On Elite Forces

RDML Paul Bushong has taken charge of Group 2 in Groton. This is a nice article, full of the standard “We’re going to get back to basics” talk. You know, the type of talk that every new leader throws around until they come face-to-face with the administrative juggernaut that it submarining in the 21st Century. Not saying his heart isn’t in the right place, just saying I’ve seen it many times and it’s the rare moment when common sense and the big flick take precedence over administrivia….

But one good quote from the interview is this,

He also hopes to increase the level of enthusiasm for serving on submarines. Events like the Hartford collision and alcohol incidents involving sailors, despite alcohol education efforts by the Navy, have impacted morale, he said.

”Sometimes I think it beats us down and we lose sight, not that all of that isn’t extremely important, but we lose sight of the true joy of the job,” Bushong said.

Everyone serving on a submarine, he said, contributes to the nation’s security.

”They all do tremendously difficult jobs under very challenging conditions and they should be proud of that and enthusiastic about it,” he said.

I’ve often wondered this about submarines, and submariners: Why do we (in general) hate our jobs? I mean, I realize there are a lot of things about it that are less than desirable. Family separation, mindless paperwork, what have you… but why is it that somewhere along the way we seem to forget that we volunteered for submarine service. We asked to be screened and hoped we would get through. We fight our way through rigorous schools with high attrition rates so that we can finally get to a ship and say…

This sucks and I can’t wait to get out.

Case in point, The Cyborg Life, a good blog by a Sub JO. Smart guy, pretty witty, but most of his items regarding submarine life are pretty full of hate and discontent. Sadly, it’s fairly typical. I’m not hating him for it. I just wish I knew why. I saw the same thing on my last boat. No matter what we did, there were some guys that just hated everything about it.

But ours isn’t the only job that has hardships (Army Infantry, SEALs, etc). So why do we act like we’ve got it the worst in the fleet? Why do we forget that we are the select few that are trusted beneath the waves? Why do we allow ourselves to forget that submarining is hard. Not everyone can do it.

Not everyone *should* do it.

But it’s that “hard” is that makes it a worthwhile endeavour. The hard makes it great.(apologies to Tom Hanks).

Yes, training sucks. Yes, drills are a pain sometimes. But these things are necessary in order to make sure we’re ready to go when the time comes. Because that’s our job. Go where others won’t, see what others can’t. And be able to do it whenever we’re needed.

To be ready to do that takes training and time. And lots of both.

Oh, and a dash of sacrifice.

That’s why it’s hard. That’s why we volunteer. That’s why we are screened and selected. That’s why you earn your fish or you’re gone. That’s why we’re the best at what we do.

That’s why we’re elite.

I just wish we would act like it more often.

This entry was posted in Navy, Submarines and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to On Elite Forces

  1. Niall says:

    I have zero experience of life on a submarine, but let me just offer two observations.

    The new RDML’s exhortation that all his submariners need to be *happy*, not just efficient and effective, is typical new CEO bullshit that you hear all the time in the private sector. Employees hear this and just roll their eyes. “Don’t tell me how to feel,” is what everyone’s thinking when they hear that nonsense. “Just be glad I do a good job.”

    Also, I work in software development. Where at least the best people are coddled beyond belief and paid very, very well. They are given every accommodation to their family lives, personal schedules, etc. They can set their own schedule, work from home when they need to, etc. etc. Stuff that would probably seem like absolute heaven to people in the military. Or people who work at McDonald’s for that matter.

    Guess what? All these guys do is bitch and moan about how unhappy they are.

    It seems it’s human nature to hate work. No matter what your work conditions may be. I got over that by taking two years off from working. It made me very, very happy to get back to work.

    • Ted Peck says:

      Niall, you nailed it. “There is no temptation that is not common to man.” Sub sailors are extraordinarily skilled at bitching, however. The truth is, you can get a great deal of mileage out of looking for and remembering the things to be thankful for. When I got to my boat’s squadron, there awaiting me was a JO that had been kicked off his boat, on his way to something else. When my class graduated from nuke school, a good friend walked the other way, having just got the news he failed ARPO and the school. Even those JOs that make it through their first tour but weren’t so hot…yeah, they got the word.

