The Hardest Thing I Had to Do as a Veteran

Even tougher than crossing the equator and international date line at the same time, submerged…

Even tougher than crossing the equator and international date line at the same time, submerged…

I hated going to the unemployment office and telling them how I had been out looking for jobs. Just one month earlier I was the man in charge of an important and dangerous exercise. Now I felt like a loser. My whole sense of self-worth had flipped itself upside down when I got out of the Navy.

The previous month I was the Acting Chief Engineer on a billion-dollar nuclear submarine, with 60 people reporting to me. We were wrapping up a 3 month dry dock period and took the boat out to sea to make sure everything worked well.

After major work that required an opening to be cut in the side of the boat, as well as work on the entire engine room, the way to test that everything worked was simple in theory yet complex in practice. First get out of drydock, and don’t sink next to the pier.

Next, go to sea, submerge, go down a hundred feet, and make sure nothing leaks at the higher pressure. Then go down another hundred feet, repeating the process all the way until test depth. Hang out at test depth for a while and hope nothing leaks. At test depth a seawater leak, even through a tiny hole, fills the boat with water so fast the crew only has minutes to react to prevent sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

We didn’t make it to the end of the exercise and had to stop early. At 300 feet the rate of leakage on one of the sea water valves on the evaporator, although slow, was too much. We surfaced and came back into port to repair it. I was done.

I had resigned my commission as an officer in the Navy a few months earlier. My orders said to get out anytime during the month of August. It was August 30th. Instead of giving me time to try to find a job the captain had dumped a whole bunch of responsibility on me as I was trying to transition out of the Navy.

I hadn’t complained about being the Acting Engineer because the real Chief Engineer, Tom C., was finally able to go get his surgery to repair his hernia. Tom and I had worked together for over a year now, and he had been working for months with a hernia. The captain hadn’t let him go get surgery on it because everything was urgent and important regarding the nuclear power plant, the dry dock repair, and the upcoming inspections. On August 30th Tom came back, all healed up. I was out of there.

Unemployed, Limited Prospects

So there I was in Hawaii, unemployed. I had talked with some of the recruiters that help place people getting out of the military in jobs at different companies and knew that I could go be a factory shift supervisor at some place on the mainland. But I wanted to stay in Hawaii. I started looking for a job. It was hard!

Part of the reason it was difficult was I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I had a hard time getting job interviews. So I kept collecting unemployment checks every week, and going to the office to let the State of Hawaii unemployment office clerk know that I was diligently searching for a job. It was embarrassing. But I did it anyway.

What it really meant to be out of the Navy was starting to sink in. I no longer had a community of people that I knew and worked with every day. I no longer had a group of friends with similar background and experience to hang out with like I had for the last 9 years. Sure, the people were still around, but they were on different schedules, were living a different way of life. I was no longer one of them.

I got married two months before I got out of the Navy, and my wife had an ok job. She was supportive of my change in circumstances, which that really helped. Thank goodness we had no children or pets to take care of, because that would have really added to the stress.

I didn’t know anything about the business world. I was making my way in completely unfamiliar territory while under the time pressure of unemployment benefits running out, and I had no support group of friends anymore. It was a difficult time.

Looking back, I can understand why some veterans get so disoriented or depressed with all the changes and difficulty in their life when they get out of the military. It would have been really hard for us if we had kids, and got moved back to a part of the country where job were tough to get.

Knowing what I know now, what should I have done differently?

I would have learned more about how the business world works years before getting out of the Navy. That’s a tough thing to do, because the way business is portrayed books and movies is completely unrealistic. It’s one of those things where you have to be in the thick of it to learn. Probably the best thing to do is to read or listen to biographies of successful business people, especially the parts of their stories when they’re starting out. Everyone starts at the bottom, and the details of how to move up are important.

Also, I would have learned specifically identifiable skills and gotten the equivalent commercial or industrial certifications for them while I was still in the Navy. That would have been hard to do, because it would have above and beyond all the Navy learning and certifications that I had to do. But it would have been worth it.

When I say certifications, I don’t mean a college degree. I mean actual industry certification for a specific job that shows people objectively that you’re qualified to do that job. That’s a very different thing than a degree. Employers hire for skills, not learning ability.

For example, for project management that would be the PMP, for Information Technology there are certifications from Cisco, Microsoft, and other major vendors. I am sure that there are equivalent certifications for other skills like trucking, fitness instructor, accountant, electrician, and plumber.

I would have started talking with recruiters more than a year before I got out. They would have been able to give me some of this specific type of advice as well as help me figure out what I wanted to do after I got out, and what part of the country I wanted to be in. I could have also planned vacation to go to different hiring conferences and talk to people that actually wanted to hire veterans during that year of preparation. Tough to do that when deployed, but it would have helped.

I actually ended up getting a job in Hawaii. A company took a chance on me because of my experience with the nuclear power plant. I got a job as a technical sales and service rep for an industrial water-treatment company. Although I traveled to the island of Kauai every two weeks to meet with sugar mills, I didn’t really like the job, and I was a poor salesperson.

