In the "Letter to My Former Self" series, USNA graduates lay out the advice they would give themselves as midshipmen based on their experiences as junior officers in the Navy or Marine Corps. This week's letter was written by ENS Logan Wilk, who is serving on board USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53), which recently moved homeports from San Diego, California, to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
The one thing that nobody ever prepares you for when you graduate the Academy is this: TAPS only exists at the Academy! Trust me. You don’t need to go wandering around the ship at 2200 after hearing the announcement for TAPS. There is no paper for you to sign.
Prior to that embarrassing scenario and after graduating the academy, I spent my basket leave at home with family and exploring the Riviera Maya with my boyfriend. Soon the weeks of leave I had turned to days and then days to hours.
On 23 June 2014 at 0615 I reported to the Starbucks at Pier 3 in San Diego, California, in my summer whites. Now if you thought it was easy to recognize a female plebe by their short hair, imagine walking on board your new home in whites while everyone else is in NWUs. There is no hiding.
But, contrary to popular belief, SWOs do not eat their young. Instead I found myself welcomed with open arms handing me CASREPs, EVALs, Energized Work Chits, 8 O’clock Reports, and other confusing documents. Lucky for me behind those documents were friendly faces willing to explain every single acronym that came my way, and the old phrase “I’m a plebe, sir!” came out of my mouth once more, except this time it was “I’m an ensign, sir!”
Since that fateful Monday morning, I have now had my two-month anniversary on board USS John Paul Jones (DDG 53). And while I’m still just a baby ensign, here are a few tips I’m glad I knew and some I’ve picked up along the way.
It’s ok to say you don’t know the answer. Humility is the biggest piece of advice I can give any young officer. While it may seem hard or embarrassing to say you don’t know – for instance, the load of one of the ten shore power cables –admit it, and then find out the answer. The people around you will respect you a lot more if you admit your lack of knowledge, then search for the answer. There is a reason we learned the phrase “Sir, I’ll find out and report back.”
There is a huge difference between interacting with a LT at the Academy and a LT on the ship. Due to the high number of LTs at the Academy I became incredibly desensitized to the two silver bars. On the ship there are only five. Every now and then I need to remind myself that my Department Head is not my Company Officer. He is not here to help me decide my service selection or do well academically. He is here to do his job and make sure I do mine. Do not desensitize yourself to the two silver bars!
Learn the Rules of the Road. You roll your eyes now, but you will be tested, and they are important. Especially when you have the 0000-0400 watch and you see that the white, red, and green lights are getting bigger. As my CO said, “There are only two tests I have been scared to fail my entire Navy career: Rules of the Road and the PFA.”
Get to know the other JOs. These people are your family now. While it may seem familiar and comfortable to hang out with only Academy friends, you will find that ship life is very similar to Academy life. You eat together, live together, and work together. No matter how much you try to avoid it, these JOs will play a huge part in your life.
Learn to cook. If you already know how to cook, great! If you don’t, learn pronto. Eating out every night will get expensive and you want to save some of your money. Plus now is the time when you finally get to decide for yourself what you are going to eat every night. Cherish the freedom!
Lastly, don’t shy away from your mistakes. Embrace them and learn from them. The last night of our transit to Pearl Harbor, I was conning during DLQs (Deck landing Qualifications for helicopters.) The whole situation was a mess. The pilots had been given the true winds as relative winds. There was a miscommunication regarding the number of DLQs that the pilots were going to do. The ship was at trail shaft and needed to come up to split shaft (go from one running propeller to two), and basically the entire exercise was a huge flop. The CO told me to order starboard engine ahead, indicate 1 PCL. I gave the order; the helm repeated it back, lost control of the rudder and put his port engine ahead 1 PCL. The Captain took the conn. Rather than become embarrassed by the entire situation, I learned so much from those ten seconds. I learned how quickly the bridge can turn to chaos and how loud the bridge can become when those on the bridge are allowed to chat. I learned that I need to sound off when giving conning orders. Failing is not a career-ending event. Allowing your failures to control you is what ends your career. But I chose not to, and five minutes later I took the conn again. I look forward to my next mistake because it will show me how I can improve.
Take from this what you will. I don’t have all the answers, nor do I pretend to. But if I could go back and write a letter to myself this is what I would have said.