I have a great reader in Australia who has shared some of the life a Navy person experiences. When I reached out to ask for ‘real’ experience to help me understand how it works, he came through in spades. Now, I am sharing his comments (with his permission).
Here is Part 1:
Sure, happy to help with any questions you have. I’ve spent 10 years in the Aussie Navy, served on the warship Warramunga, five out of the six Aussie submarines, and a brief stint on the LA class USS Chicago, so I should be able to answer some of your questions. I’ve also spent time working with Army including operators. I’ll note that the US Navy is a bit differently organised, has a more gung-ho rules of engagement, and the nuke boats have very long sea stints compared to diesels potentially 9 months at a time, so I might not get all the details right for US military.
I’ll answer your questions below briefly now – it’s after midnight here – and in more detail tomorrow.
There are three main groups on a warship or sub. The enlisted junior sailors, enlisted senior sailors, and the commissioned officers. The junior sailors are divided by their rates – the jobs they’re trained to do – which is key because that’s who they work most with. But they tend to stick together as a group aside from sometimes the engineering boys, who ’cause they get their hands dirty and have their own sections of the ship or boat (submarines are ‘boats’), like to think they’re the only ones with a real job and that everyone else is just playing games. (I’ve heard engineering sections refer to their part of boat as reality, and the bridge or control room as fantasyland.)
As the sailors get experienced and promoted they become the Senior Sailors, and as a group they do the supervision, management, administration and training. This includes making sure the juniors do their job, disciplining them, but also helping them out, standing up for their interests (so and so wants to go on leave or go on course. How can I do this while keeping up manning? Etc…). Because of their similar work they tend to form their own group. They also tend to be the ones with the most sea time, and are most likely to spot problems due to their experience. So they are relied upon to provide advice to the Officers to keep them from making mistakes.
The Officers tend to fall in two groups – the standard group or line officers are trained in Navigation, Operations planning and conduct, and Command. These start doing the small stuff and work their way up but have selection courses if they want to get to be Captain. Then there are specialist officers with degrees in areas such as Engineering or Medical.
The most important roles on board tend to be the Captain (CO), the Executive Officer (XO), and the most senior sailor (referred to as the Ship’s Warrant Officer on a ship, or the Chief Of The Boat on a submarine). Other important people are the Operations Officer (OPSO), Navigation Officer (Navigator), the Marine Engineering Officer (the Engineer) and the most senior engineering sailor (Chief Tiff here or Engineering Department Master Chief in the US). Our subs don’t have a Doctor, but whoever is filling that role even if they’re only trained as a nurse is very important. I’ll tell you more about all these roles tommorrow.
Concerns away from home. This tends to fall in 2 general groups. There are the new guys, who might never have been away from home for an extended period unable to ring families/friends, and these days, unable to connect to social media like they’re used to. They get homesick or desperate for things they miss whether it’s food, going for a jog, video games, internet or friends. Then there are the older guys/girls who might have a relationship or even wife or kids. For them being away can cause rifts in their relationships and being away from kids is tough.
The other major factor is work environment. Except under specific circumstances (at anchor or resting on the bottom of the ocean), almost every station is manned 24/7. Personnel are limited by space, by the number of people life support can handle and by the number of people you can train, so subs tend to be either 1 in 3 watches or 1 in 2. So I work 6 hours, have 6 hours off, then I’m back at work for another 6 hours. Repeat. By the time you factor in meals you barely have enough time for sleep, let alone relaxation. And Action Stations, Emergency Stations or coming into harbour may mean working on your off-watch as well. Rough seas don’t help with sleep!!
Combine these factors and people experience huge psychological pressure. Submarine selection emphasizes stable personalities for this reason – fail your psych and you get booted. I’ve seen good people start to make mistakes at sea from lack of sleep and relaxation. They’ll also start to get snappy and angry for no good reason, or depressed. Already agressive people get really bad. 2 or 3 years on a submarine and they gradually get worse. Happens to everyone to some extent, but some you’d barely notice. Others, their personalities permanently change. This can be really REALLY bad if it happens to the captain, because he is god.
On the flip side you make really close relationships, and you use that to get you through. I feel closer to some of my shipmates than to some of my family.
Next Part … “Bad guys are a big problem”