Slogging Through Officer Candidate School
We take up with our blogger after he arrived at OCS and pick up as he tries to make take his existential bearings in the brave new world of the U.S. Navy.
Getting over the initial shock of being at OCS was the first thing to do if one was to survive the whole thing. There are many times when I asked myself why I stayed for there were certainly moments when I questioned why I was putting myself through what this entailed. First you're yelled at for reasons that have no connection to any logical process you heretofore acknowledged or could on your own divine, you were regimented and in close quarters with a large group of people you didn't know, your hair was shorn, you now all wore the same clothes, you were ALL expected to participate in MANDATORY fun days on Saturday mornings, you stood fire watch, quarterdeck watch, and whatever other watches at all hours of the day, you went on "liberty" in your uniform so there was clearly no mistaking where you were from, and you were expected to eat your meals as if someone was going to steal the food on your plate if you weren't quick about it (this last point was really only true for the first week, after which we were fully considered "officer candidates" and allowed to eat our vittles at a reasonable pace.) There was little about this environment and what was going on it to invite rejoicing or anything but one's questioning of their fundamental sanity, and surely I was asking a lot of questions. The best answer I could come up with was that I would have been embarrassed to have bailed out, in addition at this point I set myself on a course of some sort and no reasonable alternative loomed on the horizon to take its place. I would muscle my way through this as best I could, survive my four years and go on from there.
Within the first week or our indoctrination we were brought to an assembly with the commanding officer of the training command that we were all now a part of. His name was Captain Pepperidge, and why, for the life of me, his name sticks with me after all of these years is a total mystery to me. Anyway, he gave us a general rundown of what life was about for us there at OCS, in case any of us at that point hadn't already figured it out, and then he went on to give us an interesting statistic. I'm not sure I'm totally getting this right for at this point memory is reaching back some 25 years and personal experience has flavored the whole thing, but essentially he ran down what would beconsidered the attrition rate for those in the audience in front of him. Essentially a very small percent of us would be invited to leave before our four years were up, about 50% of us would leave at the point of our contract expirations in four years, 25% of us would be gone by the 10 year point, at somewhere between 5 and 10% of us would actually get so far as to retire. By the time I was hearing this I was solidly a first 50 percenter in my mind, there was just no way I was going to stay with this past what I had signed up for.
Promotion and attrition in the Navy is a complicated and to some degree mysterious process (this in most respects applies to all of the services but how it's handled differs - for instance the Navy doesn't provide an option for officers to become enlisted men/women if there's what's called a reduction of force, or RIF, whereas at least in the past the other services did). The reasons for the attritions alluded to by Capt Pepperidge were not fixed. Some, in fact most, would be due to the person concerned deciding that they had something else they'd rather do or they had enough of what they were doing regardless of whatever else they might othewrwise do. Few would actually be directly asked to leave, though those in after ten years would find themselves in the tenuous position of having to make it up through the system, i.e. you had to be promoted with your peers if you'd expect to make it to 20 years for if you weren't promoted you were essentially informed you no longer had a viable career and you were let go before the government took on a lifelong retirement payment obligation. For the group of people the good Captain was speaking to at the time the end of the Cold War still loomed some 8 years into the future, and the subsequent force attrition and the diminution of the jobs that made one "promotable" all would put extra strain on people trying to stay in the service and who were finding fewer and fewer avenues by which to travel to facilitate that happening. In October of 1980 there was no reason to think that the system wouldn't be very amenable to us as Under Jimmy Carter, who was still president, there had been a major increase in defense spending, and under Ronald Reagan, who was elected president that November, there was to be a continuance of that spending in addition to a generous increase in salaries for all of this in uniform, which we all cheered in January of the coming year when a sizable increase in our base pay was enacted.
Added to everything else that was being thrown at us we also found ourselves in the middle of a whirlwind of instruction. What Naval Academy graduates had to absorb in four years we were having shoveled into us in 12 weeks and this, needless to say, wasn't fun. The courses themselves were not that rigorous, but they mostly dealt with information and ways of handling it that were totally foreign to us. There was also a huge focus on memorization, you had to jam as much as you could into your head in the time you had it, regurgitate it for the test, and then go on from there. How much you actually recalled from all of this wasn't clear, though my guess and personal experience is that it wasn't much, and to some degree that was beside the point. Indeed, you were expected to learn something, and moreover you were expected to be able to put to use some of what you were learning, but what mattered more than anything else was that you passed the tests, that you got through the course in the end with a passing grade.
