Published on ISSAIC July 14, 2008. Article (c) 2008 Science Applications International Corporation. Reproduced with permission.
At 15, Eric Wertheim begged his parents to take a vacation to Washington, D.C., so that he could attend an anti-submarine warfare conference sponsored by the United States Naval Institute. Little did he know then that this event would set the course for him to become the current author and editor of the 1,000+-page Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World.
This book sits on the desks of naval officers and on the bridge of warships worldwide and is used as a reference by sailors, the media, foreign governments, and naval enthusiasts alike.
Wertheim, a publications analyst for Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), works on the guide on his own time. "Most people at SAIC don't even know I work on the fleet guide," he said, even though he's considered the leading authority on world navies and has made appearances on cable television channels, radio talk shows, and at international conferences.
He's one of several experts tracked down by media or military officials whenever there is a naval incident anywhere in the world.
Recently, Wertheim was a guest on a Washington, D.C.-based syndicated radio talk show, where he was interviewed at the U.S. Naval Academy's Beach Hall. The occasion marked the release of the annual International Navies issue of the Naval Institute's Proceedings magazine, which features an article each year by Wertheim titled "World Navies in Review."
Career Path Takes a Jaunt
After that first conference when he turned 16, Wertheim worked out a deal with the Naval Institute where he volunteered to help set up future conferences and staff their booth in exchange for free admission to conference seminars and discounts on the Institute's reference books, many of which were used by the Naval Academy.
Wertheim said he pored over the books and materials from the conferences on a daily basis because it was his passion. During summers in college, he worked at the Naval Institute, supporting different departments and co-authoring two books. He also began writing a regular magazine column for Proceedings during his junior year in college.
Though some of his mentors had hoped he would attend either the Naval or Coast Guard Academy, others urged caution, suggesting that he would have to curb his writing and independent mind to follow orders. Plus, it would mean a long-term commitment that would conflict with his future publishing prospects.
After experiencing a "ride-along" with a law enforcement officer he instead applied for and attended the police academy of a major metropolitan city, where for three years, he served as an award-winning reserve police officer on an urban street beat because, as he put it, "I wanted to do something, not just write about it."
Need for Stability Prompts Wertheim to Seek Long-term Career
While off duty, Wertheim worked and wrote for a number of best-selling authors. That led him into more independent consulting for non-profit organizations, publishing companies, and other private entities.
Wertheim decided to seek "a stable long-term career," and took a friend's advice to check out SAIC. He was hired and has supported several military service projects, including non-lethal weapons, speech writing for Department of Defense officials, and strategic planning.
In 2002, the editor of the Naval Institute's reference book retired, and the head of the organization approached Wertheim at a conference, put his arm around him, and addressed him as the "next editor of Combat Fleets."
"I looked around to see who he was talking to and realized it was me! The publishers had known me since I was 16, and it turned out that I was at the top of their short list for the job," said Wertheim.
Challenges Abound, Payoff Grasped
Wertheim has a few researchers who help him sort through the piles of mail and hundreds of emails and photos he receives each week from readers of his book and the monthly "Combat Fleets" magazine column he writes.
"I'm in constant touch with a network of hundreds of sources worldwide, including dock workers and merchant mariners," he said. "The hardest part is verifying credibility and cultivating reliable resources."
He says his biggest success so far has been the new illustrations for the latest edition of the reference, and that he's extended the book's shelf life through a number of innovative marketing techniques.
When asked about his greatest challenge in taking the helm of the guide, he said, "It has been learning to trust my own judgment and getting others to follow suit as I work to make the guide more readable and easy to use for the general public."
Though reviews have been excellent, "at times I've also had to grow a thick skin with some of the mail from readers," he added. "I learned pretty early on to respond positively and not take it personally. After all, the guide is now one of the top-selling books for the Institute, and hopefully, that speaks for itself."