Why I Will Leave the Navy

By Melanie C. Butler

What I mean by "fun" is the passionate enjoyment and fulfillment that comes from doing work you love. It is the excitement that comes upon waking up, ready to face a new day filled with challenges and opportunities. It is the pure unadulterated satisfaction you feel at the end of a hard day, knowing that you have made a difference in the world. This is "fun" to me.

The fact that I am still in the Navy already puts me in a minority. At my five-year reunion weekend in Annapolis, I was surprised that as much as 25% of my class attended. And I was even more surprised to learn that 80% of those who attended were out of the Navy. As I talked with my classmates about their new careers and how their lives are, I noticed that they all seemed very happy with their decisions. The interesting thing about our conversations was that we never discussed the reasons why they had left. Everyone already understood.

During the first weeks of Plebe Summer one of my detailers asked me what I wanted to do in the Navy. I told him that I had joined to become an intelligence or cryptology officer. Wrong answer! I was told emphatically that I was there to be a warrior, that I was joining the Navy to kill people. This took me aback—though deep inside, I understood I might have to give an order that would lead to someone's death. After all, that is what military service is all about. I do not think I ever would have considered myself a warrior—or taken being called a warrior as a compliment—until I met my first commanding officer on the USS Whidbey Island (LSD-41), Commander Terry Pierce.

I honestly can say that I have never met another officer like Commander Pierce. Although he claimed that he was just a backwoods rube from Oregon, he is a highly educated man, well read on past and present warfighting. He is a Civil War buff and loves to apply the Marines' maneuver warfare framework to Civil War battles and to daily situations on board ship. He taught me how to think differently: looking for surfaces and gaps; focusing on the critical vulnerability in a situation; and thinking two levels up to make the boss's job easier. He trusted my instincts when I served as Officer of the Deck. He asked for input on things—from policies for the ship to grammar recommendations on drafts of articles he was writing for Proceedings . He had some quirks that occasionally drove us crazy, and there were times when I did not understand him at all—but I still respected him tremendously. I wanted to be a CO just as good as he was, but I found out very quickly just how much in the minority he is.

Many of the other senior officers I have met are so intent on attaining the next rank that they are oblivious to the great amount of time they dedicate to that end—and the difficulty that causes for the people working for them. As a corollary to this, these same senior officers are afraid to speak up and tell their own seniors the truth. No CO is going to admit to his commodore that his ship is not ready to carry out her mission—and as a result, the ship's personnel suffer. I cannot begin to count the number of hours I have spent on the ship (when I did not have duty) trying to finish some "emergent" tasking for some superfluous inspection that was supposedly just a "training assist visit"—but which the CO treated as a full-blown Propulsion Examination Board visit. We focus on the inane administrative minutia; as a result, the warfighting skills we are supposed to refine for our nation are eroding.

Why do nine out of ten junior officers not want to command? Why would anyone want to put themselves through the wringer of constant stress, long nights away from their families, looking over their shoulder for a potential backstab, or worrying that one of their officers or sailors might make a mistake that would cost them their careers? After Commander Pierce, I have yet to meet another CO who would classify his command tour as "fun." I do not think that command is what most senior officers want anymore; command at sea is seen as a necessary evil en route to flag rank.

We junior officers have not lost our patriotism or our commitment to freedom—we have just lost the rose-colored glasses that were issued to us at graduation. For too many of us, the Navy is no longer an adventure—it is a chore that takes longer and longer each day. I love going to sea and being a warfighter. But the Navy is not about going to sea or being a warrior anymore. It is about day-to-day administrative drudgery; it is about micromanaging your sailors' personal and professional lives; it is about having your hands tied when all you want is what is best for your sailors.

I know the party line: things are changing. If there is real change, I have not seen it—and I cannot make myself believe that the reductions in the interdeployment training cycle will stand. Call me cynical, but I think "they" will just change the names of these "inspections" to "assist visits," and we all know what happens to those.

I do not really think that one lieutenant can make a difference—although I have tried very hard, within my own areas of responsibility.

When it comes right down to it, the Navy just is not fun anymore. And if it is not fun, why do it?

A qualified surface warfare officer, Lieutenant Butler served tours on two ships and screened for department head school.


A qualified surface warfare officer, Lieutenant Butler served tours on two ships and screened for department head school.

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Maritime Security Dialogue

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You are cordially invited to: Maintaining Maritime Superiority A discussion with Admiral John M. Richardson, USNChief of Naval...

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