I open the air tight door with a grunt. Three handles, one loose, one okay, and one a pain in the ass to move into the open position. When the door opens, I step into the small fan room with a bucket in tools in hand. The fan system and the walls are painted white while the floor is painted red, not fire engine red but more of a clay, earthy red. There are paint chips on the floor; some idiot during cleaners hasn’t been cleaning. It’s eerily silent; the fan itself has been tagged out by me for maintenance. In about five minutes’ time, one of my co-workers will be complaining about the heat. It’s one of the reasons I work quickly; not because of my fellow sailors gripping but because there’s usually someone further above them that’s more important who more often than not seems to think that this maintenance is an inconvenience. They also seem to forget the safety measures and paperwork require just to look at one fan, which for me can be an all-day evolution in itself. I pop open one of the small access hoods and glance inside. I frown at the same results I found three months ago; the entire filer assembly rusted and showing signs of corrosion. The unit runs on a chilled water system to keep the fan cool and the condensation inside is adding to the buildup. According to the maintenance requirement card, or MRC, I need to hook up a hose to a high pressure system and flush the entire thing out. Unfortunately the nearest high pressure system is two levels above, would need to go through several air tight doors, and there would be no place to send the debris. It should’ve been cleared out in the yards but my predecessor let it be. So, I clean what I can and submit another job request in the Current Ship’s Maintenance Plan or CSMP to be completed during the next planned availability. I count the number of job requests on the CSMP: for my work center alone I have two and a half pages worth. For the entire division there are six. It is 2014; some jobs have been on the CSMP for seven years, uncompleted and untouched, ignored by high authorities in the yards back in 2012.
August 2017: I am returning to my car at Ala Moana after filing my car registration when I get a text message from a friend I served with at a shore command in Okinawa. A supervisor we had both served with was listed among the missing from the USS John McCain after it struck a tanker: ET1 Charles Findley. At that time there was still hope that maybe, just maybe he and the other nine sailors were still alive. But having been at sea and knowing that by then if he hadn’t been found… I knew if I heard his name on TV or reporters talking with his family or his wife, I would break down. Then came the news we had been dreading: all ten sailors had been found dead in the flooded compartments. I learned that is was possible to be shocked and unsurprised at the same time. Back-to-back deployments, undermanned, untrained crew, lax standards, and low morale: any one of these could doom a US Navy war ship. The McCain and Fitzgerald (another ship involved in a similar collision earlier this year) had all of these. Findley and I weren’t close friends but he was still one of my supervisors and we stood watch together. He was lazy, always trying to bullshit his way out of responsibilities he didn’t want to handle; not First Class Petty Officer material to be sure. But when one actually cornered him, he did know his way around the 3M Maintenance System and administrative procedures. His paperwork was always in check and he made sure everyone else’s was. He was married and he and his wife were planning on having kids. He was born in Missouri. He drank Red Bull like it was going out of style and I have to throw things at him to pay his portion of the Soda Mess debt in the watch room. I remembered his excitement when he got the orders to stay in Japan. He drowned in a dark, flooded compartment.
2013: On a weekend duty day, my fellow second class petty officer asked me to check the safety sleeves we use for working aloft. I sit in the far end of the Radar Room so I can avoid a trouble making Third Class while still hearing the shipboard loudspeaker, the 1MC, in case of a drill. We have dozens of safety sleeves (we call them Ballbusters because they attach to the harness at the mid-waist but they’re heavy and even for females they can hurt) but most of them are incompatible with our ladders. They fit on the rails but do not detach at the landings on the masts, so they’re great if someone is going all the way to the top of the ship and they climb all the way off the ladder but useless if one needs to get off at the lower yardarm where most of the gear is at. There are dozens of jobs put in the replace the rails on the ladders but they’re part of the jobs that have been on the books for years. Excuses range from lack of funding, to not enough man power, to not enough time, to even “we forgot”. Instead we are forced to use the defective safety sleeves which have been shown to not engage its safety features if someone were to fall. The ship has a safety waiver in place to still use the defective sleeves but only if a yellow Y-lanyard attachment is used. The Y-lanyard has two large hooks that can fit to a ladder or railing for extra protection. They are designed to give six feet of leeway should someone fall to reduce snapback. As for the defective sleeves there are eight for a crew that can range between 3000 to 5000 sailors. Or at least that was before one sleeve failed to pass the check. In accordance with the MRC, I render the sleeve unusable. Seven defective sleeves for a crew of 3000.
September 2017: While on Reservist orders to support a training mission, I get dragged into a safety stand down briefing as a result of not just the number of ships in the Pacific Fleet involved in collisions so far that year, but of the numerous accidents plaguing all branches of the military. Safety stand downs are pointless: they’re just a show to calm down the members of Congress. Pause and reflection, like thoughts and prayers do nothing but provide comfort; action is what’s needed. The conference room is made up of mostly officers O1-O6s. I am one of handful of enlisted personnel. The video plays from YouTube; it’s not a perfect video and the subtitles are atrocious. The officers began laughing. To them this is just another duty weekend but a lot of these guys work for SPAWAR, a government entity that provides equipment and maintenance specifications for the military, but mostly the Navy. They are part of the pool that denies or approves the job requests across the fleet. I sit there, my anger being tested; if I were to let it lose I wouldn’t have my XO there to soften the blow.