Grades were one of the three things that could get you canned from OCS. The other two were: 1. You were a troublemaker who didn't belong, and true to form every class had a few of those, not all of whom were caught - those not caught tended, on the whole, to be the more interesting of us. 2. Military bearing - if you couldn't act the part, with the right creases, the right shine of your shoes, the proper salutes rendered at the proper moments, or you constantly were failing your room inspections, then your military bearing was seriously in question. The grade you got for military bearing, which was by and large a subjective one (no one in those days was much concerned with justifying grades with some sort of rubric), was factored into your overall academic performance and the military bearing grade actually carried the greater weight of the two. If collectively you weren't cutting the grade you were either told to re-do the OCS experience (these folks were lovingly referred to as "re-treads"), or if you were considered hopeless you were asked to leave.
While it would have been hard to believe when all of this started, it wasn't long before the days blended one into the other, and we made our way slowly but steadily, like a good Navy ship, through the cold, cold Newport winter. The wind blew briskly from the nearby Atlantic Ocean, and this in turn induced a quicker stride as we made our way from building to building for our classes. We got into a routine which dealt with the quotidian challenges and indeed, we even became more of a team, doing what we could to help our compatriots along who were having a hard time of it and pulling together when a team effort was appropriate to handle whatever was thrown at us on a given day or week. We honed our skills at "uniformology", or whatever one would call it, as we were required to fill our sea bags with ALL of the uniforms a Naval Officer would be expected to have at his or her disposable whenever they may conceivably be required. We learned to steer clear of most of what the Navy Exchange system had to offer in this regard as the quality tended to be inferior to what one would find in town at places like "Max Oberhard", otherwise referred to as Max Overcharge, and Viking, both shops catering to the needs and vanities of the average officer candidate coming out from Newport who wanted a good quality pair of pants, shirt, hat (i.e. "cover"), or whatever, and who was willing to spend their money to get it.
Your overall grade and class standing played into your follow-on orders from OCS. The idea was that the higher in the order you were the more choices you would have with regard to duty stations. With regard to duty stations you had two essential considerations to keep in mind: 1. What sort of command did you want to go to? and 2. what part of the country did you want to go to? I was going into the surface line community, i.e. I was going to go to sea on surface ships. Within the surface community you wanted to go to sea in a frigate, destroyer, or cruiser, with the idea being that you'd get lots of sea time, lots of experience, and you'd be in running with the "warriors". You wanted to avoid any ship that was the size of an aircraft carrier or indeed an aircraft carrier itself inasmuch as a carrier was an aviator command, surface line types were not premier and they often were at a disadvantage for various types of experiences and training. A large ship in general gave you the disadvantage of being lost in the crowd, though there were some who were essentially looking for that. My standing amongst my peers was essentially in the middle of the pack, which essentially put the "optimal" surface line choices out of reach and leaving me with location as my prime consideration. I wanted to get off the east coast so pretty much anything in San Diego was in my line of sight. I got to the board with the duty station options posted on it and found a slot on the U.S.S. Tripoli, stationed in San Diego, though with some distinct disadvantages to her. First she was an amphibious ship, i.e. one who's prime mission was to carry and deliver Marines. Second, she was primarily configured as an aviation platform, though flying helicopters vice planes. On the whole the Tripoli was less than what I would have considered to be an ideal choice.
On the whole getting through OCS was a drudge, though I can't say that there weren't moments when I'd experience an epiphany resulting in an "Ahhhhhh, now I get it", or that there wasn't much to be learned from the emphasis on teamwork and working with a divergent group of people. Interestingly enough you soon learned, once you made it out into the fleet, that a lot of what was made out to be "important" at OCS wasn't anywhere near important in the fleet, an experience that I suppose anyone who has gone through boot camp would be able to related
to. On the whole, though, at the time I hated the experience for ways that were more often visceral than ones I could quite pinpoint, though in retrospect there was always a part of me that didn't feel that I fit in, that somehow I could do what was needed to get through yet at the same time feel that I really wasn't a part of this whole thing.
Whatever, by February of 1981 I had finished the training, was commissioned an Ensign, and I had three weeks before I had to leave for Long Beach, California. I had one more school to attend, which would be in San Diego, before heading to the Tripoli, but the school wouldn't start for three months. In the meantime I would be temporarily "stashed" on board a cruiser going through an overhaul in Long Beach. My Navy life was finally off and running.
Note: Interestingly enough I was reading the local Providence newspaper this morning and learned that the Navy plans to move Officer Candidate School from Pensacola, Florida where it now is, back to Newport, RI. That would explain the construction now ongoing in the vicinity of the old OCS facilities. This is apparently a move in the direction of making Newport, where the Navy's War College is located, the intellectual center for the Navy.