Sea story: Looking for an Engineer in all the wrong places

Sea story? Sure, it’s been a month. However, this one has morals about financial independence, early retirement, and knowing your true values. But it has a happy ending, too!

Now that my daughter has finished a year of NROTC, we’ve started some interesting conversations about work/life balance. Submariners aren’t very good at the “life” part of that ratio, let alone the “balance”. Looking back on my career, today I realize that I’d been campaigning for more “life” even during my first sea tour. Over the next decade it cost me several professional goals and at least one promotion, but I’ve never regretted it.

The 1980s Cold War was especially brutal on personnel– you were expected to be ready to go anywhere and do anything for as long as it took to complete the mission against the Evil Empire. Retention was awful and submarine warfare was hot, so short shore tours were common and even back-to-back sea-duty tours were not unheard of. You might have had some flexibility in duty preference, but if you managed to luck into a “cushy job” then the assignment officer would hold it against you for the rest of your career.

Back in 1986, I’d finished two years in my submarine’s Engineering Department with fascinating duties like “Chemistry and Radiological Controls Assistant”, “Damage Control Assistant”, and “Quality Assurance Officer”. They’d been incredibly complex (and paperwork-intensive) jobs with long hours and (very) short liberty. If any of your gear broke in any of those billets, your division was immediately highly visible at all levels of the command. Submariners are not exactly surprised to learn that their mean ol’ Executive Officer is a tough, heartless taskmaster. But if the young CRA clumsily spills some radioactive coolant or the inexperienced DCA accidentally breaks all the crew’s toilets at the same time, there’s absolutely no sympathy. The fatigue and the stress was unbelievable.  25 years later I still have occasional nightmares.

But back then I’d also finished four years of commissioned service and had just been promoted to full lieutenant (with a big honkin’ pay raise). In the previous year I’d qualified all my officer watchstations aboard my submarine and earned my gold dolphins. (Yes, I’m saving my “lucky” dolphins in case my daughter wants them. Heaven help her.) I’d topped that by finishing six weeks of hell 14-hour days of studying for the rigorous Naval Reactors engineer’s exam, and then I’d passed the five-hour essay exam plus the three oral interviews. I was now considered capable qualified to be an Engineer Officer on any U.S. Navy submarine’s nuclear reactor system. On the other hand my formerly gung-ho attitude had gunged beyond “burnout” to “crispy critter”.

Oh, and because life wasn’t busy enough, my wife and I had just married. As in “the ceremony was on Saturday, he deployed on Sunday, and we’ll honeymoon next year”. She was a Navy officer too, and we’d spent the last four years at duty stations separated by thousands of miles. (That particular month my submarine was in Scotland and her anti-submarine warfare command was in the Azores.) Our wedding logistics are a whole ‘nother sea story, but let’s just say that it was the most intense week of my life. Now I was back on the submarine, staring at that gold band on my finger, and wondering what marriage would be like when we actually started living together.

The future was bright. After my final deterrent patrol on my ballistic missile submarine, I had orders to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. I was the only submariner in the entire Navy that year to get those orders, and I’d fought the assignment officer tooth and nail to escape the traditional “black hole” of instructor duty at Nuclear Power School. I had threatened to resign from active duty. My wife and I had even gotten married to ensure that we’d be stationed together. The assignment officer kept grumbling about “needs of the Navy”. I felt that I’d earned the good deal.

After my master’s degree, I’d go back to sea as a department head with a 1-out-of-3 chance to be the Engineer Officer on any of over 100 submarines. Not only was it the “best” department head job, it was also the highest-paying one. Naval Reactors had convinced BUPERS that submarine Engs were worthy of a “spot promotion” to O-4, so I’d be getting gold oak leaves (plus another 25% pay raise) a good two years ahead of the selection board. It would be a brutal tour, but a few years later I’d be assured of a permanent promotion back to lieutenant commander and almost certainly selected for my own XO billet.

No time to daydream, though, because we had to get ready for sea. Since I’d qualified Engineer, I had to “step aside” from the Engineering Department to let other eager junior officers get their own beatings experience. As my reward, I had just become the ship’s Communicator and Radio Division Officer. I was handling stacks of highly classified material, but the job was nowhere near as intense or treacherous as Engineering. I was barely hanging on after the last few months, but I was at the highest rung of the junior-officer ladder– the top dog among seven JOs. Life was good!

A few days before we got underway, we heard that the Engineer Officer of another submarine had broken his leg. He’d fallen down a ladder, but the joke was that he’d thrown himself down it out of desperation to get off his boat. It was the oldest sub of our class and it was long overdue for a nuclear refueling overhaul. It was worn out, broken down, and filthy from all the leaky piping. It was a horrible job to keep it running and we were all happy that we’d managed to avoid it.

