In recent years, the morale of Naval Academy midshipmen selected for the surface warfare community has been in question. The winner of the 2019 Commander William Earl Fannin Capstone Essay Contest wrote about the need to improve surface warfare officer (SWO) culture at the Naval Academy, and the 2017 winner wrote about marketing surface warfare to the Naval Academy midshipmen. However, I have witnessed firsthand the increased morale among the 2020 SWO selects. Morale is high, and we are excited to become a part the Navy’s time-honored tradition of leading sailors and becoming professional mariners.
One source of the increased morale is the institutional change within the surface warfare community. When the class of 2020 joined the Naval Academy, the surface community was in a different place than it is now. In 2017, the USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) and Fitzgerald (DDG-62) collisions, and subsequent Comprehensive Review of Surface Force Incidents and the Strategic Readiness Review, made clear that institutional changes were needed.
Following these incidents and reports, two changes were implemented that I believe have had a positive effect on morale. The first is the requirement that newly commissioned ensigns attend the Basic Division Officer Course (BDOC) before reporting to their ships. The primary purpose of this change is to ensure watchstanders on the bridge are trained in the basics . However, it is the secondary effects of this new policy that are having the most positive impact on the new SWO selects of the Naval Academy. This policy allows us to have time temporarily assigned to the Naval Academy and experience opportunities normally closed off to SWO selects. One of my classmates and I are taking the opportunity to earn our yard patrol qualifications, thus preparing us even more for our future ships. The BDOC policy also allows new officers time to acclimate to the freedom of being college graduates and mature before reporting to their ships.
The second institutional change we are witnessing is the care and concern with which the surface warfare community is addressing sleep deprivation. It is no secret that as naval officers we will be working strenuous days with long hours. However, this previously had been accepted as a cultural norm, thus encouraging a culture that was not conducive to a healthy work environment. In my junior officer practicum, my instructor, a post-command captain, stressed that as officers we must ensure that both we and the sailors under our command get adequate sleep. He said this is something the entire surface navy has taken notice of and is making changes to improve sleep schedules on board ships. This news caused smiles throughout the class as it assured us that the Navy was trying to make sure well-cared-for and well-trained sailors are standing watch.
Another factor that increased morale pertains to the results of ship selection. Before we selected our ships at the beginning of January, there was an air of anxiety. My classmates and I were concerned about getting the homeports most suitable for our goals. Over the past four years we have been told “the needs of the Navy come first,” but that does nothing to relax your nerves if San Diego, California, is your dream port and you must select Norfolk, Virginia. This was the day that would decide where we lived for the first crucial years of our careers, so anxiety was natural.
This year, however, was different. During the course of our ship selection, I witnessed the faces of anxious classmates turn into smiles and joyful laughter as we selected our ships. The reason was not clear to most, but for those who had been experiencing stress about ship selection for weeks, the reason was clear. Most years, Rota, Spain, and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, would be ports available to only the highest ranked midshipmen. This year, those ports were available for selection far longer than usual. Even the last member of my class to pick his ship was able to choose between San Diego and Hampton Roads, Virginia. I remember many excited classmates discussing how happy they were with their selections. People who thought they would have no opportunity to join friends in San Diego were suddenly able to live near their closest friends. The number of SWO selects that left ship selection happy and excited was higher than I had seen in my four years of attending ship selection. This is one of the best indicators of increase morale in the future officer corps of the surface warfare community.
I share my classmates’ enthusiasm about joining the surface warfare community because of institutional changes and ship selection, but what I’m most excited by are the mentors I have gained in my first-class year at the Naval Academy. They helped guide me through critical moments in the final days of my academy career. During my summer training with the Naval Academy’s Yard Patrol (YP) Squadron, I met a lieutenant in the Seamanship and Navigation Department who mentored me through my duties as the squadron’s operations officer. He helped me see the importance of my duties and correlated them to practical leadership skills in the fleet. When I came to him with problems, he did not give me the answers—he taught me how to think of solutions. The difference in the two approaches is crucial when mentoring those with less experience. As officers, we are charged with leading, not just following orders. This mentor taught me how to lead. Even after the training was over, he reached out to me and has taught me about the duties and responsibilities of SWO junior officers. I still have weekly conversations with this lieutenant about life as a division officer.
Another instance of SWO community mentorship was my meeting with members of the wardroom of the USS Mason (DDG-87). On the day of ship selection, I was still undecided. Earlier in the day, I met with officers of this ship and my choice was solidified. The professionalism, sense of pride and family, as well as the mentorship I received in just a few hours with them left a lasting impression. The junior officers spoke to me about the challenges they had faced in their first year and how much they valued the leadership of their commanding officer in helping them grow and lead their divisions. When I spoke with the commanding officer, he was earnest, humble, and extremely helpful with my ship selection. The leadership of a Seamanship and Navigation professor and wardroom of the Mason are just a few examples of what makes me most excited about joining the SWO community.
The surface warfare officers of the Class of 2020 are optimistic about their future. We are excited about the mission, our homeports, the opportunity to lead, and most important, to learn from the greatest sailors the world has to offer. My classmates and I are proof that the changes being made in the surface warfare community are increasing morale throughout the junior officer corps. The future of America’s Navy is brighter than ever.