Thursday, June 12, 2008

From Sonar to Naval Nuclear Power

By the end of the summer of 1985 I was officially in the United States Navy. My contract consisted of a basic four year enlistment plus two year enlisted extension for the schools I was going to attend. They say the devil is in the details and military contracts are no different. ALL non-prior service enlistments in the United States Military will incur a total eight year service obligation. I had six years covered by active duty, but was on the hook for two additional years of ‘inactive reserve’ time. Inactive reserve members do not perform weekend drills, and they do not receive any pay, however, they can be called back into active duty in times of emergency. By signing up early, I had entered the ‘delayed entry program’ which allowed me to learn a bit more about the Navy before I went in. This time also counted toward my inactive duty time.

I was still trying to come to grips with the disappointment of missing out on an Electronics Technician (ET) billet. I was under contract to become a Sonar Technician (ST). Regardless of what the naval career counselor had told me, something just did not sit well with me about it. While we were not mandated to drill, my recruiter highly suggested that we meet regularly one night a week to prepare for military life (generally) and boot camp (specifically). It was at one of these delayed entry gatherings that my fears were confirmed. A home town boy came back on leave and happened to stop by the recruiter’s office to say hello. He told me that I was really in for a surprise going into the Navy as a Sonar technician. He said that I would be sent to a ‘sonar operator’ school and then go to the fleet as a sonar operator. He said the technical schools for repairing sonar equipment were reserved for sailors that re-enlisted. I was not sure I could endure six years so 8-10 years seemed impossible. I had not spent one day on active duty but had decided I really was not looking at making the navy a ‘career’.

I talked to the recruiter about my situation and since I had already signed contracts, it seemed pretty certain that I was going to be a Sonar Operator unless I could qualify for a higher level program. Since Officer Candidate School was out (I did not have a degree so I could not be commissioned as an officer), I was told the only way I could get the electronics program I wanted was to try to qualify for the Naval Nuclear Power Program.

So I took another battery of tests and another trip to downtown St Louis MEPS. I underwent another complete physical examination and another long day waiting to speak with a career counselor. One thing that occurred that was different than before, I was required to disclose my background with ‘recreational drug use’ in a rather detailed manner. The career counselor spoke to me candidly and I did not realize the weightiness of the matter. He asked me numerous questions about the illegal drugs I had used. When he was sure that my drug use was limited to alcohol and marijuana, he then asked for more specific information: how many times, when I used, who I was with, etc. Now asking me how many times I had smoked pot was like asking me how many beers I had drank. It was a fairly large number without any ability to quantify it precisely. He slid a pad of paper and a pen to me and told me to start writing. I was quite embarrassed by the whole thing because it seemed like ancient history to me. My pot usage was pretty much limited to a year or two before and after I graduated from high school. It turned out, it was a really big issue and they actually had to get waivers for EVERY occurrence that I listed. To this day, I wonder if they actually read what I put down . . . that New Years Eve party (Dec 31), that 4th of July BBQ (July 4), my birthday . . . etc, etc. Afterwards, I was marched up to speak with a high ranking naval officer and was verbally reprimanded for my prior experimentation of illegal drugs. I was told how unfit I was for this program and his Navy. I guess my response was one of contrition because he let up, signed some papers in my folder and released me to the Yeoman that shredded my Sonar Technician contracts and typed up a set of contracts for me to enter the Naval Nuclear Power Program.

Instead of going to San Diego, I would now go to Orlando, Florida. Instead of leaving in three weeks, I was told I would not ship out for three months. The United States Naval Nuclear Power Program, I was told, was reserved for the finest and brightest enlisted men and there was a very large cash reward for completion of the training. I was told I would qualify for $6,0000 bonus IF and when I graduated from the training program. I did not have a clue. I had visions of Star Trek . . and I already had most of that money spent . . .

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