Wednesday, 12 February 2014

2014-Command at sea isn´t everything

This article was authorized to be uploaded to my blog by

Janis Jorgensen,

Manager, Heritage Collection-US Naval Institute.

Command at Sea isn´t everything

Commander Robert S.Mackenna, US Navy

The fiscal year 2001 Commander Command Screening Board met from 12 December through 19 Decem­ber 2000. Their commission, unknown to them, was to determine my fate — or so I believed.

It was my fourth and final chance to get the ultimate job: command at sea. My first opportunity came in January 1998, one month before I reported as executive officer of the Ponce (LPD-15). I went through the motions of en­suring that my record was up to date and my photo was current, but I knew this first chance was little more than a formality. I was neither surprised nor disappointed at my name's omission from the list of lucky ones. The sec­ond look came 11 months into my tour. I then was a newly selected commander with a shipyard period, a training cycle, a couple of exer­cises, a change of command, two fitness reports, and a command qualification under my belt. The board's meeting date was circled in red on my calendar, right up there with my wedding anniversary and the birthdays of my children. I was very optimistic, right up until the moment I scrolled down the alphabetically arranged list of selectees -- and found no McKs. How could that be? But, hey, next year probably was my turn, right?

With another six months as executive officer, a couple of months in the Adri­atic during the Kosovo conflict, and an­other fitness report, I was a shoo-in. Then, right in the middle of a day­dream, in which I was walking up the brow to the familiar sound of four bells, there came a rude awakening. Once again, the McKs were skipped. Crest­fallen was not an apt description of my feelings. Devastated might be a bit too much, but it was closer than crestfallen. A little bit of self-doubt began to creep in, a little bitterness perhaps, and defi­nitely some jealousy of those chosen ahead of me.

As they say, time heals all wounds, and after a couple of weeks I looked ahead with great optimism to my last look, which was bound to be my turn. One out of every five commanding officers, including my last one, is chosen on this opportunity. It was time to order the cake, break out the cham­pagne, and practice the change-of-com-mand speech. This year was going to be different. 

My outward confidence, however, belied my inner doubt. The day the board results were due, I was on Christ­mas vacation at a ski resort in the Bavarian Alps surrounded by my fam­ily. As much as I wanted to let sleeping dogs lie and enjoy the vacation, I needed to know. After locating the re­sort's internet cafe, I went to the Bu­reau of Personnel website and found the answer I feared would be waiting for me. My last-second three-pointer had clanged off the rim. 

Was I disappointed? Absolutely! My destiny had been stolen from me. I had earned the right to command at sea, and now it appeared that it was not going to happen. Nonetheless, I was able—in the week after my vacation— to take stock of my situation with a certain level-headedness. Here is what I came up with:

  • Life is not always fair, but this process is as fair as it possibly can be. I received four looks just like the rule-book says, and unfortunately I was not selected. I believe that I, like many oth­ers, deserved to be selected, but not everyone can get to the next level. The officers who were selected certainly are deserving, and I offer them my congrat­ulations and best wishes for success.
  • My career is a very important part of my life, but it is not what defines me, and it is not who I am. My roles as a father and a husband are far more important. If I had to choose to reach the pinnacle of only one role in my life on earth, it would be my relationship with my family. My role as a father, however, requires me to set a good example for my children. One way I choose to do that is by excelling at an honorable profession. Another way is by accepting defeat gracefully. I will demand no recounts. 
  • I love being an officer and leader in the world's finest navy. There still are sailors to be led, young officers to be developed, and adventures to be experienced.
  • Success does not come from a job title. It comes from doing whatever we are supposed to be doing, when we're supposed to be doing it, to the best of our abilities.
  • The board that met in December did not determine my fate or destiny. My destiny was determined long ago, and not by any board. My wife keeps telling me that everything happens for a rea­son, and I'm starting to believe her. I am looking forward to finding out where it all leads. But for now, I will keep enjoying every day. So I guess I have come to closure with this greatest of disappointments. Dreams die hard, but they are replaced with other dreams, equally as attractive and motivating. I'll begin working to­ward those today.

Earning the command at sea pin 
can be  the pinnacle of a career
but it shouldn't be the sole measure 
of  the worth of an officer.
Commander McKenna is a surface warfare officer stationed in the Netherlands as an amphibious advi­sor to the Royal Netherlands Navy.