Courage, Valor, Integrity… the ‘official’ motto of USS STOUT DDG 55; I’magunna raise the el crappe’ de bull flag on just about all tree of dem statements based on my two year tour, my two year tour …
So let’s sit back and hear a tale, a tale of a clueless Chief…
STOUT was a compromise with the all-power-hungry detailer for orders back to the East Coast. I was at the end of my four year tour on McCLUSKY and negotiating for orders that would land me in the vicinity of Norfolk VA. Normally, a sailor cain’t tie his boondockers without trippin’ on billets in Norfolk but I was in San Diego. Uncle was not so keen on payin’ for movin’ us kids between left and right coast – and they had just moved me from Norfolk to San Diego about four years prior. However, the all-power-hungry- detailer most always finds an option or three when you drop the crumble of staying at sea.
Anyhow, I wound up with a two year tour on STOUT in Norfolk. […] So, I was assigned that billet and left to learn on my own just why that billet was open so long that it became a priority fill and long enough for them to give the Leading Chief job on a Destroyer to a newly frocked Chief that the Chief Engineer had never met in person, on the phone, on paper, or via reputation.
Due to circumstances beyond my control, I deployed with McCLUSKY in SEP 2000 from San Diego and rode her through the first half of deployment to the change of command ceremony at Key West, FL. I had asked to transfer early and skip the deployment but the Captain told me I was not allowed to transfer from the ship until he had completed the change of command. But that is a different story for another time. I was going somewhere with this train of thought but I think my train got trunk.
But I digress
So, as luck would have it, when I report to STOUT her crew is on holiday/pre-deployment stand-down and the Chief that I am relieving has already checked out and is long gone. Any-who, I get settled into the command and then return home to my apartment every night. I had an apartment lease waiting for my signature on arrival in Virginia Beach. The place was furnished with power, phone, cable, & internet (I kinda cheated & had it set up for me while I was on deployment).
Normally, when shopping for a command, they were either locally shore-bound or, a ship that I could easily find just about anything I needed to know about. However comma, I chose a Norfolk ship from the Left Coast with only Left Coast and Pineapple Coast Intel available.
So, first impression …
As a ship she sloughed against the pier unremarkably. She exuded absolutely Zero personality. I mean, walking down the pier looking up at the bow all I can recall is a big gray and dirty-white hull number lit by a flickering fluorescent bulb. Her waterline was crested with wavering lines of hull growth. The scuppers and over-boards all have rust stains down the hull towards the waterline and were it not for a bow-line, the RHIB was effectively sunk. Funny story about the RHIB, Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat, see, it was Friday’s duty section’s fault that the boat sank because they are the ones that lowered the boat Saturday morning and forgot to put the plug in. I checked in on a Monday afternoon, according to the boat logs it was fine up to the hour before I brought up the fact that it was a submersible. And this is just as I am reporting onboard to the Officer of the Deck – I hadn’t even gotten to my Engine Room(s) yet.
After reporting onboard and kinda-sorta getting checked in through the standard check list of transferring custody of medical & personnel records, the standard safety and personnel qualification standard minimum goals, and interviewing with the ship’s Triad – Command Master Chief , Executive Officer, & Commanding Officer. Funny story, to this day, my check in sheet is not complete and my check out sheet was never started. Hell, I never even saw the Cap’n. I basically just turned in my records and went to work, this was my fourth ship – it weren’t my first time at the rodeo if’n ya know what I mean. What doesn’t help in my process of joining this motley crew was the little factoid that I was checking in during a pre-deployment ship preparation and crew leave stand-down (50% of crew on leave). But I eventually got the important boxes either checked or “checked” & settled in with the Engineers.
I was assigned as the Leading Chief for the Aft Engine Room in charge of the #2 propulsion drive train, two of the three ship’s service electric power generator plants, and the propulsion and aviation fuels testing lab. I had an average of 25-30 ‘kids’ under my direct charge. What I quickly learned was that the entire ship seemed to operate on what can best be described as a ‘union environment’. Even within my own division there was a Zero Co-operation Policy between the two engine rooms. What I mean by a ‘union’ environment is the segmentation and compartmentalization of the work centers. For example, on an occasion when one of my ‘kids’ was preparing to perform a preventive maintenance check that was being observed by one of the Department Heads for quality verification of the Preventive Maintenance System he needed a 1 gal can of high speed roller bearing grease. We had just run out and hazmat was out of stock. The forward engine room had two cans of the grease but would not give me one because ‘then they would only have one’. STOUT is the only ship that I served on that had less than Zero personality and absolutely Zero crew unity. S TOUT would prove to be my greatest challenge both personally and professionally.
