I’m writing this post in hopes of benefitting or inspiring sailors who, like me, felt an absence of a sense of purpose. This is a piece of advice I wish someone had given me when I first joined the Navy. But, they didn’t. Instead, I had to make it up as I went along. It would have saved me a lot of grief and struggle through my years as a Deck Seaman, a Third Class, and as a Second Class serving aboard ships. The advice is this: get qualified. Relentlessly, get qualified.
It sounds simplistic, and it is. Working on qualifications is one of the most exhausting activities a sailor can partake in, especially in the midst of countless hours of watch standing, maintenance, cleaning, drills, port visits, and duty days. But learning new jobs and obtaining more knowledge offers something that nothing else can: perspective. It also prevents mediocrity. Nobody should want to be a mediocre sailor who does the bare minimum, if that. Those are the people we shouldn’t want in our organization and that no civilian organizations are going to want either. Instead, we should always be looking to the next goal, the next objective, and the next qualification. We should always be looking to learn more. This is not to encourage a “jack of all trades, master of none” mentality. You should certainly be the master of your trade first, but a jack of all other trades as well. The desire to learn eventually leads you to greater and greater understanding of how your ship, task force, fleet, and Navy operate.
We’re talking about the Navy here. No matter how much Navy public relations tries to sugarcoat our mission with slogans like “a global force for good,” we have one ultimate purpose: to be expendable machines of war. As decent human beings, we can only hope that our missions are guided by good intentions, and most of the time they are. But we are at the mercy of politicians with immense influence from the private sector operating as part of the military-industrial complex. War is profitable. Since our role in this, as sailors, is not to question, but to follow orders, we can only hope that we are being led down a morally righteous road in each task we are assigned. Whether or not this is the case is highly debatable and outside the realm of this post.
Perspective. Aside from taking care of those junior to you, obeying orders, and doing your job, getting qualified is one of the most important things a sailor can do. Everyone has a minimum set of qualifications they must achieve. Most of them are in-rate or for the benefit of the ship in general, such as 3M or damage control. As a junior sailor, it can be hard to understand the purpose of meeting these standards when all you want to do is to just do your job.
Generally once you achieve your required qualifications, you’re allowed and encouraged to pursue your warfare qualifications. These are essential in understanding your role on your ship, in your command, and in the Navy. It may seem mundane as a Quartermaster, for example, to spend time in the engine room learning about generators and bilge pumps, but the experience gained from taking advantage of the opportunity, and the appreciation of the time being set aside to train you, is endlessly rewarding. Do not go through a tour with a command without earning a warfare qualification if you can help it. Later on you will regret it, even if you separate from the military. It will truly be a missed opportunity.
Let’s assume you’ve completed all of your in-rate qualifications and your warfare qualifications. Now what? Here’s where I offer my most sincere advice: pursue officer qualifications. EOOW, Navigator, Officer of the Deck, CICWO, TAO, BWC, anything which applies to your rate and/or your interests, go after it. These qualifications offer something that other, minor qualifications don’t: a new perspective on a larger picture. While most watch stations don’t get much more in-depth than how to turn knob, push a button or what to look for on a screen, the larger qualifications paint a broader picture and give new perspective into the smaller ones. They answer that often sought out question sailors love to ask: why?
Some things may prevent you from working on the qualification of your choice. Allow me to present a strategy to work around such obstacles.
Work on your minor qualifications in home port on duty days and during short underway periods. Perform in-rate training daily and get signed off on all of your in-rate qualifications as soon as possible.
Ask for schools, especially if you are located in San Diego or Norfolk. Ask for schools as often as possible. There are always gaps in school and NEC requirements for ships that Training Officers may be having a hard time finding a solution for. Schools and NECs make you valuable and give you something to offer that others might not have. They also give you another perspective on your role within the Navy and the command.
Use deployments to work on larger qualifications and warfare qualifications. Spend every moment possible training, learning, reading, and making connections in order to achieve the qualification. Sometimes you may have to buy someone a soda or a beer to win them over to helping you, especially if you’re, for example, a ‘topsider’ working on an engineering qualification, but it will be worth it. Unfortunately, our rates carry certain stereotypes and prejudices which must be overcome in order to get done what needs to be done.
Stand the watch. Before you’re qualified, stand under instruction, of course. But after you’re qualified, stand it. I’ve found that I’ve learned exponentially more by standing a watch than I ever did just getting trained on it.
Read and educate yourself. Read the Watch Officer’s Guide. Read SOPs, OPTASKS, OPORDS, OPLANS, NWPs, and other publications and guidances applicable to your ship. Read about history, philosophy, politics, health, social science, religion, astronomy, anything that you’re interested in. But go beyond that, and read from different perspectives. Have an open mind for those who hold opinions different from your own. Pay attention to what’s being said and how it might apply to your life at that moment. Learn to decipher fact from fiction. Think critically about what you read. Take courses on NKO to further your professional knowledge. Some of them are admittedly boring, but some are actually really worthwhile.
Keep moving along. Don’t ever be satisfied with one accomplishment for too long. Once you’ve attained one qualification, move right into the next one. Only take breaks for family.
Remember that being a sailor is a job with demanding hours and involves an extensive amount of commitment. Finding a sense of purpose can often be difficult when you’re in the midst of it. But the Navy is not the sole identifier of an individual’s life. Don’t work towards fitting the stereotype enforced upon you. Instead, work to define yourself on your own terms, both in and out of uniform. Always work towards bettering yourself and accomplishing your short-term and long-term career goals, and find meaning in everything you do. Know your role by understanding the roles of others, then work to fill the next position.
Never take “no” for an answer. If someone tells you you’re too junior to work on something, then learn it anyway. Even if it requires you learning everything in your off time, read whatever you need to, talk to the people doing that job, and learn to do it yourself. Eventually people will see that you are serious about your desire to learn, will allow you the opportunity, and you will have earned their respect by demonstrating your drive.
Taking these principles into account will prove beneficial for sailors in a Navy as increasingly diverse and demanding as our’s. But above all, you have to love it. Otherwise you’re just wasting your time. For me, I began to love it when I started following these rules. Hopefully it will be the same for you.