Two years later we move to Colorado and I got a job with a big company in the semiconductor industry. I didn’t do a very good job as a sales person there either, but I was starting to learn how the business world worked. I was slowly moving up.

By the time I was on my 4th job after getting out of the Navy I had figured out how to be somewhat successful. I did well in that job… so I went and started a company around a new technology at the time and learned a whole bunch of other lessons. But that’s a different story.

Looking back, those were some difficult years I spent learning my way around the business world. The five years I had spent in the Navy wasn’t wasted, because I had learned leadership, management, and how far I could push myself, all things that helped me in the future.

I had some difficult months in the Navy. We spent more than two months submerged under the water north of Japan, working shift work the whole time, with ice cold water on the other side of the hull, trying to be as quiet as possible to remain undetected by the others that were also out there underwater.

But those months right after getting out of the Navy were some of the toughest ones I had ever experienced.

It’s a big change getting out of the military, and the people who volunteered as teenagers to serve our country need as much help as we can give them when they finally finish their service.

Continue reading “The Hardest Thing I Had to Do as a Veteran”

Somebody Has to Set the Standards

Because that’s what leaders do

Somebody Has to Set the Standards

Because that’s what leaders do

United States Naval Academy

Someone Has To Set the Standards

There’s a lot of phrases that bubble into my head at odd times. This is one I learned early on at the Academy. I didn’t really understand it’s significance until I was fully engaged in my first job on the submarine.

Some midshipmen make a big deal about how difficult life is at Annapolis. They’re full of crap — it’s not all that hard. Sure, you have to wear a uniform, get your BS degree in four years, take extra classes on leadership, and put up with extra military activities. All that can be dealt with. What’s challenging is working to lead experienced enlisted men on a submarine who have seen junior officers come and go over the years. Now that’s tough!

Working on a submarine can be scary. Everything is metal, it’s cramped, the unshielded radiation from the reactor can kill you with a few minutes of exposure, there are tens of thousand of pounds of high explosive, and if you walk by a steam leak in the engine room it can cut your head off. Add to that the danger of fire, flooding, and the potential of running into a sea mountain or bumping into another submarine underwater, you can say it’s a stressful situation.

When I reported aboard the boat, the captain put me in charge of the Electrical division, and told me to do a good job. I relished the opportunity to put my years of leadership training to work! With an electrical engineering degree, and essentially a masters in nuclear engineering, I figured I was hot stuff. I micromanaged the shit out of those guys for three months.

It sucked. I never knew what was going on, made promises to the captain I couldn’t keep, and in general made myself look like an idiot frequently. I was unhappy. Thankfully the head of the Electrical division, Chief Majors, took pity on me and we had a talk. I guess he had been through this before. He told me the enlisted guys were really good at their job, and if we worked together, everyone would be happy. I was a bit suspicious about this, but listened.

He was a straight shooter, and what he told me was the golden truth. After that talk, I stopped micromanaging the guys, and started trusting them to do their job. They kept me informed about what was going on, I looked out for them, and we worked together. When there was a problem, I shielded them from the senior officers, took the heat myself, and didn’t throw them under the bus. When they needed help from me, they asked for it, and I used what skills I had in persuasion and writing to get it done.

But there was one thing I would not bend on. See, when you observe the same things day after day, you get used to them. Everything different and scary about the submarine power plant became normal, and nothing ever changed. It was tempting to cut corners and not check everything fully all the time. Did we really need to check the specific gravity of every single battery every single time? Did the full routine maintenance really need to be fully done on the motor generator brushes or the high amp circuit breakers every time?

Routine maintenance was a lot of work, and we worked a lot of hours. It was years of non-stop shiftwork, weekend work, months of deployment away from family and homeport. Couldn’t I cut my guys some slack?

That’s where my training from the Academy kicked in. Even though I was friendly with the guys that worked for me, I still maintained the separation necessary for perspective. I was the one that set the standard for how things needed to be done, and I made sure it was done right, every time.

The Electrical division guys, deep down, knew it was the right thing to do as well. They bitched, but did the work. The rest of the guys on the submarine knew we were doing our part to make sure everything was running properly when we were steaming hundreds of feet underwater all over the Pacific Ocean for months at a time.

This experience helped a lot when I was running my company, and my techs were deploying complex data networks for hospitals, cities, counties, and universities. Customers were happy because our shit worked.

Somebody has to set the standards. That’s what leaders do.

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I write articles on business, technology, and life, and have a different perspective than many…

Was a nuclear trained officer in the Navy on a submarine based out of Pearl Harbor from 90–94, after graduating from Annapolis. Started an IT business in 2002, grew it to $52 million in sales, and sold it in 2015. My wife and I have 3 girls who are competitive gymnasts, and a son who plays soccer.

We live in a world of professional spectating.

We’re taught that other people make the rules that we have to follow. It takes a long time to break out of that passive mold, and some…

We live in a world of professional spectating.

