Force for good, under pressure
Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.
The United States Navy turned 238 years old today. It’s a bit daunting to realize that my nearly 23 years of service amounts to almost a tenth of the Navy’s existence. But what an exciting journey those years were.
I miss a lot from those days: the sounds of a halyard snapping against a flagpole on a windy day; the quiet creak of a ship straining against her mooring lines; the excitement of visiting new lands and experiencing new cultures. From the hustle of early morning cadence calls to the restful notes of evening colors, there is a sense of order, camaraderie and belonging in military life that exists nowhere else.
But before nostalgia grows too deep, other memories come to mind: having to report for duty at zero-dark thirty in the morning, eating box lunches of indeterminable age and origin, standing 12-hour watches, uprooting your home every three years and, worst of all, saying goodbye to loved ones far too often.
Yet, the good memories far outweigh the bad. News of novelist Tom Clancy’s death last week brought back a recollection of a mountain somewhere outside of Naples, Italy. The site, now closed, was an alternate headquarters for Allied Forces Southern Europe. Inside that old bunker, far underground, many a NATO war game was played.
For the crews involved, time could crawl painfully slow. I was first introduced to Jack Ryan during an exercise in May 1985, when a sailor pulled out his copy of “The Hunt for Red October.”
That my shipmate’s fellow crewmembers forced him to tear that paperback into several sections so we all could read it is not something I’m proud of, but Clancy has been a favorite ever since. The Baltimore insurance salesman (with a little help from President Reagan and his defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, of course) made America proud of her military once more, and those of us in uniform were grateful for that.
The Reagan and George H.W. Bush years were exciting times. Knowing that one played a role, no matter how small, in ending the Cold War will always be a source of pride. While we never reached Reagan’s goal of a 600-ship Navy, the ship and hardware buildups and increased morale during that time were necessary and needed.
The mission of the U.S. Navy is to deter aggression and maintain freedom of the seas. The sea service plays an invaluable role in keeping global sea lanes open and making world peace and economic prosperity possible. It is indeed a global force for good.
Today, that mission is significantly more difficult than it was in the 1980s and 1990s. Threats come from many different sources, even as budget cuts and force reductions have reduced the Navy to 285 ships.
Although some military strategists argue that because of the advanced capabilities of today’s ships, that number is quite adequate, others disagree. Many senior officials believe that the fleet needs to be larger. Missions can be more arduous, ship deployments are significantly longer and oftentimes commitments remain unmet.
The impact of sequestration has hobbled the Navy. It has created serious backlogs of necessary maintenance on ships and delayed much administrative work. Coupling those cuts with the Oct. 1 government shutdown could be devastating to the fleet’s readiness and response times. Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, says the Navy currently has only one carrier strike group and one amphibious ready group prepared to deploy.
With no sight in end, additional sequestration cuts in 2014 could prove devastating. With no relief, the Navy may have to cancel shipbuilding contracts and discontinue necessary ship maintenance. Greenert is concerned that paying personnel may become a problem.
And he’s not the only one. In a recent letter to the Senate, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has warned that reducing military personnel spending as well as civilian employee reductions may become necessary.
Recently, I received an email from a sailor — who asked to remain anonymous — aboard the USS Nimitz. The aircraft carrier left its homeport in Everett, Wash., in March. In August, the ship was headed home from a Mediterranean cruise when it got the call to turn around and sit off the coast of Syria. It has been there ever since.
The sailor noted: “We cancelled our tickets home, we had our families cancel their tickets to join us for a cruise. We are now out here with no end in sight and no one is telling us anything. The morale of our crew is devastated. We are a Navy that is continually worn down with long deployments and we continually suffer cuts and sequestration at the hands of our government. We know what we signed up for. We will stay and fight (with pride!), we are proud to serve our country; that’s not only our job, but our duty. But where is our leadership, and why don’t they have backup plans or reliefs?”
And the government shutdown has simply added to the hardships and created far more painful problems for our troops and their loved ones than anyone could have imagined.
As of Oct. 1, the families and beneficiaries of fallen service members will not be paid a death gratuity benefit or receive funeral and burial benefits. They will not be paid for travel to funeral services or bedside. This is beyond disgraceful.
This isn’t the happiest birthday the Navy has ever had, but as my young sailor friend says, our troops may be bone-weary tired, yet they remain strong and they continue to be proud to serve their country. We cannot let them down.
Let’s hope their country’s leadership can show just a little of that same resolve and end these budgetary impasses.
It is the very least they owe to the men and women serving our nation.
Robin Beres retired from the U.S. Navy as a chief petty officer in 2004 after 23 years of service. Contact her at (804) 649-6305 or email@example.com.