Lieutenant Still ‘s paper won The Naval Submarine League Essay Contest for Submarine Officers’ Advanced Class 00070. He is currently Weapons Officer on USS KEY WEST (SSN 722).
The Summer 2000 issue of Perspective reported, “At press time, the [Submarine] DH Detailer will be finalizing the recall of an officer to be a Submarine DH. ” I was surprised that the story of my recall created something of a stir in the submarine community. I have spoken to several officers who expressed surprise that I would leave civilian life and return to active duty. This essay describes my rationale for leaving active duty, and for returning. By sharing my story. I hope to provide some insight into the issue of submarine officer retention, and perhaps sway other junior officers who are considering their options and wondering what to expect from life in the private sector.
Why I Left Active Duty
I served onboard USS SANT A FE (SSN 763) from 1992 to 1995, taking her through new construction, shakedown, and a change of homeport. I was next assigned to United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM), where I served as a watch officer. My first son was born shortly after my arrival at STRA TCOM, an event that caused me to reconsider my priorities and reevaluate my career goals. I ultimately decided to leave active duty because I perceived that continued service was inconsistent with being the type of involved father that I wanted to be. I was also concerned with the force reductions proposed by the 1997 QDR, and the effect they would have on OPTEMPO and promotion opportunity. I submitted my resignation and left active duty in July 1998.
The Private Sector
I had little trouble finding a job in the private sector. I was fortunate to have several good job offers. I accepted a position as a design engineer at a commercial nuclear plant near Omaha. A short while thereafter, I was offered a supervisory position at a nuclear plant in Massachusetts. I took the new job, relocating the family to New England. Then, in October 1999, I received a letter from Rear Admiral Hinkle, the Chief of Naval Personnel, encouraging me to consider returning to active duty. The letter was part of an effort by the Submarine Department Head Detailer to address the shortage of department heads by inviting officers who had recently resigned to return to active duty.
I initially gave the letter little thought, dispatching it to the bottom of my file drawer. I had just started a year-long training program to prepare me for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Senior Reactor Operator (SRO) license. The SRO license is required for individuals who supervise the operation of commercial nuclear plants. The responsibilities are similar to those of an Engineering Officer of the Watch (EOOW) on a nuclear powered submarine, but the plant is significantly larger, and thus more complicated.
I initially dismissed Rear Admiral Hinkle’s letter because it seemed that nothing had changed that would affect my reasons for leaving active duty. Over the next few months, however, I began to take a critical look at my reasons, my personal and career situations, and my overall sense of satisfaction with my life. I realized that I was not totally satisfied with my civilian career-that I missed the challenge and excitement that submarining offers. I missed the feeling of being part of something bigger than myself, and the feeling that I was using my abilities to make a difference. I also realized that my dissatisfaction was affecting my personal relationships in subtle but significant ways. I was messed out, short tempered, and generally unhappy.
In his book titled Principle-Centered Leadership, Stephen Covey describes the alternate “centers”, such as family, work, friends, church, etc., on which people often focus their lives. Covey contends, “Focusing on alternative centers … Weakens and disorients us. ” 1 Instead, he advocates a so-called principle-centered approach.
“When we center our lives on correct principles, we become more balanced, unified, organized, anchored, and rooted. We have a foundation for all activities, relationships, and decisions. We also have a sense of stewardship about everything in our lives.”
In retrospect, I realize that my decision to leave the Navy was actually a reaction to changing circumstances. It seems commonplace for work to rule the lives of most junior officers. The initial training and qualification process demands hard work and long hours from officers reporting to their first command. Our culture rewards early qualification, and young officers set high expectations for themselves. As a junior officer, I often felt consumed by work. My life was truly work-centered. When my son was born, I realized the importance and magnitude of my other responsibilities. I reacted by shifting my center from work to family . I perceived that submarine service was inconsistent with being an involved father and attentive husband. I later realized that Covey is correct-that a balanced, principle-centered approach provides security, wisdom, and power. A quote from Liddell Hart summarized my dilemma:
“Man has two supreme loyalties-to country and to family … so long as their families are safe, they will defend their country, believing that by their sacrifice they are safeguarding their families also. ”
Hart’s quote helped me realize that serving the Navy and serving my family were not exclusive or inconsistent goals. I evaluated my values, centered myself on what I considered to be correct principles, and decided to return to active duty.
Observations and Lessons
Looking back on my experience, one concept seems particularly significant: quality of service. By that, I mean the belief that one’s service makes a difference-the idea that the sense of accomplishment gained from a job well done can adequately compensate the personal sacrifices required by that job. Discussions of officer retention often focus on quality of life topics such as pay, medical benefits, or the inter-deployment training cycle. Quality of life plays a significant role in an officer’s decision to leave or stay in the Navy, but the key to retention is quality of service. Men and women join the Navy for many different reasons-education, travel, experience, or the challenge. But the common factor is their desire to serve, to use their skills to make a difference, and contribute to something bigger than themselves.
While serving in the Naval Reserve, I attended the two-day Reserve Force Officer Leadership Course. The course included a topic on understanding people, during which we spent a significant amount of time discussing the differences between baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) and generation-X (those born between 1965 and 1983). I had never considered myself to be part of generation-X, but I fit into that category chronologically and the generation-X profile described my values and beliefs reasonably well. In particular, I agreed that I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. a value attributed to generation-X. I discussed the generation-X profile with other reserve lieutenants who had also recently left active duty and found agreement that we all had joined the Navy, in part, because we sought something bigger. We also agreed that we had each left active duty because the quality of our service no longer compensated for the personal sacrifice required.Simply stated, we no longer felt that we were making a difference.
Quality of service can prove difficult to define because, like quality of life, it means different things to different people. Junior officers often complain in general terms about inspections (such as the Operational Reactor Safeguards Exam or the Tactical Readiness Evaluation) or administrative requirements. These are easy targets. No officer enjoys evaluations, or the inevitable corrective actions that follow. Likewise, no officer thrives on paperwork. Most junior officers have an anecdote about how they felt overwhelmed or dominated at some point by such requirements. In some cases, an officer loses the sense that his service matters, and he decides to leave the Navy. Other factors certainly enter such a decision, but my own experience indicates that quality of service is the single most important factor.
It may initially seem impossible to address this vague and hardto-define concept of quality of service, but there is one simple approach we can use. In one of my civilian jobs, I had a boss who constantly emphasized what he simplistically called the main thing. He defined it as the safe and efficient nuclear production of electricity. In our field of endeavor, it is even simpler: the main thing is mission accomplishment. The mission can change-it may be strategic deterrence, strike, undersea warfare, or any of the other missions the submarine performs. In some cases, the mission may be to overhaul or refuel our ship. We may find some missions unappealing, but that does not diminish their importance.
We can improve our focus on mission accomplishment by asking a simple question: “How does this (activity, task, project) improve readiness or support mission accomplishment?” The question applies to virtually any activity onboard a submarine, or in the Submarine Force. It applies to all levels in the command structure, from junior officers to the type commander. As I prepare for my Department Head tour, I have committed myself to focusing on mission accomplishment, and encourage my peers to do the same. If we focus on mission accomplishment, we can help them fulfill their desire to make a difference and to be part of something bigger. Simply put, we can contribute to an overall high quality of service and positively impact the retention of officers that will soon relieve us.