Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Breaking the Faith

I have up until this point demurred from writing about the recent defense authorization bill that will reduce future cost of living adjustments to military pensions.  (As J.S. Bateman correctly argues in his blog, a 1% COLA reduction is indeed a pay cut.) I assumed that the resulting clamor would force our legislators to reconsider and rectify their mistake, but recent essays written in defense of the cut have led me to conclude that I need to speak out.

First off, let me be clear in saying that I am not opposed to cuts in overall defense spending.  The United States needs to reduce spending and decrease its national debt, and the DoD budget should be part of that solution.  I also recognize that military pension reform may be required.  Any such reform, however, should be grandfathered (as the current administration had promised as recently as last September).  I might further add that cuts to retirement pay would be more palatable if I knew that such spending cuts would ultimately be leveraged to reduce the debt as opposed to offset increased spending for other programs.  I am not optimistic in this regard.

The arguments made by politicians and pundits in support of the cuts give me the chills, because they pave the way for further cuts and lead me to the realization that much of the "support the troops" rhetoric of the last decade was a mile wide and an inch deep.

Let us review a few of the more egregious arguments in favor of the pension cut:

''The current pension system is overly generous."  "Generous" is a word used in relation to a gift.  My future pension is not a gift.  I will have earned that pension.  I earned it with every catapult shot into an ink-black night with no horizon.  I earned it with all three Christmases (so far) that I have spent away from my family.  I earned it when I missed the birth of my third child when I was on my fourth deployment. My wife and children have earned it with every move, every new school, every new neighborhood (seven in ten years, at current count).

"The current pension system is unlike any civilian sector pension".   Indeed.  Because a career in the military is unlike any career in the civilian sector.    See the above paragraph.

"Personnel costs have doubled over the past decade."  Besides being a misleading statement, this argument speaks louder than every "People are our most important asset" bromide ever uttered.  If people come first, then reforming the bloated acquisition process that results in overpriced weapons systems should be a higher priority than cutting pensions.

"The current system encourages service members to leave early." Since when is leaving the military after 20 years considered "early"?  If anything, the current system encourages people to stay in longer.   There have certainly been times throughout my career that I have seriously considered getting out and devoting my talents to far more lucrative pursuits.  Although I have stayed in the Navy for a number of reasons, I must admit that it was the promise of a pension that often nudged the calculus in favor of staying.  Whether we have an all-volunteer or a conscription force, the US military will always need talented individuals to choose to continue their service beyond initial obligations, in order to provide continuity and professionalism.  The pension system ensures retention of talent, and we alter it at our peril.

"40% of military personnel have never seen combat."  Even if this statistic is true, it is irrelevant. The pension system was not designed to make such a distinction.  A 20-year career is a 20-year career, and we still need to retain talent in the military, whether or not those individuals conduct combat operations or stand the watch in order to deter combat operations.  Furthermore, as US military involvement in Afghanistan comes to a close this year, this statement is an ominous portent of a return to 90's era views of military personnel and their service, which at best manifested itself in apathetic ignorance but was often characterized by cynical disdain.

Unfortunately, the pension cut seems to have bipartisan support.  One party seems to only support the military when it's politically convenient (exhibit A:  John Kerry's acceptance speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention).  The other party had no previous ideological conflict with unsustainable operational costs during the last decade of war, but now is so suddenly concerned about the debt that they are willing to break faith with those that fought that very war.

Please do your part to reverse this recent legislative error and ensure further cuts are not politically feasible.  Write your Senator and Representative.  Sign the petition on whitehouse.gov.   Tell your government that they have broken the faith.

Disclaimer:  This essay is my personal opinion, and in no way represents the official position of the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Much Thanks

I'm fortunate this year that life has slowed down enough for me to give serious thought to what I'm thankful for:

- A house that's filled with laughter.

- At 38, I still have the same job I dreamed about since I was seven.

- An amazing wife who knows all too well that this dream job isn't always convenient, yet supports me nonetheless.

- Therapists and educators who are collaborating, cooperating, and doing everything they can to help my son lead as typical a life as possible.

- The excited cheers that greet me when I get home after a long day.

- The chance to live part of my life in a place as sublimely beautiful as the Pacific Northwest.

- Parents and a sister whose love and influence are always with me, even when they're not.

- Living in an incredible time when everything seems possible and old friends are only a click away.