2013: My main work center is finishing up the install of a new radar system. Newish, I suppose: it’s a downgrade to a more reliable system, which as it turns out according to the contractor can be less than what the manufacture claims. Lockheed-Martin, the manufacturer, charged almost double for what the system is worth and required that every five years a patch be installed that would cost anywhere from $1-5 million dollars. And it would only provide half of the specifications the military asked for. Any sane person would turn them down. But with government contracts the military has no choice. In sort, Lockheed-Martin takes advantage of both the US military and the taxpayer. And this is just one system. How many other systems and military gear is the government being cheated out of? How much of the budget would be saved if the Department of Defense got what it wanted without being swindled?
August 2017: During duty weekend, the unit is mustered to meet with the CO in the conference room. Two wayward second classes are missing something I know I will have to deal with later. The CO comes in with a look that immediately grabs my attention; it’s a somber look usually reserved when presenting bad news. It had only being a few days since North Korea launched another missile so there was already tension in the room. There’s no other way to put this, he said, but with the way things are in the Far East, there is a significant chance we will all be mobilized in the next twelve months. “Mobilized” is the Navy Reserve term for deployment. About an hour later, I over hear a First Class telling one of our missing second classes that the courtesy for mobilization preparation is 180 days. If it were to be anything like how it was with 9/11 or the 2003 surge, we would be lucky to have 30 days. A few days later North Korea would threaten Guam. A few weeks later, the USS John McCain collides off the coast of Singapore.
Several high ranking officers in the 7th Fleet as well as the chain of the command and sailors on watch during both collisions of the Fitzgerald and John McCain have either been relieved of duty or disciplined. While to some this is encouraging, I feel that the true perpetrators are getting away with just a slap on the wrist. The Admirals and the Captains, the O6s and above, do not interact with the sailors working on a day to day to keep their ships operational. They’ll get a glance over at best but it’s not their job to know everything that goes on; that falls to the divisional officers and chief, the E7 and above, to alert the higher command of any issues that impact the mission. Instead the minor issues and problem are being swept under the deck plates and are completely ignored until something happens. A minor thing like rust in filter can easily be ignored but when the filter assembly falls apart then it becomes an issues, an issue that could’ve been prevented. Adding to these woes is a President who has no regard for what he says or tweets and would rather antagonize than negotiate.
In an effort to reduce cost, in the early 2010’s, the Navy launched a process called “Perform to Serve” or PTS. It was a program meant to limit the number of sailors in the fleet so that the Navy could be more efficient. This in combined with High Year Tenure limitations for certain paygrades, changing Physical Test standards, and medical review boards stripped down the number of service members in the fleet. The program has since been renamed to C-Way or Career Waypoints, but it eliminated far too many sailors. It became so bad, that huge incentives were granted to those who be willing to take “back-to-back” sea duty orders. For what I’ve heard from my friends’ still active duty, detailers are practically begging them to take sea orders. Focus has been turned to the 7th Fleet, mostly Japan but there aren’t enough ship with enough sailors. Two air craft carriers are unprecedented and three is begging for a fight. But in the end, it’s only a PR opt.
Adding to the woes, are the greediness of the shipyards. The USS Ronald Reagan was delayed by three months after contractors found “significant problems” with the rudder. The USS Nimitz came out of the ship yards and returned a year later when defects were discovered. The USS Gerald Ford was on the books for years, severally delayed and over budgeted before it finally went to service earlier this year.
Worse of all, sailors are being asked to do more with less, with so called budget constraints, more deployments, longer shifts, faulty gear that has job request put in for years, and instead of learning their gear, they sit in front of a computer, simply pushing buttons. It can be month between Basic Training and when they first get to the fleet, with school being backed logged and the hopeless feeling of being stuck in limbo. It might be the very reason they arrive to their ships, questioning every command and suffering from lack of discipline. The low morale on top of everything else puts a strain on their mental health. And when training exercise teams arrive to assess the command, a border line test result is treated as a reason to celebrate when it should be a cause for concern.
Despite the fact that USS John McCain suffered severe damage and underwent about two months of repair, it still went out on patrol in the 7th Fleet even though it still needs overhaul and repairs, which will begin when it returns to Naval Base Yokosuka, Japan sometime within the coming weeks. While to some, the fact a ship that had such a casualty was able to get fully underway could be consider remarkable, I consider this a complete disregard for the safety of the ship and the crew to be so reckless. That or the US Navy is stretched too thin that even ships with significant problems are being sent underway. Either the Navy is fully aware of this deficiency and has chosen to ignore it or they are blissfully unaware of the dangers that are rapidly compiling on top of one another to create an even more hazardous and dangerous work environment.
Instead of holding stand down after stand down, which aren’t working, the Navy, as well as the other branches, needs to be asking “What are we doing wrong?” Stop being nice and have people pick their orders: tell sailors they are going to point A, B, or C. No negotiations; just get them where they need to be but make sure it matches the job they are trained for. Begin pulling from the Reserves; that’s what they’re there for. Start taking care of the jobs that have been on the books for years. If it’s been there since before the ship last overhaul, that should be a priority. Start holding the divisional officers and chiefs who are seeing this problems with their gear and their sailors responsible. Raise the standards for evolutions. Don’t punish a ship but if it’s not ready for combat, then don’t sent it into potential combat areas. Go through the contracts with these companies that are overcharging not just the military but the American people. Get Congress involved if it has to come to that. If these problems had been identified before the USS John S McCain had collided or any other ship on incident that resulted in a casualty, my supervisor and his shipmates might be still alive, and their families wouldn’t have to face this holiday season without them.
We are not ready for war. We’re barely even functioning. Our leadership is in doubt, our gear is barely holding itself together, and our military is overworked and undermanned. Should the worst occur, we will not be heading to war; we will be heading to slaughter. The military war machine is broken and my friend is dead because of it.