The World's Best Navy
Over the last few months this column’s topics have dealt with the loss of our national honor and integrity at the hands of Congress; the total lack of governance, with the dominance of petty partisan politics, that has led to the total gridlock of the legislative process; and the insufficiency of funding for federal programs designed to help our nation’s vets and every other program designed to help the majority of the nation’s people. This month I hope to lighten up somewhat.
This month’s column will be dedicated to my attendance at a reunion that took place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This was the 13th bi-annual reunion of the USS Fiske (DD/DDR-842) Association. This association is comprised of sailors who served—approximately 5,000 over those thirty-five years—onboard the Fiske from her commissioning in late 1945 to her transfer to the Turkish Navy in 1980. The association currently has over 600 members and if there are any former Fiske sailors out there who aren’t members and read this article you can find information on our merry band of ‘Tin Can Sailors’ at www.ussfiske.org. In fairness, I feel that I must mention there are numerous ships’ associations out there that can be found with a simple web search.
I’ve been attending these reunions for the past ten years. The first one I attended was in Jacksonville, Florida in September 2001. These reunions are always held the last full weekend of September and that one in 2001 was approximately two weeks after the horrors of 9/11. Those planes that were flying were at less than 50 percent capacity and airport security was very tight. Fear was endemic and permeated every conversation and situation. Those of us who did gather in Jacksonville were veterans in their 50s and 60s. We were veterans from the Cold War and Viet Nam eras. Many of us had participated in the Cuban Missile Crisis in the fall of ’62. The talk around the room switched back and forth from old ‘sea stories’ to front page news. All of us in that room had served and none of us would have refused to serve again if given the opportunity. Yes, all of us were older, grayer and maybe a little heavier than we were forty years ago but once you have served the spark still remains to defend your country against any and all aggressors.
You were once part of a team that you believed was invincible and genuinely thought you could still contribute to help defend our country. Maybe that is what makes having served such a lifelong milepost. I have never met a veteran who doesn’t remember the feeling of being a part—albeit small—of a great team. We had very little knowledge of the grand scheme of things. The geo-politics of the world’s nations didn’t impact our lives one whit. We were focused on doing ‘our job’ for the overall benefit of our unit—be it a destroyer, an aircraft carrier or a platoon of grunts. Our focus was to do our best to get our unit through whatever challenge was placed before us. We were indeed a band of brothers, dedicated to making sure that the guy to the left and right of us survived.
That ‘brotherhood’ is probably what makes us take these bi-annual pilgrimages to whatever location is picked. Over the past ten years we have assembled in Jacksonville Berkley Springs, WVA, Newport, RI, Post Falls, Idaho and now Milwaukee. Our numbers have thinned somewhat but we have some new attendees so the line continues. We sit around tables, sharing a few beers (those of us who still do consume alcohol), swapping stories and munching on salty snacks (probably not good for our aging internal systems either). No one speaks openly of the bonds of brotherhood but it is tacitly understood.
On this gathering in Milwaukee we were guests at the weekly Friday graduation ceremony at the Recruit Training Center, Great Lakes, Illinois. It had been over 50 years since I had gone through a similar ceremony and it was truly a moving experience to see those recruits sternly and steadfastly going through these highly scripted traditional maneuvers and drills. There is a certain satisfaction in seeing these young men and woman so intense and aware of the fact that they are entering a new phase in their lives and a continuation of their maturation process. On this day approximately 800 graduates went through the stylized routines for over two hours before they were finally released to receive the congratulations of the assembled families and friends.
One of the many changes we observed was that the assembled recruits were much more reflective of the totality of America. Each of the five divisions—in my day we were called ‘companies’—were made up of male, female, white, black and latino. The diversity represented by these young men and women was much more a cross section of these United States than the almost exclusively white faces seen in 1959. The Petty Officer Third Class (E-4 to you non-Navy readers) assigned as our tour guide was a young African-American from Providence, RI. He was courteous and knowledgeable and helped this bunch of antiques have some small introduction to the complexities of today’s Navy. I was very much impressed by the intelligence, attitude and demeanor of each and every one of the young men and women that we met. They were unfailingly courteous and listened with apparent interest to this bunch of dinosaurs that came briefly into their world.
On Saturday evening we held our formal banquet. The keynote speaker was CDR Maria Magno, the commanding officer of the Milwaukee Naval Reserve Center. She is a Surface Warfare qualified officer responsible for the in-depth support of the regular Navy and tasked with providing, at a moment’s notice, highly trained and qualified supplemental personnel to enhance naval operations throughout the world. The role of the Naval Reserve has changed significantly since 9/11. Our regular Navy forces are stretched thin all over the world. Current reserve units of every branch of service are frequently called upon to make extended active duty deployments and they drill like that may occur at any time.
At the close of the banquet that Saturday evening we promised to gather again in two years. We will then assemble in Charleston, SC. We will once again gather on the last full weekend of September in 2013 and if able I will once more sit down with the men—and women—who served aboard a World War II built destroyer that proudly served this country for almost 35 years. We may not ever say it but these are my brothers and sisters and we are proud to have played a small role in the winning of the Cold War. After witnessing that graduation at Great Lakes I can rest assured that the chain is unbroken—that we continue to have the best Navy in the world, with the best and brightest that our country has to offer defending our nation in an unbroken line that goes back to 1775.