Friday, November 21

Tale of a Gunner's Mate

Today's post written by Matthew Cullen, Acasta crew member and real life member of the United States Navy:

My grandfather was in the United States Navy as a Boiler Technician in the fifties during the Korean War, and would regale me with stories of his experiences while he served aboard an Allen M. Sumner class destroyer the USS Stormes (DD-780).

I was about 14 when I decided that being a sailor was a career that I could enjoy. I was set on the idea that I wanted to be submarine sailor, after watching some choice movies and documentaries; I knew that the submarine life was for me. As time wore on and my interests and aspirations changed with my age, the majesty and mystery of the navy faded from my teenage mind. I took on the opinion that my adolescent dreams were more like children wanting to be Astronauts or Super Hero’s then an actual career path.

The Plunge
I graduated from high school in June of 2007, after which I got a job as a security guard for a low income housing sight in downtown Los Angeles. After a falling out with my mother and the inability to support myself in southern California with $9/hour job with no real marketable skills, I had to stop and ask myself what was my next move. I needed to get into an organization which will take damn near anyone and offer a decent pay check with little experience. The answer was clear, and I walked to the local recruiting office and talked to a recruiter. Two weeks later I went to the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) San Diego for my screening. In MEPS I was required to perform basic exercises such as a “duck walk” and various movements to ensure I was physically sound to perform my  Group of Males during screeningduties. I also had to provide blood/urine samples to test for diseases and illegal drugs (the USN has a zero tolerance to drugs). After I completed my screening I received my enlistment package and a plane ticket to Recruit Training Command (RTC) Great Lakes for boot camp.

Night of Arrival
It was a bitterly cold Chicagoan winter that 12th of March in 2008. I stepped onto a bus that was shuttling recruits from O’Hare airport to base. We were singing songs, telling stories of home and what boot camp would be like, but when the bus arrived and the doors opened the mood wasn’t very light anymore. The first words I heard after the doors opened were “GET THE F%#K OF THIS BUS RIGHT F%#KING NOW”! He was a large and deep voiced man and not just a little intimidating. We scattered off the bus and were told to go inside the processing building. The Recruit Division Commanders (RDC’s) were yelling and giving orders, some of the other recruits were taking it badly. This is the moment were I silently thanked my mother for enrolling me into a youth program called the Sea Cadets, which is like JROTC but geared around the navy, so I was prepared for what was happening. First thing we did was call home and tell our parents we made and that we loved them, we were given 60 seconds. 

After that we went to a gear issue to get our ditty bags (a ditty bag is an old term used to describe a bag to hold your toiletries) and to change into a “navy” sweat suit, they are blue so they are affectionately known as “smurfs” they are not a very good looking outfit. Once I had all of these items, it was time to ship all civilian items I had home to my parents, save my wallet, watch and religious medallion(as per navy regulations). 

Night of arrival lasted all night and into the morning. The bus had arrived around 1730 the evening of the 11th and once everything was said and done I had classed up with my division and was being marched to my barracks at around 0430 on the 12th. I was placed into division 925 out Ship 06 the USS Constitution (All the buildings at RTC have ship names and are referred to as ships). Because I played the tuba in high school I was placed into a “Triple threat” 900 division. The triple threat means that our division was responsible for performing in the Band, Choir, and Rifle Drill team during our eventual graduation 8 weeks later. 

I am a United States Sailor
“Attention to the Creed! I am a United States Sailor I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States of American, and I will obey the orders of those appointed over me. I represent the fighting spirit of the Navy and those who have gone before me to defend freedom and democracy around the world. I proudly serve my country’s Navy combat team with Honor, Courage, and Commitment. I am committed to excellence and the fair treatment of all”. I cannot tell you how many times I recited that creed during my stay at RTC, but I know that I cannot forget it. It would take probably 5 pages to explain all that I did and learned throughout boot camp so I am going to summarize. We received instruction on everything from folding our underwear to how to get a ship underway, from fighting fires to marksmanship, and all of this training takes place in two months. It’s mostly a mental game than and intellectual one. Many a time I lay in my rack at night and listen to some poor kid sob into his pillow because he misses home. In the end it just turned into a routine and the routine safeguards your feelings and puts them hold until graduation. By the way it’s worth mentioning that I still have 10 more months of training before I get to a ship.

Recruit Division Commanders Parade your Divisions
May 2008, I finally made it, I’m now getting to graduate and continue my journey to become a real sailor. The ceremony was full of speeches, music and saluting batteries and made for quite the spectacle. The attending parent’s favorite part is when the RDC’s parade the divisions down the drill hall for all the families to see.

         After the ceremony we were allowed our first liberty with our parents. Graduation is always on a Friday, weather permitting and liberty expires 2000 the same night. You must be back on base in your ship by 2000 or there will be hell to pay. Liberty starts again at 0700 the next morning and the process is repeated for sun as well.

“A” School
In the navy your “job” is referred as a rating, such as my rating is a Gunners mate (GM). In order to be rated you must attend and graduate A school. GM A school is held right across the street from RTC at Naval Service Training Center (NSTC) great lakes. With all the preliminary and technical schools it took me 6 months to finish A school. It is mostly Computer Based Training (CBT) and I found that kind of disappointing. During my stay at NSTC I was assigned to the USS Porter (more buildings referred to as ships) where I made a few friends that I currently work with today. A school was kind of a blur, it was the same stuff day in and day out, and so it’s hard to remember any good details other than it’s was the first time I saw a torpedo in real life.  