During a port visit to Port Canaveral FL, I returned to the ship from a short liberty visit for some grubbage. While I was off the ship, someone had opened the check valve on the fuel receiver for the fueling at sea probe and dumped what looked like a lot of oil into the water pier side. The Duty Section had everything well under control but since I was the ships Oil King, I checked in with the Duty Engineer to offer assistance and calculate the estimated fuel loss. Based fuel tank soundings, I calculated a loss of less than ten gallons. After talking with the Coast Guard and coming to the mutual agreement that the massive slick everyone was going spastic about was from the cosmoline and not a fuel spill. Bottom line, not a reportable spill – no fines issued. Based on that Coast Guard report, I left the spill in the capable hands of my Oil Lab and went ashore one last time to return my rental car. I was off of the ship & away from the incident for all of 45 minutes. Well, let me tells ya, ole Charlie Oscar was none too pleased to learn that a few drops of fuel dripped into the bay when I had the nerve to be off-duty. And, to make matters worse, I had trained my people so well they didn’t need me on scene to control it. In his mind, once I was aware of the spill, I was supposed to take control of the scene and do the job that I trained my people to do when I was not on duty. So, since I failed to meet that criteria, he ordered the Executive Officer to place me on report for Unauthorized Absence. When that floated over like a lead brick, he ordered the XO to place me on report for dereliction of duty. At this point the XO had a chat with the CO and basically told him to back off and that I was not in the wrong and that he was hung up on a non-event. The CO never gave up but he did back off. He settled for a command level non-disciplinary letter of reprimand that would be removed from my personnel record on transfer. When we had the counseling session for this letter, the CO laid it on the line that he had it out for me and he was going to use this letter as evidence when he catches me doing anything wrong. I still had about 6-8 months to go before I was transferring and he could easily mess with my orders.
As luck would have it, the month before I was transferring, the ship was scheduled for its Engineering Certification by the Afloat Training Group – aka ATG (where I was headed after a short school). Engineering Certification is basically a week of hell for the entire ship but hyper focused on the folks keepin’ the screws turnin’ and lights burnin’. It all starts when a gaggle of Officers and Chiefs storm the ship. Some of them break off and look at all of the paperwork like equipment operating logs and such while the rest walk through all of the Engineering spaces looking for reasons to prevent the ship from starting engines and getting underway to run casualty control exercises at sea. Anywho, from the git-go we quickly figured out that ATG’s endgame was to nit-pick the safety inspections phase on the first day to prevent the ship from starting engines and proceeding to sea for the operational phase of the training.
We knew that the odds of lighting off the engines and setting course for the VACAPES to run the operational evaluation were pretty slim on day one. However, we were not expecting to be overrun with twenty to thirty ‘show-stoppers’ in each engine room. It became apparent quite early that ATG didn’t want to go to sea that week and had marching orders to find enough significant discrepancies to prevent the ship from getting underway and as a result failing the certification. What ATG failed to take into consideration was the cranky ole Chief who was a highly skilled Steam Snipe who had been deceiving some of the best, most observant steam propulsion officers for years. I had broken the Engineering ‘union’ lines during my first three months onboard and had formed up a team of about 8-15 personnel in each of the machinery spaces being inspected. The team would follow me as I followed the inspector, as a discrepancy was annotated, I wrote it down and dispatched the repair team member in line behind me. Using this system, we were handing the inspector corrections faster than they were finding problems. In order to allow these repair teams to operate their magic, we needed to incorporate the concept into the ship’s job qualification standard program. So, we came up with an official looking local qualification standard for a Fast Action Response Team (FART) member. With their strategy of loading us up with discrepancy tickets failing miserably and the CO asking about starting engines to get underway, ATG regrouped for what I assume was a meeting of the evil overlords trying to determine why their plan wasn’t working. When they returned, the new tactic was to attack my engines and generators. They spent hours in my engine modules and couldn’t find anything more than a broken lockwire here or there – no show stoppers. My generators worried me, they are Rolls Royce gas turbine engines that always have oil under the deck grates of the module but show no leaks. They were spotless on Sunday, but those engines are pieces of excrement known to leak oil with a dry sump. Anywhy, the couldn’t find anything wrong on the first attack of the generators other than nickel and dime stuff. So, in a Hail Mary at the end of the day (around 1830), the head clown on the ATG team decides to conduct his own inspection of Nr Gas Turbine Generator. Once the door was opened, he reached in and inspected the base mount alignment turnbuckle for the turbine end. He grabbed the connecting rod and yanked on the turnbuckle, not unexpectedly the bearings on the connecting ends gave a little. Based on this, the mighty ATG inspector decided that the turbine to inlet plenum alignment was not set in accordance with planned maintenance system standards. And, since Nr 1 GTG had this problem, Nrs 2 & 3 are also suspect. Therefore, the ship could not get underway until the turbine to plenum alignment check was performed on all three generators. Since it was close to 1900 on Day One of the certification week and all three generators were deemed unsafe until a complex, time-consuming maintenance procedure is performed.
