Sunday, March 28, 2010

Setting the Record Straight

Recently there were two cases in the news that were disturbing to me and I feel that I need to set the record straight if I can. Both cases were in worldwide newspapers, the one about Captain Holy Graf, Commanding Officer of the USS Cowpens, who was recently fired, made news in the London Times, and the other case you probably heard about was Congressman Eric Massa admitting to “ tickle fights” on Fox News with his Congressional Staff and while in the Navy.

While I like to tell those stories of Navy experiences that become, over time, sea stories, and I'll continue to tell them until my memory defeats me, there is another side of the Navy that is more rewarding and usually as much fun as those stories. That side is the professional side of Navy life. At some point in a Navy person's career, usually in the first four years, it will dawn on them that what they do matters to their shipmates and to the whole operation of the ship or station and that being good at what they do makes life much easier and safer. They begin to take training and practice seriously and to try to understand the concepts of leadership and discipline. The Navy preaches leadership and discipline all the time. Even when those words were not specifically spoken, the underlying lesson is always leadership and discipline. They go together. Discipline, by the way, is not a drill sergeant shouting orders or passing out punishment.

The concepts of leadership and discipline are about as illusive as anything that I know of. Ask a hundred people what they are, and you'll get a hundred different answers. In my day, we read studies, measured performance, conducted studies, attended classes, held drills and competitions, and inspected, constantly evaluating our skills, abilities and behavior for the key traits that would help us be better and shedding those that don't. The idea was to skew the bell curve so that our average sailors were our top performing, 4.0 sailors. We wanted to change the 80-20 rule; 80% get it, 20% don't. We wanted better odds by having more get it. Those who got it were self-confident and dependable, who could do it alone if necessary. So, we sent Joe, the pal, the comedian, the ingratiator, or at the other extreme the unhappy, grouchy, perhaps verbally abusive sailor off to do increasingly more important jobs alone and we inspected the results. So to the young, new sailor, Joe, “Good job, Joe! Whoa. Look at that heavy part on that top shelf. Let's put it down closer to the deck so it doesn't come flying out in a storm and cracking you on the head. The worst it can do down there is break your toe. Put a batten on it. Do you know what a batten is, Joe? This is a batten.” Or, 40mm canon training, “Now you're getting it, Joe. Swing that damn gun like you mean it. As fast as you can. Hold on, too. Put your heart into it. Don't worry about breaking it. If it breaks, we'll fix it. Shoot him first. Oh, after the drill, inspect that gun-stop. You don't want it to swing too far and shoot your own ship.” Joe learns. It's the same with Joe the officer. Push it to the limit. The better Joe gets, the less homesick and lonely he is, he fits in better, he begins to suggest improvements, he begins to talk to you as an equal and rank becomes less important, “That's a good idea, Joe. Would you ask Jim to take care of that?” I've just promoted Joe to take care of another, younger sailor. He's as proud as a peacock and I no longer have to worry that Joe won't get it.

The Navy's top award for leadership is the Battle “E,” for Excellence. A ship that paints that “E” on its tower is a leader. It could be counted on to take on any mission it was designed to do and it was usually chosen first among its peers to undertake those missions. It goes to the best ports, visited by high dignitaries, perhaps even the President or a foreign Premier, represents the United States in foreign ceremonies and events. Places and things that you never imagined that you would go and do – you go and do. It was a double-edged sword, however. On the one hand being good was rewarded with recognition, promotion and honors, and on the other hand you were chosen to go first, leaving your home port and family, into any situation. Before winning the Battle E, the ship had to compete in a number of other competitions; Supply Excellence “E,” Engineering E, the Ney Award (Food Service), Gunnery E, Submarine Warfare E, etc. The entire ship had to be very good in all skills related to the ship's mission that made a ship excellent. That meant a willing and capable team of officers and chiefs leading a crew of junior enlisted personnel. These were not easy tests. It was hard work with audits, inspections and drills, over and over again, and every crew member had to participate. That annoying, irritating inspector is in your stuff. Joe is angry, “That asshole hit me for five discrepancies. Those things are fine. There's nothing wrong with them.” “Hang in there, Joe. He's probably frustrated, and would rather be home in bed with his wife. Go fix those things so he'll be happier tomorrow.” Sure enough. The inspector sees that the discrepancies have been quickly fixed, and he's happier; he's been taken seriously. He thinks better of Joe and Joe responds better. This all sounds like drudgery and unnecessary work, and some crew members felt that way, but in that critical moment when everyone's well developed skills make a difference, it has been in historical events and will be in those to come the difference between life and death. There is simply no place else to go on a ship – you had better know what your doing in that critical moment, or else. Well, you could go to the life rafts, but that's really not a choice.

The USS Cowpens won the Battle E and that's why I'm skeptical of the news reports about its Commanding Officer, Captain Holy “Horrible Holy” Graf. The Navy, like the other military services, doesn't air its dirty laundry to the public, and American civilian citizens, if any thought is given to the situation, shouldn't want it to. We should want the Navy to be a self-managed, well-managed organization, to take care of its own, to hold its own accountable and to render justice on its own. Otherwise, it wouldn't be a very good military force for the country. That's why I believe that what did leak out about Captain Graf isn't the whole story. What's missing is that team of officer and chief leaders that lead the crew, and supported her and who won that E; that 80-20 rule – the 80%, or better, that got it.