      • Niall says:

        It’s really common in the software business for the “best and brightest” to walk if they’re contradicted or proven wrong. They are divas deluxe. I think some of these guys might be improved by a tour on a submarine…

  2. fastnav says:

    There’s truth in the “A Bitching sailor is a happy sailor” and I’m ok with that.

    I just wish there was a more overt demonstration of pride in what we are able/asked to do.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I also think that we tend to fall into a bit of an insular environment. It’s been my experience that the guys will complain to other sub guys, but if you get them into a situation where they are not surrounded by other submariners, then they tend to puff out their chests a little and show a bit more pride in what they do.

    It’s true that “familiarity breeds contempt,” but we need make sure we don’t fall in to the same trap as the guys that complain. We shouldn’t assume that they never show bubblehead pride just because we never see it. We are likely to not be there in the situations when it is most visible.

  4. STSCM says:

    A long time ago in a place far away, Subic Bay, 1973, there was no one who bitched about the Navy or their boat like I did (USS Guitarro, SSN665). One night at the club, 20 sheets to the wind with my complaining compatriots, decided to TMA my way to the bar to rack up sheet number 21. While on the port leg found two airdale shorepatrol pukes deciding that it was time to help me. A long night followed. During the XO’s mast that followed the XO asked what I thought I was doing and I told him that it was airdales that grabbed me and I would never allow that! He kicked me out of his stateroom.
    Bottom line, there probably wasn’t a Chief or greater on that boat that wouldn’t volunteer to kick me in the rear with my big mouth complaining all the time, but no one messes with a dolphin guy. That’s what we’re seeing here. (My two cents.)

  5. virgil xenophon says:

    I’m taking a WAG here as an ex-zoomie, but I’m old enough to remember the old SAC (although I was a TAC fighter guy) and it seems to me that your service has a lot of parallels with SAC–whose guys bitched all the time too. Highly routinized, standardized regulated, inspected, etc., you name it, because of the nuclear mission, SAC was NOT a “fun” service. I’m thinkin’ the vibes are much the same in the boomer Navy.

  6. Jeff Lee says:

    Thanks for the hat tip. I completely agree that submarining is hard, and than not everyone should do it. I don’t believe that the screening process is half as selective as many believe it is, and a lot of people end up as submariners who, frankly, become terrible submariners. I’ll have to write a post about this later with more of my thoughts.

    • fastnav says:

      I look forward to your thoughts, Jeff.

      and i agree, it’s not half as selective as we’d like to think. After all, with the advent of laser surgery, I think alot of great guys are going to be pilots instead. So, to some extent, we’re forced to be selective out of what we have to choose from.

      But still, where is it that we’re failing in instilling the pride in what we do?

  7. Pingback: On not-so-elite forces | thecyborglife.com

  8. Jeff Lee says:

    As far as the pride goes, it seems to me that the guys who stay in are the ones who are able to take pride in the job. They don’t come off of a mission and say, “Well, that was pretty worthless”. To those guys, the hard work and relentless grind of submarining pays off. To the guys who think that operating subs is mostly a waste of time and tax dollars, it doesn’t.
    Honestly, I think the guys (and gals) in other communities don’t view their jobs with as critical an eye as we do because they’re having more fun in general. When things really suck, you start asking the hard questions. “Is this really worth our energy and effort? Is it all a sham?”

  9. xenocles says:

    I think Jeff has it, mostly. Even after a successful mission where you gathered some great intel, supported some SEALs, lobbed some TLAMs, or even just held the nuclear umbrella for a few weeks, you still have to come back and deal with the ORSE or TRE or just pay attention to the training and inane admin. It takes a very keen appreciation of the mission to put up with all that, otherwise the payoff is not nearly enough to compensate for the daily grind.

