We're having a little ceremony next summer because that is the tradition. I don't really think of it as a retirement. It is more of a "gas and go": an opportunity to drop off some baggage, reminisce a little, and move on to the next leg. And it is not like it has been a bad ride. In fact, it has been a great ride, with a lifetime's worth of memories and adventures already logged. It just peaked a little sooner (all right, a lot sooner) than I had hoped. So now it's time to shift my focus back to the windscreen instead of the smoke trail, and get going on the next adventure.
Let's face it, the fact I failed to achieve the first real milestone-command at sea-of my chosen profession is, by definition, a professional failure. Do I have any regrets? A few. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Would I do it differently? On the margins perhaps, but the major decisions would not change much. Even knowing what I now know, however, given my priorities and the rules of the game, I probably would not have been able to do much to increase my odds of succeeding.
I am no expert on how to succeed in the Navy, but I have learned that once you get past performance, which is objectively measured or at least documented in fitness reports, the effects of other career decisions and milestones easily can come down to a roll of the bones. And even though the dice did not roll my way this time, I do not think that is an entirely bad thing.
Through no fault of my own, for example, I did not see combat. I was in-theater just before and just after a couple of actions-just not during one. Those with proven combat records clearly have checked off important experience and leadership blocks; they have gone from potential to known quantities, and that should give them an edge. Is that fair? No. Is it a valid metric for choosing future combat leaders? Who could argue against it?
In addition, not everyone has a family legacy, or picks up a mentor, or gets the big project that puts them in front of decision makers at the right points in their careers-but those who have or get those things gain an edge in experience, insight, and visibility. Life is not always fair; we all play the cards we are dealt, and I do not begrudge the winners their pots. Anybody who has played bunkroom poker knows a lucky deal does not guarantee a win. The competition is stiff. Every hand must be played well, and those who will succeed still have to earn it. But what does a winning hand look like?
Most of us really do not know. We play our best cards and then someone comes in from outside the room, peeks at all the hands, factors in "something," and declares a winner. Nobody at the table-or waiting their turn at the table for that matter-knows what that something is, only that it goes well beyond and can even override what our official career guidance resources tell us.
As for my hand, I was a Perspective poster child. If you look at what it says you need to succeed, I have it in spades. Yet, I, and many like me, failed professionally with little more than a post-selection-board "regret to inform you" on our answering machines to explain why or how we came up short. And what little I have discovered argues forcefully against doing some of the very things Perspective and many of my detailers advocate. There obviously is more to the story, but what is it? The selection process is so opaque and shrouded in secrecy that those of us who do not eventually become a part of it never really get to see how it works. That can breed misunderstanding, which leads to mistrust and resentment. My generation was brought up to give a cheery "aye, aye" and carry on. I am not so sure the next generation, with its appetite for instant information and wide-open access, will stand for that approach. My parting shot is that the Navy needs to open the drapes a little and minimize the luck, timing, and who-you-know aspect of the selection process. That might just be a perception, but perception if left to its own devices becomes reality.
My Navy career has been a professional failure, but it also has been an enormous personal success. I saw and did things and participated in events that this Montana boy dared not dream of from the top of a John Deere tractor. I am grateful for that. And even though there is no way to make this point without sounding negative, anyone who thinks I am bad-mouthing my Navy is dead wrong. I just think it would be good to see less dice and more straight poker as folks play out their careers.
Commander Graham served as an A-6 bombardier/navigator and F-14 radar intercept officer. He is currently a staff officer in Hawaii deciding what he wants to be when he grows up.