- The opportunity and privilege to serve this great country of ours.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Leadership, at Home and at Sea

As I wrote in the introduction to this blog, I truly believe that the practice of leadership has certain aspects that are universal in application, even toward the seemingly disparate jobs of father and military officer.  I often ponder how I can leverage and mutually reinforce these two leadership roles, without treating my children like subordinates or my subordinates like children.  Fortunately, I have two great exemplars in this pursuit.  My father and brother-in-law (both of them fellow naval officers) managed to set and enforce high standards both at work and at home, and without the use of a boatswain pipe like Georg von Trapp.

So here are some specific examples of how each role has influence the other.   This is certainly not an exhaustive list.  I expect that future posts will build and expand on this concept.     

What the military has taught me about being a parent:

-Start with the end in mind.   A classic from Stephen Covey.  Like one of my mentors often said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get your there. “  Military planning efforts, whether for a theater campaign or one-time airstrike, focus first on the objectives and end states, to ensure that all subsequent decisions about courses of action, assigned tasks, and prioritization of resources will ultimately support the attainment of the desired goal.  The same principles apply to parenting.  What kind of adults do I want  my children to grow up to be?  What values and traits do I hope to instill?  What types of decisions do I want them to make even when I’m not around?  

-It’s not a popularity contest.   “Better to be respected than liked” is an adage I learned as a young naval officer.  This doesn’t mean “go out of your way to piss people off”  but leadership involves getting people to do things they don’t want to do. (Otherwise, they wouldn’t need a leader) It entails motivating people to perform beyond what they may believe possible of themselves.  This is challenging.  It is much easier to accept standards that subordinates think are reasonable and comfortable, and let those become the default setting for expected behavior.  As a parent, I must fight similar temptations to be the best friend instead of the leader.  I have to ensure I consistently give my children what they need instead of regularly allowing what they want.

-Mistakes are the best teachers.  In a military that has increasingly become “zero-defect” in terms of expectations, it is important to remember that mistakes are a necessary facet of learning.  Some of my best commanding officers gave me the latitude to make mistakes, knowing that was the only way I was going to gain experience and confidence.  I think the same applies to raising children.  This doesn’t mean as a military leader or as a parent, that I shrug my shoulders and say, “mistakes happen.” But I have to be able to tell the difference between a premeditated breach of the rules and a well-intentioned mistake.  If it’s the former, I provide appropriate discipline.  If the latter then I counsel and assist in dissecting the incident for lessons to learn.  With regards to parenting, I have much to learn.  Too often I am quick to jump in and help my children do something “perfectly”, instead of giving them the space to try, fail, and then try again. The important thing, whether it’s in the ready room or the living room, is for me to foster an environment where everyone feels comfortable admitting to mistakes and learning from them.   

What parenting has taught me about being a military leader:

-Embrace the chaos.  I like order and organization.  It’s one of the many reasons I was attracted to a career in the military.  And my time in the military has reinforced that need for order.   Although being organized serves me well both as an officer and as a parent (all praise to checklists and routines), I also have to be able to thrive in a chaotic environment.  More than anything, being a father of four has taught me how to cope with noise and entropy: The near-constant chatter at the dinner table after a long day at work.  The clamor of conflicting demands from multiple sources. The minefield of a carpet strewn with legos and dolls.  All of this will serve me well at work, where I must separate the signal from the noise and focus on what’s truly important.     

-Be Patient.  I’ve never been a patient person, and life in the military has not changed that much.  We tend to have a bias towards action.  We loathe inaction. And yet parenting requires the patience of Gandhi.  As we watch our child slowly putting on his shoes, we must fight the urge to put them on for him.   As we help with math homework, we must let them reach the right answer on their own.  At home and at work, my efforts won’t always yield immediate results.  I have to let things develop. 

-It’s not about me.  When I was a brand-new father, a colleague (himself a father of seven) told me that parenting had taught him just how selfish a person he could be.  I am reminded of that marvelous statement every time I find myself chafing at the tedium of getting the baby back to sleep or listening to one more Wiggles song.  (Ah, the irony of being annoyed by my children while writing my blog about fatherhood….)  Parenting is the ultimate example of servant leadership, but my role as a naval officer requires the same selflessness.  I must remember that my energies should always be focused towards ensuring my Sailors have the resources they need to accomplish the mission and then recognizing their tireless efforts.   Or as Lao-tzu wrote over 2500 years ago, ‘When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware he exists…The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.  When his work is done, the people say, ‘Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!”[1]  

