Recently, I wrote (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) about some things from my former life in submarines that I don’t miss. At the suggestion of some readers, and in the interest of being fair and balanced, I thought I would now address some things from submarine life that I do miss. As with the items that I don’t miss, this list is not inclusive. It does, however, represent those items that are most prominent to me. Some of my fellow submariners may (and likely will) have others. If so, please share.
When you live with other men for extended periods of time within a confined space you have to learn to get along. You have to, as some of my shipmates used to say, “Learn to play nicely with others.” Let’s face it, when you’re underway on a submarine, at any instant in time your life could be in your shipmates’ hands or their lives in yours. Faced with this singular fact, it’s inevitable that you develop bonds unlike others.
The shipmates I had onboard the USS Permit were unlike any I’ve had in my professional career. I respected them. Not just some of them, but all of them. Despite the seemingly endless competition between “the nukes” (the name given to those of us in the engineering department) and “the coners” (so called because they stood watch in the forward, or cone-shaped, part of the ship), the “qualified” and the “non-quals,” the “longtimers” and the “nubs,” when it came down to it, I knew I could count on my shipmates. After all, I had no choice. I can only hope they felt the same about me.
The camaraderie of submarine shipmates is unlike any other I’ve experienced in my professional career. Though years and miles now separate us, the bonds I developed then, continue to this day.
Qualification on submarines is incessant. Becoming qualified in submarines, also known as “earning your dolphins,” is no small feat. It requires a detailed knowledge of every system on the boat. A non-qualified submariner’s knowledge of each system is checked by a question-and-answer session with a qualified submariner who is an expert on that particular system. A typical question-and-answer session, known as a “checkout,” begins with the two words “draw it!” But that’s not all. After being checked out on an individual basis on all of these systems, the non-qualified submariner then has the distinct pleasure of standing before a 3-person board of qualified shipmates to be mercilessly questioned. If, and only if, the board is satisfied, is the person qualified.
A copy of my completed submarine qualification card is reproduced below. If you’re so inclined, simply click on the image to see an enlarged view.
Not only do submariners have to qualify in submarines, they also have to qualify on multiple watch stations, each carrying with it ever increasing responsibility. Most of these watch stations rely on the “checkout” process. And many also require a final 3-person board for final qualification.
Believe me, as a young 20-something, when I was in the middle of all of that qualification, I did not look upon it with fondness. Now that I am older, and hopefully a bit wiser, I understand its efficacy. The submarine sailor is never allowed to become mentally sedentary. Continual learning is a must. It’s a practice I carry on to this day. And one I hope you do, too.
PURSUIT OF EXCELLENCE
Drills, drills, and then . . . you guessed it . . . more drills! Honestly, when we weren’t on-station and had to be quiet, we were drilling. Fire drills, flooding drills, reactor plant drills, weapons drills, you name it. If something could potentially go wrong on a submarine, there was a drill for it.
Early on in my days aboard the submarine, whenever I was in the middle of a drill set, especially a drill set that seemed to never end, I was not always understanding or appreciative of the process. At times, I thought the commanding officer, executive officer, and engineer officer were the most sadistic people on the face of the earth. But, as I became more experienced, more mature if you will, I grew to understand the purpose of all of those drills. Excellence – excellence in purpose; excellence in approach; excellence in attitude; excellence in ability.
You see, if we as a crew were to complete our missions, we had to continually pursue excellence. We couldn’t be satisfied with being mediocre. Mediocrity is symptomatic of apathy. Apathy leads to carelessness. And carelessness on board a submarine can lead to failure, injury, or even death.
Although I am no longer placed in situations where life and death are potentially on the line, I learned a valuable lesson about excellence. It must be pursued in every endeavor, and at all times. I look around at my some of my current colleagues and wonder if they will ever learn this invaluable lesson, taught to me by my fellow crew members.
The continual study, the continual qualification, the continual drilling, shoot, just the realization of being submerged several hundred feet below the ocean surface for several weeks, all contributed to stress level. In most cases, however, it was a healthy stress level. Though, at times, the stress level probably did reach the unhealthy range. After all, I was on a submerged warship.
Quite honestly, I think most people have no concept of real stress. I am typically dubious when people tell me they’re stressed. I inwardly wonder how they would react to being on a submarine that is headed toward maximum operating depth, at a relatively steep down-angle, and at flank speed, when the call goes out that stern planes are jammed. It is quite definitely not a comfortable feeling. After all, it’s next to impossible to trim the boat to level without those planes. Trust me. I’ve been there (as have most other submariners). But if you’re going to do your part to make sure the boat recovers, you’ve got to remain calm and in control. You’ve got to think clearly and react as you’ve been trained.
Not all stress is bad. I am convinced that we all need a certain level of stress in our lives to keep us aware, both of ourselves and others, so that we can stay sharp and competitive. Stress can also help with perspective. The stress I experienced while I was on the submarine certainly gave me perspective. That perspective will, at times, frustrate some people. They think that I am insensitive or uncaring of their situation or circumstances. They may even think that I am unduly apathetic of my own situations and circumstances. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I have the privilege of a perspective they don’t – that what they are (or I am) going through typically pales in comparison to the situations and circumstances I and my fellow submariners faced on a day-to-day basis.
Life is certainly a lot easier with perspective. Admittedly, however, I do miss some of the stressful situations we experienced.
There are few things more joyous than returning to port after an extended deployment. You are so happy to see your wife,children, girlfriend, or other family and friends that await you. You are so happy to see the sky, to breath fresh air, to feel the warmth of the sun. You are so happy to be back in the greatest country on earth!
I can still recall the honor of being selected to man the phones in the sail when we pulled into port after an extended deployment. The sights, the sounds, and the smells. They were indescribable then, and are indescribable now. The excitement of seeing our crewmember’s families awaiting our return, the thrill of knowing we had successfully completed our mission. There is nothing quite like it.
Life onboard a submarine is unique. Unless or until you’ve actually experienced it, it’s impossible to fathom. It has its negatives, some of which I chronicled in my prior post. But it also has its positives, some of which I’ve chronicled here. Overall, I would say the positives I experienced far outweighed the negatives.
I truly believe I am a better man for serving on a submarine. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.