PORTLAND, Ore. — According to Ryan Jones, a Milwaukie native who has served in the Navy for just under two years, the U.S. Navy is "picky" when it comes to its recruits.
It has room to be.
The Navy says it has exceeded its goals for new enlistments every year of the last 15. And the military branch is clear about what it's seeking: recruits with a strong sense of science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM – skills.
On Thursday, the USS Spruance, a 510-foot-long destroyer, was the stage to deliver this message to an eclectic group of community members. The event, which was invite-only, catered to educators, business people, engineers and members of the Rose Festival court.
With the slow, six-hour cruise down the Columbia River as their backdrop, Navy sailors and officers were able to speak casually about the Navy with the ship's approximately 150 civilian guests.
Portland's Navy recruiting district, the Rose Festival and the Navy Operational Support Center invited the select guests, many of whom the Navy considers "centers of influence" – a term the Navy uses to describe people who interact with country's best middle school, high school and university students.
"We're looking for the best, brightest and most talented people," said Admiral Annie Andrews, who is in command of U.S. Navy recruiting. "A lot of the weaponry we have is highly technical."
That was clear by the weapons on board the USS Spruance. Sailors happily explained to the curious visitors what each weapon on the vessel was capable of. For example: the CIWS (a close-in weapon system), which Lt. Christopher Cass described as looking like Star Wars' R2D2. It can spray up to 4,600 bullets per minute.
The breeze was light and the sun hot as the Spruance made its way from the Port of Kalama to Portland to dock for Fleet Week. Educators and other guests, dining on an outdoor picnic-style hamburger lunch and maneuvering between the ship's flight and missile decks, got a close-up look at what sailors do.
"It takes engineers to run a build a boat like this," said Lori Lancaster, a chemistry teacher at Centennial High School, reflecting on what she'd be able to take from the trip and bring back to students.
Lancaster, who is also part of the Oregon Science Teachers Association, said through events like the ship ride she's learned about research opportunities that she plans to share with students who may have an oversimplified view of the Navy.
"Some people only think about one thing: war," Lancaster said, referring to the Navy. "They don't think about a career in science and engineering."
And that's what the Navy is trying to get people to think about, according to Chief Petty Officer Dustin Grover, who was on board Thursday and is a recruiter in Bend.
The Navy's focus is in high-tech fields, he said and added the aim of the ship ride, or other events like it, is to show how the Navy has progressed.
Grover said in the past, joining the military was seen as a "last resort" after school.
"Now, it's the opposite," he said.
Andrews said that the current quality of recruits is the highest the Navy has ever had. It took one year for Jones, who is a 26-year-old gunner's mate on the Spruance, to get the medical clearance required to join.
Grover said the Navy does not need to take "just anyone."
Family members of invited guests filled the ship's decks, too. They at least enjoyed a smooth ride into Portland, checking out the city's skyline from the water.
Among them was 15-year-old Nicole Philpott, one of a group of "Daughters of Neptune" who wore tiaras on board while representing the Columbia River Yachting Association. The teens distributed stickers saying, "Life jackets can save lives when you wear them."
Philpott's favorite part of her Spruance tour was learning the intricacies of the ship, such as how the destroyer's damage control team has less than 20 seconds to put on a heavy protective suit when responding to a fire or flood.
If Philpott's interest in joining the military was sparked, military recruiters were ready to seize the moment.
As guests exited the ship across a temporary walkway leading to the seawall at Portland Waterfront Park, information tables lined both sides of the path leading into the city.
-- Sara DiNatale
©2014 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)
Visit The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) at www.oregonian.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services