Big Country asks why people would join the Navy. He asks, I will explain. Back when I was in high school, I took the ASVAB. That sucker is widely considered to be the best vocational aptitude exam ever. I got one point short of a perfect score. The only section that I didn’t get a perfect score on was called “speed coding.” It was the section where you are given a decoder sheet of random letters, an encoded message, and are asked to decode it for time. I missed a perfect score by a single point. IIRC, a perfect score at the time was a 99, and I got a 98.
So as a result, the offers poured in. Now I was one of those guys who had known that I wanted to serve for as long as I can remember. I was young, naïve, and loved my country. With this being the Reagan years, and being a kid raising himself on a diet of Heinlein, Mack Bolan, and the like, I wanted to serve. But where?
- The Coast Guard wanted to send me to the academy and make me an officer. I would have owed them 8 years of service.
- The Army was going to make me a Warrant Officer and a helicopter pilot
- The Marines wanted to train me as an avionics repairman as an E3
- The Navy wanted to make me a Nuclear Power plant operator for 6 years, with a rank of E4
- The Air Force wouldn’t promise me anything in advance, sign up for 4 years and take your chances
As an 18 year old, I wasn’t ready for the 12 year commitment of the Coast Guard. The Air Force worried me, as I didn’t want to wind up as a wing washer or a cook. My father convinced me that the Navy would teach me skills as a power plant operator that I wouldn’t get in the Marines. He said that Avionics repair in the military was just swapping one black box for another. I took his word for it.
So it was between Army and Navy. The Navy recruiter’s pitch sounded sooo much better. What I didn’t know at the time was that the Navy was having difficulty filling the ranks with people who had done well on ASVAB because the Air Force was taking all of them. That’s why the AF didn’t have to make promises or offer big promotions.
So how did the Navy fix that? They promised all sorts of money, tech school, and promotions. Once you were in, they found every reason that they could to wash you out of the two year long training pipeline. The only program in the Navy with a higher washout rate is the SEAL program. That way, they can fill the ranks with smart people who otherwise would have been lost to other branches of the service. That’s why the washout rate is over 80%, even though the Navy claims its only around 10%. When I was in boot camp, one in five recruits were nukes, but the vast majority wouldn’t make it. This was before Top Gun made everyone think they were going to be a pilot and sleep with hot chicks while thumbing your nose at officers from the motorcycle you would ride down the runway.
I was washed out of Nuclear Power School and sent to the fleet. For what?
The school had a policy that you were assigned a study plan. The minimum GPA to remain in the program was 3.0. There were three levels to the plan: Voluntary, Suggested, and Mandatory. Being assigned suggested 16 meant that they suggested you study 16 hours per week. What we were learning was classified, so all studying had to be done in the classroom. Your notes had to stay in the classroom. Study hours were 2 hours a night Monday through Thursday and eight hours a day on Saturday and Sunday.
I had a GPA of 3.4 and was assigned mandatory 20. Another guy in my class was assigned voluntary hours, but his GPA was 3.2. When I asked about the disparity and pointed out its unfairness, I was told “That’s as good as I think he can do, but I think you can do better.”
Being a rather immature 18 years old, I wasn’t about to submit to this injustice and study 2 hours every weeknight plus six hours each on Saturday and Sunday, so I didn’t do it. Like I said, I was immature. Not only that, I don’t get a benefit from studying like that. I’m not that sort of learner. Not making excuses. It was immature and stupid on my part, but that is how washouts happen. They regularly catch people for various offenses and send them to the fleet. Someone has to mop floors, clean spaces, and serve officers their dinner as waiters in the officers’ mess.
So I went to NJP, was dropped from E4 to E3, got booted from Power School, and sent to the fleet, becoming what Navy people euphemistically call “Nuke Waste.” I was shocked when I arrived at my command, an aircraft carrier, and more than three quarters of the 200 non-nuclear electricians on board were nuclear waste. I still had a minimum of four years left on my enlistment. The guy who had been on voluntary hours? He got washed out the same week I did for drinking underage, also as an E3.
I spent nearly two years mopping floors, doing dishes, cleaning, and generally being untrained labor before finally being promoted back to E4. I spent the entire time wishing that I had taken the deal to be an Army helicopter pilot.
Does it come through that I am bitter? It should. I think that the six years I spent in the Navy was wasted time that I could have better spent elsewhere, although I know that college at the time would not have been a good idea for me. (Immature, remember? I would have found some other way to get in trouble.) Still, we make the best of where we find ourselves. I’ve done OK. I still discouraged my own kids from joining the military.