Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Letter to a Veteran

I’m the son of a son of a Sailor.  My grandfather served in the Pacific during the Second World War aboard the USS Florence Nightingale (AP-70).  Like many of his generation, he rarely talked about his service.  He told me about a failed attempt to smuggle aboard a bottle of gin under his pea coat after a port call  (it fell and broke as he saluted the watch officer on the quarterdeck).  Once, he mentioned a kamikaze attack during the invasion of Okinawa, and how years later he read a passage in a James Michener novel that was uncanny in its similarity.

He never mentioned the letter he received a few months after his discharge from the navy.  It was only after he passed away that my father found it tucked away in a box of papers.

                                                                                                         November 9, 1945
My dear Mr. Volpe,

            I have addressed this letter to reach you after all the formalities of your separation from active service are completed.  I have done so because, without formality but as clearly as I know how to say it, I want the Navy’s pride in you, which it is my privilege to express, to reach into your civil life and remain with your always.

            You have served in the greatest Navy in the world.

            It crushed two enemy fleets at once, receiving their surrenders only four months apart.

            It brought our land-based airpower within bombing range of the enemy, and set our ground armies on the beachheads of final victory.

            It performed the multitude of tasks necessary to support these military operations.

            No other Navy at any time has done so much.  For your part in these achievements you deserve to be proud as long as you live.  The Nation which you served at a time of crisis will remember you with gratitude.

            The best wishes of the Navy go with you into civilian life.  Good luck!

                                                                        Sincerely yours,

                                                                        James Forrestal

I never tire of reading the letter, a copy of which I have framed and sitting on my book shelf next to Samuel Eliot Morison’s The Two Ocean War. (You can see an image of the original letter here)

Secretary Forrestal managed to convey a sense of avuncular warmth and pride rarely seen in a form letter.  Given the nearly infinite tasks the Department of Navy had to conduct in the immediate postwar period, it is remarkable that he made this gesture of appreciation a high priority despite the enormity of the undertaking (over four million Sailors served during the war).

I feel equal parts pride and humility every time I read it:  pride in knowing that I serve in the same Navy and help carry on such a lofty tradition, humility in realizing that we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Please take a cue from Secretary Forrestal and go out of your way to thank a veteran this weekend.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Honor, Courage, and.... what's that third one?

Lieutenant (junior grade) Eric Kettani got some disheartening news from the Navy.  His saga is described in detail in a recent Navy Times article.  Long story short: He attended the U.S Naval Academy where he played football, served two of his required five years in the fleet, and now wants out so he can pursue his dream of playing in the NFL.  Call him the anti-Tillman.

The Navy said, “Nice try, now get back aboard your ship.”

The argument in favor of letting Kettani skip the rest of his commitment goes like this:  A ridiculously small percentage of college football players are talented enough to play in the NFL.  An even smaller percentage of service academy players can make that cut. By allowing those one-in-a-million cases to pursue their dream, the service academies can attract a much larger number of student-athletes to attend their schools. 99% of them will fulfill their commitment when the NFL doesn’t offer them a spot.   Recruiting extremely athletic people is a good strategy for a military organization, especially when the pool of qualified applicants seems to be dwindling in this country.

This must be the logic used by the Air Force and Army, who have recently waived commitments from their academy graduates who have opportunities to play professional sports.  Kettani’s agent has raised this as an issue, citing some sort of double standard.  His real issue is that his client is being held to a standard at all.

Because here’s where the previous argument falls short:  athletic ability, while a highly sought after attribute in the Navy, even in today’s technologically advanced military, is not even in the top three in our list of desired character traits.   The Navy’s core values are “Honor, Courage, and Commitment”, not “Honor, Courage, and Run the 40 in 4.5 seconds”.  

Or to quote a Senior Enlisted Advisor who gave a talk to my class at Command and Staff College, “No amount of ability will make up for a lack of integrity.”

The Navy Times writes, “While he likes Navy life, he’s concerned that the Navy just yanked his best chance to play in the NFL.”  Besides the incredible sense of entitlement that statement exudes, it misses the larger point that those of us who go to college on an ROTC scholarship or attend a Service Academy and fulfill our commitments have also forgone other professional opportunities.  One might argue that, unlike becoming a doctor or lawyer, there is a short window for Kettani to pursue his dream.  If he waits another three years, it will be too late to play in the NFL.

 Tell that to Roger Staubach.  The Dallas Cowboys drafted him in 1964, but he didn’t play for them until 1969, after he completed his full commitment to the Navy, including a one year tour in Vietnam.  But of course, Ensign Staubach understood the real meaning of “America’s Team.”