ATG probably thought they were going to wrap up the week when they returned on Day Two due to the failure to get underway. Here again they underestimated the creativity of a Steam Snipe. Their plan if addressed ‘properly’ would have worked. Normally, a turbine to plenum alignment would be a job performed by an outside activity using a Gas Turbine Repair Team. Under best of situations, the earliest we would be able to get a repair team on board would be the next day maybe before noon. In any event, we would miss the window to get underway and our reindeer games at sea. However, ATG forgot to factor in the cranky new Chief who mastered his trade with steam. I inspected the evil turnbuckle that started the alignment debacle. What I found was a turnbuckle with bad bearings and no indications of the turbine being out of alignment. So, I grabbed up a repair team of two trusted confidantes – both crossovers from the steam world, and we developed a repair plan. We could have pulled out the maintenance card and run through all three generators, but that would take around 23 hours total. Or, since we were separate team that only worked with me (for a reason), we could analyze the problem and see if there is a ‘real-world’ solution. What we determined was that the turnbuckles originally installed were not designed for hot environments and there was no provision for lock wire or any other means to prevent the effects of vibration. My options were limited and bleak. Technically, I needed to contact a Gas Turbine Repair Team and have them conduct a complete alignment check on each generator. This was a long-shot at best, I had been on the Left Coast for four years and hadn’t had time to reconnect with my Pierside Popeyes. Even if I could connive myself a late-night service call, I would need three teams to get the job done in time to meet a Noon deadline for getting underway on Tuesday (<18 hours to go). Second option is to use my trusted confidantes to perform the alignments – one had just completed a tour at the gas turbine repair shop, but the deadline loomed. Or, after analyzing the evil turnbuckle that started this fiasco, we could just replace the damn turnbuckles. Hell, I could get three of them at Ace for about two bucks including tax. Our solution? We replaced the turnbuckles, thirty minutes per generator. The look on the senior inspector’s face on Tuesday morning was priceless when we told him the generators were ready for reinspection. He almost went ballistic when I presented three quality control packages signed and serialized by the shore-based gas turbine repair shop. We were underway at 0900.
The routine and casualty control exercises went well, so well that it was suspected that we may have had prior knowledge of the plan of events. I can neither confirm nor deny this suspicion however, ATG was to be my next duty station and I had visited with ATG the Friday before the inspection for ‘recon’. That was purely coincidental, yeah that’s my story. So, the ATG team leader decided that a test was required to see how well trained we really were. So, after passing all casualty control exercise and a major fuel leak/bravo fire scenario, mister ATG team leader put watch team three (my watch team) on deck. Normally, watch team three during training/certification visits are not assessed by ATG. Team three normally just holds down the fort while the ship’s training team (my team) and teams one and two get some rest. Team three is typically not trained as hard and generally cannot pass an ATG assessment. But I digress yet again, since ATG suspected a leak, they created a set of casualty exercises and briefed the ship’s training team. Well, most of the team, I was on deck as watch supervisor waiting for my time in the hot seat.
