You’re Not Paid To Think, Ensign!

, , , , , | Working | August 7, 2020

This happened while I was active duty in the US Navy. The most senior military person in the Navy is the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), a four-star Admiral. At the time, I was an E-4, working in the engine room of the ship.

When senior officers or politicians visit a military facility of any sort, there is an all-hands event where the entire crew — except those standing watch — is required to attend a speech by the distinguished guest, after which the crew is often given the chance to ask questions. Enlisted personnel have very little to do with strategic decision-making or changes in policy, so there are often uncomfortable silences when military or civilian senior leaders ask if there are any questions. Commanding officers don’t like it when this happens, so three sailors are usually provided with planted questions. These questions are almost always relentlessly stupid and seemingly only intended to make the VIP feel good.

The CNO was visiting various ships on deployment — this particular ship was in the Mediterranean — and he was discussing plans to reduce the total number of warships in the Navy. After the speech, the “planted” questions were asked, and the CNO cheerfully answered them. Then, he asked if there were any more questions.

Despite being a junior enlisted sailor, I had actually read up on Navy doctrine, which still officially required the Navy to fight wars in two oceans simultaneously. Since the CNO had just spent an hour telling us we were going to reduce the number of warships and also reduce the total manpower in the Navy, I was curious how this planned policy would change the official two-ocean warfighting doctrine. I raised my hand and the CNO called on me.

“Sir, are we still expected to fight wars in two oceans at the same time with fewer ships and crews?”

The CNO gave me a deer-in-the-headlights expression for several seconds, before he said, “Um… well… there may have to be some changes in our expectations.”

He continued to blather for almost a minute without actually answering my question, and then he turned the podium over to our Commanding Officer, who dismissed us back to our normal duties. I was then hauled into the Chief Engineer’s office and yelled at for several minutes for making the CNO uncomfortable. Since I hadn’t been insubordinate or otherwise in violation of Navy regulations, my chain of command couldn’t legally punish me, but they did make certain I never had to attend any future assemblies where a valid question might make a VIP look dumb. 

That was fine by me; I had — and still have — a low tolerance for stupidity, and attending these all-hands events always seemed to be a colossal waste of everyone’s time.

The best part happened that afternoon. The CNO and his staff were touring the local Navy Exchange facility — which was very small, since it was not located at a major NATO facility — and happened to run into my wife while she was shopping. The CNO’s Chief of Staff, a senior Captain, made the mistake of asking the dependents who were present in the Exchange if they had any issues. My wife and another enlisted spouse proceeded to tell the Chief of Staff exactly what problems the dependents had to deal with due to the lack of Navy facilities available. For the best part of a half-hour, they kept bringing up problems and weren’t the least bit interested in being asked to calm down.

The next morning, I was again hauled into the Chief engineer’s office and yelled at because my wife had told the Chief of Staff the truth. I was told I should prevent my wife from speaking her mind, at which point I laughed aloud. I pointed out that my wife is not subject to military discipline, and I also noted that the Chief of Staff had asked her for input. Furthermore, I told my chain of command that every word she’d said was the plain truth, so the Navy could either fix the problems or stop asking questions if the brass didn’t like the possible answers. 

Some of the ship’s senior personnel steered well clear of my wife for the rest of the time I was stationed aboard that ship.

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