaluations.

My immediate boss was the Chief Engineer (CHENG for short. He was the rank of a Navy Lieutenant, army equivalent of Captain). His first words to me “Go get lunch, it’s the last free meal you get, I own your ass”. I thought he was kidding. It seemed almost comically cliché for a short skinny military guy from Texas with a deep voice and a mouth full of Tabaco to be speaking like that. But whatever, on to meet the CO (Commanding Officer, AKA “Captain”). The Captain welcomed me and the other newly minted Ensigns. “Get your quals and don’t fail any inspections”. That was his guidance. That’s it. 

Shortly after I received that sage advice, one of my junior sailors was sent to Captains mast by the Chief Engineer. That’s a form of non-judicial punishment where the Captain adjudicates a case and is allowed to bestow certain punishments on sailors ranging from restriction to the ship to reduction in rank. The charge? He “gun decked” planned maintenance (that’s a Navy term for forgery). He signed for it when he didn’t do it. Given my honor training, I thought it pretty shocking. I was told by everyone he was a “bad apple”. Then things got real.

I found myself regularly literally in between my Chief and the CHENG. They were yelling at each other. CHENG was accusing the Chief of cheating and “gundecking” maintenance, and the Chief was yelling back expletives. Somehow there seemed a disconnect between what everyone told me and this situation. If the Chief really WAS gundecking maintenance why was he ranked the best onboard. Turns out the answer was worse than the question.

The reason was that my CO didn’t care. In my first year onboard it became pretty clear to me he was willing to turn a blind eye to anything, so long as it made him look good. He rewarded people who passed inspections without looking at what they did to achieve those results. That may seem like a good idea, like a leader who doesn’t want to micromanage. But in the military, HOW you achieve results matters. Especially when you’re lying to prove that equipment works when it doesn’t. That’s how my Chief was ranked the best onboard. He figured out a way to rig gages and indicators, records etc to make it look like everything was honkey dory. But it wasn’t. And things were worse than that.

One night my roommate came back from his shift as Officer of the Deck (that’s the Officer in Charge of the Ship for a period of time, who reports straight to the CO, since the CO can’t be everywhere at once). “Things got real up there” he said, referring to the Captain’s bridge. “We spilled oil and I called the CO. He got up there and said he didn’t smell anything. It stank like fuel, there was a gush of it coming out of the side and he told everyone he didn’t smell anything and went back down below”. All spills over 5 gallons were required to be reported and certain action taken. Needless to say that the ship didn’t report it. There were other incidents I heard about too.

The supply officer (SUPPO for short) told me about this one time when the Navigator (an Officer) slept with an enlisted sailor that was also assigned to our ship (a big no no). It wasn’t rumor because the very same story was told by several people. Also, they got married after they both left the ship, so there’s that. That honestly didn’t bother me as much as the cover up. At the time of the alleged incident, the CO appointed him the investigating officer and told him “this doesn’t happen on my ship, understand?”. So SUPPO cleared them in his report. That behavior was everywhere.

As for the Chief Engineer who yelled at my Chief for forging maintenance documentation? Well, I saw him forge the Captain’s signature. After catching an ass chewing from the Captain on an inspection that was going badly, he realized he forgot to take something up to him to get signed. I was the only one in the office with him. He looked me square in the eye and said “leave, you shouldn’t see this”. I left, and saw him sign the paper as the door closed.

About a year after I reported aboard, the CO left to his next duty station, and the next one took over. Shortly after the ship spilled several thousand gallons of fuel; this time while refueling in port. No one could hide it. But no one could figure out why it happened either. The atmosphere was grim. The new CO (in command a few weeks) didn’t know if he would be blamed. The Chief Engineer was pail. It was a long, long day and a few of us decided to go out for some drinks. A few beers into the night (probably like 8-9) one of the Chiefs told me that the reason we spilled oil. It was because the officer in charge of refueling was taking on fuel faster than he should have, and couldn’t stop the transfer fast enough when our tanks became full. “I was there with him. If you tell anyone I’ll deny it” he told me. I just kept drinking.

Some people (especially those in the Navy) might say “why the fuck didn’t YOU do anything. Blow the whistle, say SOMETHING. Do SOMETHING. Have a backbone”. Maybe they’re right. Maybe knowing what I know now I would have done something. But at the time I felt that there really wasn’t anything I could do that would be effective. In my first year, all I saw was officers in my direct chain of command lying and covering up for each other with the objective of looking good (or at least not looking bad). I had no faith that anyone would listen – even someone above my CO. Especially since I found out that my first CO was ranked the best out of all CO’s in our squadron (usually a group of 4 ships headed by a “commodore”). At best, I thought I would call attention to something, and my report be buried in a pile of paperwork along with my career. I didn’t have any money to fall back on. My parents weren’t rich. Not even close. I had no financial support system outside of my job. To me it was about survival, and I wasn’t going to put my livelihood on the line for what I saw as a suicide mission for my paycheck. Lucky for me, I wouldn’t have to live in fear that much longer. Shortly after the oil spill, the Chief Engineer changed as well (Naval Officers change jobs about every year and a half as part of their normal rotation.)

Things were very different with the new Captain and the new Chief Engineer. They were both Naval Academy graduates and actually practiced what was taught (minus the honor remediation crap). They were honest, hard-working men. I took the lessons I learned from them with me to my next two commands, my first civilian job and I carry them with me to this day. I dare say I will carry these lessons with me for the rest of my life; how to manage and lead people (two very different skills), how to set realistic expectations, and how to stay calm in some pretty hairy circumstances. Everything I learned at the Naval Academy WASN’T bullshit after all. Needless to say, I was relieved. Relieved is actually an understatement. I was actually fucking ecstatic. But shit, those two other guys are still out there. So are the others that gladly lied, people like me (I later left the Navy) who were too intimidated or afraid to say anything and still others that don’t care one way or the other.

And that’s how shit like THIS happens:

and this:

Then there’s THIS article that summarizes findings of the Government Accountability Office  (GAO) on military ethics in general. 

Whenever these things happen, people ask “how could this happen?” and “why didn’t anyone say anything?” I know the answer to both of those questions. I’ve lived them.