  10. BoiseBubba says:

    The lack of a solid threat that the submarine community can realistically engage has gutted our esprit de corps. Talk to the old timers about tracking the USSR, there is pride there. Talk to the old boomer guys about real deterrent patrols, they have pride too. Mostly I was on a boomer that tried really hard to act like a fast boat, and viewed Alert time as hurdle to training, rather than a mission of vital national importance. I can say with absolute certainty that that my longest serving CO took absolutely no pride in the Strat mission, which is probably the most significant thing that submarines do from a national security perspective. This lack of pride in mission is felt through the chain to the lowest guy, and if the mission is not respected or treated as if it is worth while, then all the associated paperwork, training, sleep deprivation, etc causes angst rather than being seen as a contribution to a mission that is important.
    This comes back to what other posters have said, the sacrifice must be worth the payoff. I honestly applied myself for my five years as a JO, had the “bigger jobs”, DCA and QAO, Commo on a boomer, qual’d fast and well, worked hard to know my boat and my crew. I served with great guys, and made a ton of good memories, but at the end of the day I was a cog in a machine that is looking for a purpose and an enemy they can fight (not talking about the random TLAM strike). I have a feeling that 20 years from now, submarines will again be an exciting/rewarding place as we rise to meet the Chinese threat. For now though, the community is in a trough, and the result is a force that doesn’t feel as if it is really doing much, and consequently has to make up inspections/certifications to keep itself busy.
    As for me, I hated that lack of esprit de corps enough that I packed it up and left. I have continued in public service doing natural resource management for a federal agency, and honestly couldn’t be happier, I work for reasonable people that have a clear mission in mind, see the results of their work, and are every bit as patriotic as the people I served with in the Navy. Plus they never rack me out for EOOW/EWS training in my oncoming time….

  11. virgil xenophon says:


    Let me bring you all back to the SAC analogy again. SAC didn’t fire a shot either in their “Peace Is Our Profession” deterrent mission, but then they had the height of the Cold as a back-drop, so BoiseBubba makes some very valid points. Probably the biggest thing that worked in SACs favor besides the Cold War motivation was the fact that it dominated the Air Force in a way that the Submarine branch does not the Navy.

    For many, many, years SAC Sr. officers went on to be Chief of Staff and even CG of TAC! The knowledge that they–officers and NCO’s alike–tended to dominate at all staff levels for planning, ops, etc., acted in those days in the back of the minds of SAC personnel in terms of feeling “relevant” in a way that perhaps is missing from your service….and did a lot to overcome the cynicism that came with the nature of the duty which was mainly a train, train, sit and wait type deal.

    I AM, however, very surprised from the comments here to find that the nuclear deterrent mission has been so de-emphasized.
    That’s really a shock to even an old ret. AF TAC guy where, in my day even in fighters, if you weren’t in Vietnam, fully 50% of our entire tng was devoted to the delivery of tactical nukes–to include sitting active alert at all bases in Europe 24/7. as well as train for conventional delivery and CAS for troops in the field. If the wind-down of the Cold War has affected you guys as badly as your comments here seem, no wonder my AF guys have started misplacing live nukes–the focus on the deterrent msn seems to have been totally lost across the board…..and that can’t be good.

  12. BoiseBubba says:


    I was shocked too at the de-emphasized role of deterrence in the life of a boomer. I was not the only one, my final (of three) CO’s had done a boomer tour previously and came onboard aghast at what the boomer mission had devolved too, the senior MT’s had a similar view of the current boomer force. My final CO worked hard to set the tone in the wardroom that Strat was what we did (and instill pride in it), but the other two I had did not. That being said, our pre-patrol certifications were thorough and difficult, but once the hatch was closed we really focused on other things, mostly engineering (understandable), and SSN missions (understandable if it doesn’t degrade Strat stuff).

    The misplaced AF Nucs are a whole new can of worms. I am convinced that you will not see that level of degrade in the submarine community because of the culture that surrounds nuclear power on submarines (and the differences in platforms). Sub officers are perfect for handling WMD’s since we live and breathe procedural compliance and formality in all of our operations, not just the strategic part. In a community where formality has varying degrees of application depending on the mission ( I assume this is true in the AF with conventional versus nuke weapons), then there is an ever present precipice that people can fall off of.

    I do want to make one distinction about my comments: I have not doubt about the ability of the SSBN fleet to execute its orders, if those orders were to come, then things would be on time and on target. However, my experiences indicate that we do not take the mission as seriously as we used to, this is not to say that SSBN safety standards have degraded, they have not. The mission just doesn’t hold the same esteem, and consequently we are focusing on many other things, most of which revolve around pretending to be fast attack submarines, and passing inspections whose focus is testing our abilities to be a really big SSN.

  13. Pingback: Leadership Lesson from Sub School | thecyborglife.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s