[1] Lao-tzu, Tao Te Ching: A New English Version, trans. Steven Mitchell (New York: Harper Perennial, 1988)

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Being Present

A few weekends ago, my wife and I were at our community pool with our children.  As often happens, a neighborhood child swam over and started talking to us.  No introduction, no befriending my daughter with “do you want to play with me?” he simply integrated himself into our ongoing activities.  We certainly accommodated him, asked his name and introduced him to our children, and encouraged him to join us.  But he quickly became a distraction, as he vied for our attention or aggressively tried to play with our youngest (who cannot swim).   This would have been a great time for his parents to join us in the pool and provide some oversight, but they were too busy lounging on the deck and talking on their phones.  Once or twice they called to their son to tell him stop a particular behavior, but beyond that they couldn’t be bothered.  Clearly, the child was seeking much-needed attention.   Later, as we left the pool, I felt smugly superior to these lazy, selfish parents.  Here I was, spending time with my own three children, and still had the energy and patience to deal with someone else’s, who were too rude and self-absorbed to even say thank you.

Later in the day, that self-righteousness ended abruptly as I caught myself so absorbed in reading an article on my iPad that I didn’t realize my son had been vying for my attention.  He ultimately got it, but only by taking flour  out of the pantry and dumping it all over the kitchen floor.  (I would love to tell you the article in question was an analysis of the current the situation in Syria, but I'm guessing it dealt with either a) celebrities, b) farts or c) both a and b.)  Sure, I do a great job in public of playing with my children, looking out for their safety, ensuring they’re not bothering anyone else.  But back at home, it’s a different story.   Despite all the time I spend away from my family, whether at work, on travel, or on deployment, when I get back home I spend an awful lot of time reading books and articles, checking Facebook and Twitter, watching television.  I may be home, but I am not fully present.  
It’s not social media that’s to blame, or technology in general.  I truly believe that advances in connectivity have made life better for us in this modern age.  But even if I didn’t have a tablet or smartphone on me at all times, I would still be lost in my own thoughts or busy doing chores around the house.  Because let’s be honest, spending time with children, even your own children, is not always intellectually stimulating.  (Let's be more honest: it can be downright mind-numbing, and the psychic rewards of spending time with your children don't come as quickly as the psychic rewards for other, more selfish activities.)    Sure, rough-housing and tickling is fun, as they laugh uncontrollably.  But the quieter moments, when they need me to get down on the floor and join their game, or jump-start some imaginative fort or pirate ship building with sofa cushions, or to quote a good friend, “to not just play, but be playful,” that’s the hard part.  That’s when the mind wanders to seemingly more pressing matters:  the issue at work, the memo that needs revision, the scandal in the news, the blog topic waiting to be explored...

I’m not suggesting that I need to be fully immersed in my children’s activities every second of the day.  Certainly they need space to play on their own, to let their imaginations flourish and to learn how not be bored, without my constant interaction.   But my default setting is “go play, Daddy is reading something right now,” when that should be the exception, only when each child is at a point where they need down time. 

Making myself “present” should extend beyond parenting as well.    How often during conversations with co-workers do I quickly tune out and mentally review my to-do list for the day?  So immersed in seemingly urgent “inbox maintenance” and “task completion”, I lose sight of what’s truly important, making real connections with those around me.

As an introvert, I understand that my default setting is to pull away, to re-charge.  And that’s fine, but I must also be prepared to re-engage with my full attention.  As soon as my child, my wife, my co-worker seeks me out, I need to put down the Ipad, or minimize the Outlook window, and be present.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Sound of Freedom

