When I joined the Navy, I was an idealistic young man who joined for patriotism, and not college money. It was a time when so many were joining because they wanted the GI bill. Not me, I declined it. I wanted to serve.
The military and the way that it works taught me more about life, government, and country than I ever bargained for. You get used to hearing things like: “We don’t care about your family. If the Navy wanted you to have a family, they would have issued you one.”
One of the worst things that happened to me while I was in was an indirect result of the Navy’s beneficial suggestion program. This was a program where a sailor who saw waste, fraud, abuse, or a way that the Navy could save money, could make a report to the chain of command. If the Navy adopted your suggestion and saved money, the sailor making the suggestion would get a percentage of the savings.
In 1989, there was an explosion on the USS Iowa. In the case of the Iowa battleships, there was a flaw in the firing system. The silk making up the 50 pound bags that the gunpowder comes in were famous for leaving embers behind in the chamber of the 16 inch guns. Ramming them into the breech too quickly while those embers were still there was a recipe for explosions. They had been known to cause mishaps in those guns for decades.
However, those cannons were a huge PR point for the Navy, providing tons of photo ops and bragging rights for recruiting commercials. So when the Iowa had an explosion, instead of blaming a faulty process in a 50 year old weapons system and hurting their recruiting tool, they blamed a sailor who they alleged was a jilted gay lover.
The Tailhook scandal broke in 1991. It was such a huge deal that they made everyone in the Navy take sexual sensitivity training. Officers were exempt, which was ironic, since every person involved in the Tailhook scandal was an officer.
Back to the beneficial suggestion program. So the Navy had light fixtures that lit up the runways. These light fixtures were low voltage, with a transformer that stepped the power for that fixture from 120 volts down to 12 volts. The light fixtures would often fill with water, and this would short out the transformer, overheating it. The overheated transformer would then catch fire. I submitted a suggestion with a redesign of the circuit.
I was told that the command could authorize an award of up to $500, and my idea would get me more than that. It was so valuable that they were sending it to Atlantic Fleet command. A month later, I asked the Lieutenant what had happened to my idea, and he told me that LantFleet could only authorize an award of $5,000, and this was worth more than that. They were sending it to Navy Sea Systems, where my award could be as much as a million bucks. Wow!
A year later, we went into the shipyards for a 6 month long repair cycle. While we were in there, I helped the yard workers incorporate my changes into the ship’s runway lighting circuits. I asked why we were performing this change, and where my reward was. They said, “what reward? This was the lieutenant’s idea.” The lieutenant that I had brought my idea to wound up getting a sizeable reward from the beneficial suggestion program.
By the time I got out, I was often heard to say, “Oh, you don’t like my attitude? It’s the one I was issued.” I left the Navy wiser, more cynical, and less trusting of government than I was when I entered as the idealistic, patriotic believer that I was when I entered. I was still patriotic, but I had discovered that my government and the people who worked in it were not.