The next morning my commanding officer invited me up to his stateroom to “have a talk”. (Ruh-roh.) The commodore had just told his COs to find a volunteer to take over for the old submarine’s Eng. They’d gone through the squadron’s list of newly qualified engineers, and my name was at the top.  He said that the job was mine if I wanted it.

It was an incredible opportunity. This once-in-a-career offer would never be repeated.  It was the unrefusable offer.  If When I accepted, I’d finish my division officer tour nearly four months early with a fantastic fitness report and a medal. I’d get to be a submarine department head three years ahead of schedule. Not only that, but I’d be in an O-4 spot-promote billet so I’d be wearing gold oak leaves nearly five years before I’d even be up for that promotion. (I’d be the first in my year group to have that rank.) I’d have to revert to lieutenant when I left the billet, but wait there’s more! Because the job had come up at such short notice, the BUPERS assignment officer was willing to sweeten the offer by letting the me stay in the billet for 24 months– long enough to get credit for a full Engineer Officer department-head tour. I’d be so far ahead of the career track that I’d probably be selected for O-4 a year early.  “Even better”, I was taking over an engineroom in terrible condition and I hadn’t even been to Submarine Department Head School.  No one would expect much of me for the first six months and I could hardly do wrong. It was the same class of submarine, too, so I wouldn’t even have to learn any new gear. I could jump right in. I couldn’t help but look good. With hard work and a little luck I’d be winning “top nuke” awards.

My CO hated to lose me after investing two years of training, however he could only wish that he’d had a chance like this at my age. I was already just a few months from the end of my tour and he had no excuse to keep me on board. The older submarine’s CO was his friend and “a good guy”. The older sub had the higher priority, and my CO could put anyone else into my Communicator/Radio billet. All I really had to do was pack my seabag and pick up my orders at the squadron personnel office.

But. (I had a lot of “buts”.) I had just gotten married and I already had a great set of orders! I’d just survived the toughest few months of my life to get to this final patrol. I was really looking forward to shore duty, let alone to actually living with my spouse after all these years. I couldn’t even imagine how I’d break the news to her. I could probably put through an international phone call, and I’d certainly write a letter, but we wouldn’t be able to get together until after the 90-day patrol– and “getting together for good” would be another two years. How in the world would I explain that my career had a higher priority over our life together?

Well, the last question had a pretty simple answer– there was no way to explain that. My career didn’t have (and never would have) priority over my spouse.

Today, I know that I should have asked my CO’s advice and then requested a few hours’ personal time to come up with my “Yes, sir!!” However, a crisis has a way of immediately and involuntarily forcing you to show your true values, and this time they were written all over my face. My CO could already tell that I wasn’t the volunteer they were seeking. I mumbled some platitudes about being very happy where I was, but the damage had been done. The “opportunity” went to somebody else.

Work (and life) went on.  (I’m also pretty sure that BUPERS put a little note in my file.)  I had a great patrol as Communicator. Monterey was better than we’d even fantasized, but I still managed to finish my thesis and get my degree. My spouse and I were (mostly) stationed together for the rest of our careers (which is a whole ‘nother sea story too), we raised a wonderful daughter, and we’re about to celebrate our 25th anniversary. The glory of that 1980s Engineer Officer’s job can’t hold a candle to any of my life since then. I may not have done much coherent thinking about it, but I made the right work/life choice.

Years later I ran into a fellow USNA alum who’d been a year behind me in my company. As we renewed our acquaintance I learned that he’d been on that old boat back then, and I mentioned my part of the story. His response? “Oh, really?!? Hey, thanks a bunch, good buddy.” It turned out that BUPERS couldn’t find anyone able (or willing) to take that job on such short notice, and he was the next-senior officer in that boat’s engineering department. Unfortunately he was so junior that he hadn’t even started studying for his Engineer Officer exam yet. He’d been “promoted” to “Assistant Engineer” but he had to do the Engineer Officer job under the XO’s supervision. He only had it for the 90-day patrol, and he had to give it up when they returned to port. Perhaps he gained valuable experience. However, he got no credit for a department head tour, no spot promotion to O-4, no extra pay, nothing. To add insult to injury, the admiral’s staff had randomly selected that boat for a surprise nuclear inspection. It went so badly that they should have failed, but the inspectors appreciated that they didn’t have a “real” Eng and that the boat was overdue for overhaul.

I told him about my work/life priorities, and he understood.

It’s one thing to dodge a bullet.  It’s quite another thing to have someone empty the entire clip at you and still not score a hit.

One day my daughter will slam head-first into a similar work/life choice, and I hope she’s ready for it!

Related articles:
Sea story: “If I was in the Air Force”…
Sea story: “Hang on!!”
Sea story: Blowing the job interview of the decade
Sea story: “Secure blowing sanitaries!!!”
Sea story: “Battle Stations Missile”

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WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

  1. Thanks!

    My family & friends are just happy that I have a different outlet for these tales…

  2. Doug, add this story to one of your better ones. Thanks for telling it.

    Comment? Question? What's on your mind?