Virginia is for lovers

To further complicate my job description, in addition to my rate I can have a Naval Enlistment Code (NEC) which is a four digit number that will classify what my technical skills are. To earn the NEC I attended C school. I went to Training Support Center Dam Neck Virginia for the NEC 0979, Mk41 Vertical Launching Systems (VLS). My occupational standard can be described as an operator and maintenance person for VLS. The school was not difficult, for if you know how to read and navigate the Technical Publications (Tech Pubs) you can trouble shoot and repair almost anything on VSL. I would like to point out that I am very lucky to be a VLS tech because this system has few moving parts, and being that it is static results in a very low failure rate.  I rarely left based because I didn’t have a car or know anyone who did so I would cruise around base trying not to die of boredom.  After I graduated from C school I received my orders to my first ship the Guided Missile Destroyer USS Barry (DDG-52) out of Norfolk Virginia. Only one problem the ship was on deployment in the Mediterranean while I was in Virginia.

Underway Shift Colors
Since I couldn’t report to my command immediately, I spent a brief period in the Transient Personnel Unit (TPU) while the navy figured out what to do. They decided to fly me and several other crew members to Rota Spain and meet up with our ship. We departed Norfolk International Airport to New Jersey for our transatlantic flight. We landed in Juarez Spain and was picked up by a duty driver to shuttle us to the base were our ship was moored. The first time I climbed up the brow I was so excited to see what it looks on the inside of a ship, and let me tell you what its nothing but functional. The Bulkheads (walls) were lined with firefighting equipment and valves, the Overhead (ceiling) had pipes and electrical cables running through it, it was awesome. I was taken to my berthing (where we sleep) and assigned a rack (bunks). These racks are sometimes referred to as “Coffin Lockers” for obvious reasons, I had a bottom rack.

They look too small to be comfortable but I can assure you that 6’ by 2’ by 2’ box we sailors call home fells like a palace after a hard day’s work. Then next morning we prepared to get underway. I ate breakfast with my shipmates and went to my sea and anchor station. As the last line was being cast off the Boatswain mate of the watch called out of the 1MC (ships PA system) “Under way shift colors” and then the ensign was shifted from the Fantail to the port yardarm. I was finally underway with my ship.

Up and forward, Starboard. Down and Aft, Port
What followed next was probably the most grueling porting of my training. Boot camp, A school, and C school had barely scratched the surface of how to be a good sailor. The real training began with On the Job Training (OJT). We had a General Quarters (GQ) drill every week, on top of all the other drill packages we were to perform. In between that I was required to perform my preventative maintenance and complete my Personnel Qualification Standards so as to get qualified in my job. And if that wasn’t enough I was expected to stand 8 hours of watch every day. Once I got the time management portion down that job became way more rewarding and enjoyable. I can remember one surprise GQ at 2300, I was dead asleep when what seemed like world was ending I jerked awake to “Bong, Bong, Bong, Bong General quarters, general quarters, all hands man your battle stations, up and forward starboard, down and aft port. Reason for general quarters: Drill. On a destroyer we are expected to go from a dead sleep in t-shirts and underwear to our battle stations and full battle dress in 13 minutes. It took some practice for me to get it right. That was in 2009 when I made my first appearance on my ship. After we got home we started out work ups repairing damage sustained on deployment, and offloading the missile canisters from VLS.

Deployment 2011
This deployment was to be much like that last. We had our stores on load and our weapons on load and began our deployment. We reached the Mediterranean without delay and made our way through the Suez Canal to gain access to the Arabian Gulf. It is here where I can elaborate on the highlight of my naval career. One day out of the blue my division is mustered in our shop by my Leading Chief Petty Officer (LCPO) as we gather in despair that our work list is about to be lengthened again Chief tells us that the next we are put in strike condition 1 don’t play around and get our a$$es to our stations. We were confused at first because every previous strike drill we endured we performed like rock stars. Then my Leading Petty Officer (LPO) at the time clued us in on the fact that we had been steaming toward the Libyan coast for the past 6 hours. Then it was all clear, chief meant the next time we go to strike condition 1 it was for real and he needed us to keep performing like rock stars. The next evening at approximately 1800, I heard the 1MC put us in strike condition one. I spit my food back onto my tray through into the scullery and broke the sound barrier on my way to my station which was aft VLS. Once inside the security station I locked myself inside and dialed into the net, I reported aft VLS manned and ready, and then waited. Not 15 minutes later I heard one of the cell hatches bang open and then what sounded like a freight train running though VLS. It was short, maybe 3 seconds and after it left I could hear it fly away towards its target.

My ship the USS Barry fired 55 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Libya after reloading 3 separate times in Sicily. We fired the 1000th T-Hawk in the history of the navy, and we were all proud of it. After deployment we went into a yard period for a much needed overhaul. We maneuvered the ship onto a Titan (barge used to take ships out of the water) and her in dry dock. Being in the yards was awful everything must be taken off the ship and I mean everything. We put all of our gear in boxes and physically moved off the ship. That took me late 2011 and into early 2012.

Back to the Mid-West
I choose orders back to RTC as an instructor and May 10th of 2012 reported onboard and have stuck here ever since. I am currently a Small Arms Marksmanship Instructor (SAMI) and teach recruits the basic fundamentals of marksmanship and weapons safety. I am negotiating for orders now to be a plank owner of a new destroyer that is still being built in Maine, USS Rafael Peralta (DDG-115). I owe everything I have today to the Navy. It is a great experience and am thankful to have made to decision to enlist.

GM1 (SW) Cullen, Matthew USN    

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