I can't imagine a tougher job for a woman than being a Commanding Officer on a war ship mostly populated by men. Not even a corporate CEO compares. She had to work twice as hard as a male Commander would. I'm not saying that a woman can't do it. The fact that the ship received the Battle E tells me that Captain Graf did it better than most men. She's in a very high percentile of achievers. Ships go years, try as they might, without winning Battle Excellence. But, I can see that the Navy is pushing the cultural envelope in her assignment. That, too, is what we should want the military to do; to break down those cultural barriers so we have the best people in the best assignments. I don't doubt her foul language, though. I've experienced, both men and women officers and senior enlisted, who, when pushed to the point of exasperation, can dress a junior down with such language and stare that makes them feel no higher on the species list than a frog. That too is a learned skill, although I think “the look” is more effective than foul language in getting results. I think that's what happened on the Cowpens. She started out well, with mostly a cooperating and willing crew, but a few male officers and enlisted couldn't quiet make the transition to having a woman CO. Gradually her orders and ideas were questioned, and likely criticized and perhaps ignored by the disgruntled few, 20% or less of the crew, and over several months or a year she began to insist more and more that her orders be followed. That small portion of the crew became more complaining and disgruntled, mostly without good reason, and they began getting louder. The situation disintegrated from there. It could have easily come to a point where she was lashing out at everyone, including those undeserved, good crew members in front of others. That Seaman I was on the Princeton would have simply taken the lashing without response, but that Master Chief I became would not have. Live and learn. That Master Chief would have said, “Captain, we need to talk..., privately,” and I would have told her in private not to do that again as calmly but forcefully as I could, hopefully without anger, but with a look of my own making. I don't believe she behaved badly 24/7. But, I'll bet there were several “private” conversations like that with one or more of her Chiefs.

The other thing that she was accused of and that made the news was “endangering” her crew by “ drag racing” and “playing chicken” with another ship. The proof they gave was this picture. (Actually, the ships are not all that close. I've seen ships closer; i.e., the Lockwood swapping paint with a Russian Destroyer and similar ship-chasing on the USS Beacon.) The Naval investigators found no evidence of the accusation. I side with the investigators. I don't doubt a bit that the two ships were racing or playing chicken, however, and that's what we want them to do. I can guess, 99% sure, how this happened. Either as part of a war game drill, to practice and hone war fighting skills, or as an agreement between the two ships' Commanding Officers for the same reason, these two ships are trying to “out gun” each other. In the picture the one (USS McCain in front) is trying to stay out of the Cowpens' gun sights, and the Cowpens is trying to put the McCain in its gun sights. It “is” a game of chicken and “can” result in a collision, so the deck officers had better be good. The purpose of the drill is to make them better. Mistakes do happen, but I know that those at the wheel were so tense and alert that mistakes are rare. They were pushing the envelope with big, expensive toys and learning where the edge was at the same time. The only “chickens” were those who complained, not understanding the purpose of the drill or that lives may depend on the skills learned. It's a risky business. They need to realize that.

The Navy was right to remove her because the situation could not continue regardless of who's fault it was. But, the Navy was also right in reassigning her instead of forcing her out entirely, as some recommended. If she advanced to Commanding the Cowpens, which is a fighting ship that only the best advance to, then she is very intelligent and skilled in other fields, such as planning, war strategy and tactical maneuvering ships and ship squadrons. The Navy needs her. Best of luck to her.

My opinion of Congressman Massa, who “tickle fights,” is 180 degrees from that of Captain Graf. From his behavior as a Congressman, and as a Naval Officer, as reported, I expected to learn through researching him that his Naval career didn't last long, that he was “asked” to leave early in his career. But, that's not the case. I was surprised to find that his Naval career lasted 24 years. He was a 1981 Naval Academy graduate and he retired as a Navy Commander (O-5) in 2005. Still, advancing to Commander in 24 years was, at best, mediocre, so he must have had disciplinary problems along the way. I believe that it is still Navy policy that if a person doesn't advance fast enough to meet Navy minimum standards, they will be ask to resign, and I think Massa was close to that point.

His behavior was beyond acceptable behavior, of course. A crew who learned about it would have been extremely uncomfortable around him and probably didn't do a good job as a unit. That's what those 20% or less who don't get it does to the unit. I get the impression that he behaved that way more than once, so, if reported, he would have received first a verbal warning, then a letter, then passed over for promotion, maybe twice, and finally he would have been asked to resign. It never got that far, apparently, but we don't have that information, so we don't know. Perhaps the Navy handled his case well by making sure he didn't advance to more responsibility. Captain Graf, as a comparison, was a full Captain (O-6) at 24 years, CO of a first-class ship and well on her way to Admiral rank until she was relieved of duty that was probably the only disciplinary problem she encountered in her 24 years.

My gut tells me that he has homosexual tendencies and his case will make decisions on “don't ask, don't tell” that much more difficult to make. It isn't for the Navy to decide morality. It's a discipline question. I can't imagine being assigned to one of the discussion groups charged to come up with a recommended policy and then making a constructive contribution to the group. That would be a tough assignment. I don't see much difference between his behavior and a heterosexual male groping, or worse, a female shipmate. In the former, his sexual preference, and perhaps motivation, is hidden; in the latter, the sexual preference is open and known. As a Chief of a command, I would know better how to handle the disciplinary action in the latter case, because motivation is better known or guessed, and I could recommended to the command my suggestion on what disciplinary action to take after one or more sessions with those involved. My mind is split on don't ask, don't tell. It's a difficult question. But, from a command Chief's perspective, I'd like to know what motivates a person to do what they do, if that's at all possible. Then, perhaps, you know the cure.


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