           Recently, a citizen of Coupeville, Washington wrote a letter to the Whidbey News-Times.  She voiced an often-heard complaint that the jets from the nearby Naval Air Station make too much noise and are disruptive to the lives of the local residents.   Specifically, she expressed concern about talk of expanded hours for training and suggested the U.S Navy should be more considerate.  “Listen up, Navy: We pay taxes here. I suspect you don’t. We aren’t your guests. In reality, you are ours.”
            As one would imagine, the response from local service members and their families was fast and overwhelming.   Many comments on the paper’s website were polite but firm in their support for the training flights.  Unfortunately, some were inappropriate, rude, vulgar, and even threatening.  The News-Times shut down the comments section because their small staff could not feasibly review all comments and delete only the inappropriate ones.  Facebook and Letters to the Editor continue to remain available forums for comment on the issue.
            At issue are the Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP) flights that the EA-6B Prowler and EA-18G Growler squadrons conduct as part of their pre-deployment training cycle.   Both at the main air station in Oak Harbor and an outlying field in Coupeville, aircrew practice the demanding task of landing on an aircraft carrier.  The runway has a small rectangle painted on it (the same size as the landing area on the ship) and the same optical landing system, or “ball”, that the pilots use to fly the correct glideslope all the way to touchdown.  These flights on land are essential for aircrew to learn and retain the proper muscle movements, instrument scan, crew coordination, and communications required for flawless execution at sea.  As the saying goes, amateurs practice until they get it right, but professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.
            To be honest, the flights do produce a lot of noise and it can be annoying when you are sitting at home (even for fellow aviators).  The problem is especially acute in Whidbey during summertime, where because of the high latitude, the sun may not fully set until 10:30 pm, forcing night training to be conducted until two or three in the morning.  Noise complaints are a particularly contentious topic because over the years, a few residents have taken extreme measures to display their annoyance: spotlights, lasers, and fireworks aimed at the aircraft.  Such acts have the effect of not just annoying the aircrew, but of disorienting them, putting their lives and local residents at risk.  (Full disclosure: I have spent nine years stationed at Whidbey Island, have conducted countless FCLP events, and have had spotlights and fireworks directed at my aircraft.)
            “The Sound of Freedom” is the common phrase we use to defend the noise, the idea being  that the annoyance is a small price to pay for the liberties we all enjoy as Americans.  Those liberties, of course, include freedom of speech, and the author of the letter in question has a right to voice her opinion, no matter how rude or ill-informed, and the News-Times has the right to publish it.
            The public, including the military community, have the right to respond, no matter how rude or ill-informed.  No one, however, has the right to make threats, or to harass her on the phone and by drive by her house honking the horn repeatedly.   I am pleased that local and military authorities are investigating such threats and actions.
           When discussing the jet noise, it is not enough to say, “the military protects our freedom, therefore anything the military does to protect that freedom is justified”.  The military is part of the federal government.  Read that sentence in quotes again, but replace “military” with “government” and see if it doesn't give you pause. Such sentiments are dangerous, and has led Americans to accept unconstitutional government actions such as the passing of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during World War Two, and the torture of detainees during the last decade.
            The Navy has the responsibility to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money and the environment, and to be courteous neighbors, and in my experience it does.  The squadrons conduct the minimum number of flights to reach the required proficiency.  (Believe me, no one wants to do more FLCPs than necessary)  To further minimize the impact, the air station puts limits to the number of aircraft in the pattern and where they can fly, avoiding over-flight of the most populous areas, even if that impacts the realism of flight pattern as compared to what is actually executed when at the aircraft carrier.         
            Notice in the above paragraph, I said “neighbors” and not “guests”.   The part of the letter that prompted such a vociferous response from the sailor-citizens and retirees in the community is the fact that she considers “the navy” to be “guests” who don’t pay taxes.   Of course service members pay taxes: on their income, on their property, and on the items they buy at the store.  For the author to refer to sailor-citizens as guests and not neighbors and fellow residents was incredibly thoughtless.
            One apologist on Facebook said that the author was calling the “Navy” as an institution the guest, since it doesn’t pay property tax on the land upon which the air station was built.   That interpretation of the letter doesn’t make sense based on the plural personal pronouns  (“they”, “their”) the author used to describe “the navy, as in a group of individuals, instead of using “it” to describe the institution.  Besides, even if she was complaining about the U.S. Navy as an institution, for it to pay property taxes defies logic.  That would be like asking the fire or police department to pay property taxes.  Or asking them to not use their sirens at night, so that citizens not be disturbed.
            Some of the respondents made equally rude statements that Oak Harbor and surrounding towns wouldn’t exist if not for the economic boon provided by the air station and its servicemembers and families.  Although the town would be smaller, with a very different economy, to say that the town would disappear is disrespectful to all the hardworking residents of Oak Harbor, the vast majority of whom are incredibly supportive of the air station and its mission.
            Ultimately, the most important take away from this whole incident is that the “sound of freedom” should be more than just jets flying overhead.  It should be the sound of civil discourse; the sound of citizens exercising their right to put forth arguments that are passionate yet free from the invective, and vitriol that we see far to much of these days.

