Three Petty Officers of the United States Navy

October in Georgia and the leaves know it and turn yellow. They pile in bored rows along the curb waiting for the wind, the streetsweeper, anyone. I crunch through a pile down the path to work. It is my last day as an enlisted Sailor. I am a Petty Officer Second Class and I’m shorn like a lamb. Officer Candidate School will surely bring yelling and I don’t want my hair to be the cause.

Three people must sign my check-out sheet before I can load up my car. One Soldier, a Chief, and then my Leading Petty Officer, my LPO.

I sit down next to the Soldier. He is 24 and can’t find any part on his body with both hands. Or one hand. He has no leadership ability, but I don’t say anything and nod as he talks to me.

I give this speech to all the guys who head off to OCS after being enlisted.

I want to choke him out and just tell him to sign my sheet. But I don’t. He outranks me and I listen. One intention in getting my commission is to avoid being lead by clowns of his caliber.

I don’t remind him of the time he tried to call me back into work after I had gone home. But he had dialed the wrong person with my same last name. He settled on writing me up for an Article 92 violation. Failure to follow a direct order. I refused to sign it, telling him I wanted to speak to my Chief. He backed down.

He is wet behind the ears and his failure is that he does not know he is green. Nor that I ran an extra twenty miles a week to work off his crap.

Finally, he initials my check-out sheet and I plod up the stairs to my Chief. She is new to her rank. And she too wants to give me a speech. Hers I will listen sincerely to, without clenching my jaw.

Remember where you came from, Petty Officer NavyOne, she said.

You bet, Chief.

She passes me my Evaluation (known as an Eval.) My scores are the highest they have ever been. Apparently, getting selected for OCS is good for my career.

And don’t forget who runs the Navy, Petty Officer.

I nod. I know, Chief. Chiefs run the Navy.

You will do great at OCS. She stands, shakes my hand and I leave. Into another room, I duck. My LPO has a big mug of coffee in his hand.

You talk to Chief yet?

Yes, CTR1. (CTR is his job in the signals field. The 1 is for Petty Officer First Class.)

Don’t forget who runs this here place.

Yeah, Chief already ran me through it. Chiefs run the Navy.

He snorts into his coffee and stares at me incredulously. Hell no. Chiefs don’t run the Navy. The First Classes run the Navy. Chiefs sit on their asses and eat donuts.

I laugh, he signs my sheet, and I am off. Through the door, away from work, outside, over the leaves, to the barracks. Maybe I sleep before hitting the road to Pensacola. Maybe not. But OCS comes and goes. I am stronger and smarter and then I roll through three ranks, Ensign, JG, and then Lieutenant. And suddenly, I have a whole handful of First Classes working for me.

Two in particular shine. One is rough around the edges. A pirate. Lives on coffee and cigarettes. He has been through one of the rougher deployments in the last 15 years of our Navy’s history. I can’t say much else on that.

But behind his lack of polish, is a professional. He spends his off-time, when we are not flying, studying his target, learning old gear again. For months, he is stand-offish with me. He is also friends with my old LPO. One day we are airborne and he laughs his smoker’s rasp.

You know what sir, I think we are going to get along.

I too laugh. And he is no longer stand-offish.

The other First Class is the opposite. He is polished. Confident. Lazy. He strolls into a video-teleconference (VTC) twenty minutes late one morning. And we are almost ready to go on camera, back with our home unit. I am usually even, calm. Most times. But that day, I growl at him. The Chiefs around me smile. He apologizes and it is over before it even began.

Another night, we are waiting in our crew van for our meal box before we fly a night mission. It is just him and me. And he raises the topic of his recent Eval. It is good, high even. He wonders how to get higher.

Petty Officer, you are lazy and feel entitled. You have the talents to be the top guy here easily. But everything is always about you, I tell him

He agrees with me. Sir, I am just surprised I am ranked so high. Really tells you about these other guys, huh? 

Maybe. I switch the conversation.

I leave that theater and go to my new command. During the next Chief’s cycle, both the Petty Officers make Chief.

Who would you rather have working for you, the cigarette-eating Chief with jagged edges or the entitled, talented glory hound? The latter could be one of the top Chiefs at any command he goes to. And the former will have his bosses wondering what hole he crawled out of until they see him work. And then they will search for the same hole to get more of him.

Presentation versus competence. It is slippery slope. When deployed, we truly need the competent, rough one.

But at a shore station, guys like that have to brief seniors and be more staff-like. The other Chief might shine there. Still, I can’t stand entitlement, so maybe I want our coffee-veined Chief, the Sailor’s Sailor, at my shore station too.