So, I am challenged by ATG. Normally, the watch teams would be nervous and anxious when being watched by senior officers as they perform tasks that are so routine they are muscle memory. The problems occur when they rely on muscle memory and forget to look at the written procedure. You can perform a task with 100% compliance to the written instructions but get Zero credit for not looking at the instructions. Anywhat, I answer all of their silly trivia questions while maintaining control of what was going on with the inspectors working with the rest of the watch team. When it came to the casualty control exercises, they were befuddled. Team three was just as good as teams one and two. Hell, when it came to monitoring me and my engines and electrical plant operators they blinked and missed everything. When it came to the propulsion engines or the electric power distribution system, we would have the problem isolated and associated system restored so fast that they didn’t know where to look. They gave up after three casualty exercises. We survived the week and passed the certification.
After ATG left, and the chaos settled into the waves, the Captain asked me how I was able to get the generators aligned overnight without his knowledge. My response, “Sir, I believe it’s in your best interest to remain unaware of my emergency sourcing system?” , with a stone faced expression. My engine and electrical control operators were vibrating tr.ying to hold back their laughter as the Captain looks at me trying to figure me out. He just gave me a quizzical look and wandered on his merry way. He didn’t get five feet from the hatch when my console operators burst into tears of laughter.
Alright, fast forward to last day onboard, the last person I am required to interview with is the Captain for my final performance evaluation review. I go in expecting the worst, based on the whole report chit(s) history and all. However, it turned out a bit different. It is routine for Command Master Chief to be present during a fitness report review with the Captain. So, I wasn’t surprised to see the CMC sitting there. What I didn’t expect was that after having me sit down, the Cap’n looked at the CMC, crumpled up the fitness report into a ball, threw it at the CMC while telling him it was rubbish. He then said that after his exit interview with me, he would personally write my transfer fitness report. My mind was thinking – yikes, did I piss him off lately?
But, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
During the interview, the first thing he did was tear up the letter of reprimand that he had written up on me – and he apologized. He told me how he was amazed by my performance during the ATG visit, knowing that regardless of the outcome I was transferring and leaving the mess for someone else. He asked me if I had talked with any of the ATG folks prior to the visit as an ‘intro’ – since I was fixin’ to join them. What he was fishing for was confirmation to the rumor he had heard about ATG having ‘marching orders’ to either prevent STOUT from getting underway or find a legitimate way to fail the at sea requirements. When I confirmed his suspicion, he had the most confused look on his face. He dismissed the Master Chief, almost forcibly, and we began talking about why I pushed myself and my teams past their limits to pass this hellish inspection week that I knew was pre-determined to fail. My response was quite simple, I train to survive. Everything we had worked for was designed to impart ‘muscle memory’ and reflex actions under stress. I also reminded him that my ball cap still said STOUT, not ATG. Anywhy, he expressed his admiration of my sustained improvement and ‘unique’ effect on crew morale, even after the report chit incident. He told me that he expected me to go into Slug Chief mode and just ride out my time until transfer. He asked me where I discovered the snake chain fast action response team concept for inspections. Apparently it freaked out a couple of the inspectors which resulted in fewer discrepancies found. My response was pretty simple, we train these sailors to operate their individual cogs in the wheel that is the ship. We expect them set aside personal problems or petty vendettas. I also reminded him that as a Chief, I am obligated to my Ship. I told him that while I disagreed with his decision, I fully understood his position. A few weeks earlier, a Destroyer pier-side in Port Lauderdale had a significant oil spill that made the news and resulted in buku bad juju for all involved. And, that was all in the past and the past cannot be changed. My job on STOUT was to ensure that the propulsion and electrical power generation plants were in top operating condition and my personnel were trained to handle whatever little hiccups that life threw at them.
While he did not wish tow how his generators were ‘fixed’, he did ask for confirmation that they were indeed properly in alignment and safe to operate. I eased his mind and explained the methodology of the process and explained how my method was more effecient and far less time consuming than the current Navy’s maintenance program. The paperwork that I presented to the ATG team was legitimate and a result of 17 years of pounding the piers shaking hands and bustin’ knuckles through the night to get your buddy’s gen-set squared away for deployment.
He spent hours writing that fitness report.
Courage… Valor… Integrity…: did I meet any of those ideals?