Disclaimer: This essay is my personal opinion, and in no way represents the official position of the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Story Telling Made Simple

The five words that can strike fear in any father’s heart at bedtime: “Daddy, tell me a story.” At the end of a long and stressful day, coming up with an original story that will captivate your child seems unbelievably challenging.  But you don’t have to be a playwright to create an entertaining story.  Here a few simple tips:

Start with the end in mind.  The great thing about making up a story is that you get to choose the moral to impart, so think of this first.  Once you come up with a simple lesson like “Be yourself” or “Don’t give up”, the plot will write itself.  Fill the story with memorable characters (silly names, funny voices) and put them in a situation that will eventually teach them the moral you chose.

Be derivative.  Your child will not check your sources or call the intellectual property police.  In fact, they will gain comfort from familiar story lines.  Draw morals and plots from stories you know, like “The Little Engine That Could”,  “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, or in my daughter’s case, “Return of the Jedi”. 

Remember the rule of threes.   Children and adults alike are drawn to ideas and stories that come in groups of threes.  Have your main character attempt something three times, or meet three different characters that help solve their problem. 

Foster creativity.  Encourage your child to participate by letting them fill in details like the names of the characters or where the story takes place.  As they get older, gradually have them provide more and more of the storyline.

Introduce new concepts.  Use story time as an opportunity to teach your children about geography, history, science, or languages.  Set your tale in a foreign country or a different century.  Make your story about an airplane that’s lost its lift.  Have a character speak a few simple words in French or Japanese.

With last night’s story, I found myself using all of these tips.  I started with the simple moral: “It’s good to try new foods”.  Spying my daughter’s pillow pet, I created a tale about a purple unicorn who lived in France.  “Purple” (my daughter chose the name) only liked to eat dandelions, despite her three friends, in turn, offering her carrots, potatoes, and truffles.   But soon she ate all the dandelions in her pasture, and all the dandelions in the surrounding pastures.  She looked and looked for more dandelions, but there were none.  So she tried the carrots, and at first she didn’t like them because they weren’t anything like her favorite dandelions.  But soon she thought they were quite tasty, and then she quickly tried potatoes and truffles, and loved them too.   Her three friends were so happy that they could share their favorite foods with her.

Nothing complicated, but it kept her attention and kept her involved as she suggested plot points and asked questions like “what’s a truffle?” 

Remember, the day will all too quickly arrive when your child feels too old for being tucked in and told bedtime stories.  But in this small window of time, you will create a lifetime of cherished memories.  Even into adulthood, your children will draw comfort from the memory of this shared bedtime ritual.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Coping with the Chaos

            In a previous post, I wrote about my neglect in reading parenting books.  Since then, I have atoned, but my reading list has become rather focused as I plow through titles such as Children with High Functioning Autism: A Parent's Guide, The Autism Sourcebook and Following Ezra: What One Father Learned About Gumby, Otters, Autism and Love From His Extraordinary Son.
Eight months ago, our son turned three.  The warning signs were disparate and insidious.  Many behaviors were perfectly typical for a boy that age:  repetitive activity, lining up toys, slower than his sister in learning to talk, fascinated more with objects than people, not acknowledging when we called his name. These characteristics were combined with glimpses of incredible brilliance: memorizing the alphabet, quickly solving puzzles, doing basic math, and reading words he had never seen before. 
His atypical behavior came into stark relief, however, when we put him in school.  He isolated himself from peers by hiding under desks and chairs. His seemingly willful disobedience was something far worse: he was oblivious to what his parents and teachers wanted him to do.  Crowds and loud noises quickly over stimulated him.  We realized that his repetitive behaviors and obsession with numbers and letters were a way to seek refuge from chaos.  And so our research began.  Books, articles, and discussions with friends gave credence to our suspicions.  The more we learned, the more we recognized other signs that we had shrugged off as “quirkiness”.
But we have also noticed behaviors that are simply who he is: his tremendous empathy when one of his siblings cries, his affectionate bear hugs, and his skill in navigating the Ipad.   As frustrating as he can be sometimes, his atypical personality and thought processes will be significant assets to him, and I would not want my son to be anyone else.  Our job as parents is to help him alleviate his current frustrations and anxiety by learning to communicate effectively and to cope with the chaos comes with being part of society.
I am grateful for many things:  our son got an early diagnosis, he is making great progress through various therapies, and he has a mother who has demonstrated unflagging optimism, patience and resolve in the face of this challenge.  My wife, by expertly achieving the precious balance of accepting our son for who he is and yet tackling his autism head-on, has taught me a great deal about parenting, love, and leadership.