We’re taught that other people make the rules that we have to follow. It takes a long time to break out of that passive mold, and some…

We live in a world of professional spectating. We watch the teachers as they teach. We watch our sports teams and cheer for them. We watch the celebrities in the news media. We watch the political circus and get all invested in it.

We’re taught that other people make the rules that we have to follow. It takes a long time to break out of that passive mold, and some people never do it.

It’s so much easier to watch than to do anything. It’s too much work to be inspired. And independent action, which might have consequences? Ridiculous!

Teaching Kids How and Why to Break the Rules

Knowing when to break the submarine nuclear reactor

A few years ago I changed the way I taught my kids rules. I started teaching them how to break rules. It’s wonderful, refreshing, and feels a bit subversive.

From an early age, I had been taught to follow the rules. We live in a world full of rules. And that’s probably good for when a person is starting out. Everyone needs to develop their own internal operations manual for life, and following the rules is a good starting point.

The problem is, there are too many rules. I learned this as a nuclear submarine officer in the Navy. The Navy has lots of rules, being a big bureaucratic organization, and not having fought in a war for many decades. It’s also important to not break the nuclear power plant.

But as a junior officer, I was trained to learn the theory, all the standard operations, and then everything else about the submarine, so I could choose which rules to break!

See, we trained often. We trained for big, deadly problems. Fire, flooding, close aboard explosion, nuclear contamination. There were processes and procedures and manuals for how to combat all types of problems. We were good at responding to them, and knew exactly what to do. But that was for a single problem.

For multiple problem situations, the rules were in conflict with each other. And that’s where the captain wanted us to break the rules. For example, normally if the reactor was scrammed — a rapid shutdown by the control rods dropping in their holes-the engine room should be shut down and no more steam drawn out. The nuclear reactor operating procedures were very clear on how to maintain reactor safety.

But if there was a close aboard explosion that shut down the reactor, started flooding the boat, and we started going deeper underwater, we should do whatever necessary to get to the surface and not die. If that meant delivering tens of thousand of shaft horsepower to the screw while sucking the last bit of steam out of the steam generators and rapidly cooling down the reactor and breaking it, that’s ok.

It’s better to be on the surface with a broken nuclear reactor than at the bottom of the ocean, dead, but having followed the reactor operations manual to the letter. It’s obvious that’s the right answer when you can discuss it calmly. But unless you’ve thought about it ahead of time, you may not know what to do when it actually happens.

We all agreed it would be much better to have to explain our actions at a court martial, than to not have the ability to tell our story to anyone ever again.

I’ve boiled this down to a saying that I teach my kids:

Know the rules, the reasons for the rules, the chance of getting caught if you break them, the consequences of getting caught, and if you can deal with the consequences.

So I have an answer I can use for them when I roll a stop sign. It also lets me teach them to think more for themselves.

There’s a second element to the conflict of rules submarine example, and it’s a little trickier. The breaking of the rules in a multiple casualty situation was not written down anywhere that I could find, even in the many classified documents comprising the reactor operations manual. There were rumors that submarine captain training had a whole different set of books, but I wouldn’t know about that.

These were unwritten rules, passed down from officer to officer. They came from organizational history and experience, and embodied the results oriented real world operations done daily for decades in the submarine force.

Unwritten rules are hard to defend under the scrutiny of people not involved in the situation. Imagine a headline in the newspaper, “Navy submarine Captain teaches crew to violate nuclear safety procedures!” The complexity of the potential life or death situation would be lost in the simplified headline.

So some of the most useful guidelines and rules on how to act and think about different situations get passed down verbally. That’s why I talk through these things with my kids, and I tell them:

When you are part of a group, learn the unwritten rules for how to succeed. Ask experienced people for advice, and listen. You have to have the ability to recognize the right answer when told.

Unfortunately, there is the danger that unwritten rules can teach the wrong thing as well, and since they are unwritten, they are not open to scrutiny by others outside the group. Questioning and critical thinking are necessary before putting those into one’s internal operations manual.

Furthermore, I explain to them there are different sets of rules, and they have to know the priority when they conflict. It has to do with their loyalty.

I want them to be loyal to themselves first. They’re children, and I don’t want anyone to use rules to take advantage of or abuse them. So I teach them to think for themselves first. Next comes our family, then everyone else. This is what I tell them to do when different rules conflict:

Your own personal rules come first, family rules next, then community, state, and country. After that comes group rules for companies and organizations.

This is a complex and fast changing world. I want my children to have every possible chance to succeed in life. A big part of my responsibility is to help them develop their own internal life operations manual. Teaching them how to learn rules and how to decide which ones to follow are important.

But even more importantly, to get what they want, I teach them how and why to break the rules.

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I write articles on business, technology, and life, and have a different perspective than many…

Was a nuclear trained officer in the Navy on a submarine based out of Pearl Harbor from 90–94, after graduating from Annapolis. Started an IT business in 2002, grew it to $52 million in sales, and sold it in 2015. My wife and I have 3 girls who are competitive gymnasts, and a son who plays soccer.