BLUF:

This post is wholly different from the previous posts about personal finance & money management, but hopefully you enjoy some insight into how crazy life onboard a fast-attack submarine can be at times. The story below resurfaced recently as I was reading the horrible news about the USS GEORGE WASHINGTON in the shipyard that included four likely suicides in the last month along with seven total deaths of crewmembers already this year.

This not only made me very sad, but also reminded me of the significant challenges we had on the USS JACKSONVILLE (SSN 699) during Modernization in 2007 immediately following a long shipyard period, and working up for a deployment in mid-2008. It got so crazy at times on the JAX that for catharsis I’d write about it being a psychological experiment so that I could laugh about these things instead of getting completely angry or actually going mad. Somehow, despite all the insanity that we dealt with, we were blessed with such a resilient team of great people that we not only survived, but went on to complete an incredible deployment that the Commander of Task Force 69 (CTF-69) stated on the 1MC when he rode us following our final mission that, “JAX just completed the best SSN deployment in over 10 years!”

While I never shared this electronically or allowed anyone to make a copy at the time, hopefully you enjoy some funny memories on the good ship JACKSONVILLE.

 Need to define some terms/acronyms before the story:

JAX is the 3 letter trigraph to signify the USS JACKSONVILLE (SSN 699).

SSN =  fast attack submarine (SS denotes a submarine and N denotes nuclear power). 699 is the hull number, and USS JACKSONVILLE is a Los Angeles Class fast attack submarine. USS LOS ANGELES (SSN 688) and these workhorses for the US Navy are known by either Los Angeles class submarines or 688 class (spoken “six-eighty-eight”).

CO = Commanding Officer, the Captain of the Ship

XO = Executive Officer, second in command

I was in the Department Head (DH) role as Weapons Officer and went by WEPS.

The other submarine warfare DHs are the Engineer (ENG), and the Navigator (NAV). The Supply Officer (CHOP) is also a DH, and is the only non-nuclear trained officer onboard a submarine.

Hope you enjoy the ride!

 

688 Life-The Psychological Experiment

 

Our jobs on submarines are ridiculously busy such that accomplishment of all tasks is completely impossible, sleep is hard to get, and appreciation for hard work is sorely lacking.  Despite all these great things, I was thinking there is something larger going on, and that we are just part of this intense psychological experiment being monitored to determine just how much a human can handle before completely flipping out.  Here is a short list of those added psychological factors onboard the good ship JACKSONVILLE:

 1. Racks-of course they are too small, but what makes it a psychological experiment is something else…our boat is on a constant list to port (meaning it leans to the left about 2 degrees).  That may be due to the torpedo loadout and how we have it setup, but my rack opens to port also, so it’s like I’m constantly (while trying to sleep mind you) compensating to not roll out of the rack.  JAX +1, WEPS 0

     a. Fortunately, to help keep me from falling out, the rack above me is so old and so many have slept in it that it is permanently concave…yep, bowed toward me so there is even less room than the nominal 17” we have in terms of vertical spacing…and yes, I just measured it. JAX +1, WEPS 0

     b. Did I mention they are spacious, 27” across, combine the height (remember there is also a fluorescent light in there so cut out another 1.5” at your head and the curvature bowing towards you and there is maybe 15”x27”-makes simply rolling over without racking your skull on the metal fluorescent light enclosure and inadvertently waking up your tired colleague a challenge. JAX +1, WEPS 0

     c. The curtain:  it is not long enough to stretch the length of the rack opening.  We ‘rig the room for red’ when people are sleeping, but my curtain pulled fully forward leaves a big open spot that the light shines right into…yep, right into my eyes and even a red light shining directly into your eyes sucks!  I remedied that by rigging some Velcro to the inside of the rack and outside of the curtain so I can pull it tight and while slack would let it fall to allow the nice light in my face, the Velcro has destroyed the attempts of this psychological test. WEPS +1, JAX 0

     d. The 2” diameter lock in my rack right next to my head.  Yep, this is on the stbd (starboard-means right side) side where I have to compensate for our list to port.  The locker is not mine and I have not yet been able to get them to change it out, even a 1” lock would be a significant change.  It is a Supply locker…yes, part of the group that does not stand duty, nor can qualify for OOD, etc. the more challenging watches…hmmm, maybe Supply is heading off this experiment-will have to watch the Chop (Supply Officer) more closely now.  Chop has two free lockers in his rack, WTF?!  CHOP +1, WEPS 0

2. Lockers-can’t fit a binder in lengthwise even though there is unused space inside the door frame, just the metal shelves were built precisely 1 cm too small.  So we are forced to waste space putting them in sideways which is inefficient, and we end up stuffing the locker such that people often get binders rained down on them when they attempt to open it up to look for something.  As the Quality Assurance Officer (QAO, a job I should not have that sucks and will add that to the list later) in addition to WEPS, I have taken over much of the locker and the poor other souls are forced to look elsewhere or cram them in the bottom.  JAX=WEPS=PUSH, other officers -1

3. Inboxes can’t fit an 8.5” x 11” folder.  Another spot where they could have built them 1cm larger, but it was purposely done to mess with our heads.  When we throw large rudders at high speeds, the boat takes large angle lists to that side.  Result being that all the paperwork from everyone’s inbox flies out onto the floor to be mixed together in a large mess on the deck.  Of course, these boxes shouldn’t be so full in the first place, but re-read my first sentence-impossible to complete all tasks.  To make it an even greater psychological treat, let me introduce the JACKSONVILLE River. When we took large angles, there was some fluid leakage from above that made its way down to the Officer P-way (passageway) and supersaturated the crappy carpet just below the inboxes and sadly inside the ENG’s stateroom. Whether it was from the 30-year old carpet, or whatever the fluid is that leaks from some pipe above us in the CO/XO head, but the combination made it smell like aged vomit from someone that drank too much and went to meet the porcelain god at 2am. This leakage was so frequent and persistent that we named it, “The JACKSONVILLE River”. It only took about a year to figure out the leak and finally resolve it-what a surprise! Thus, the combined mess of papers and folders on the deck were also wet and smelled fondly of puke. To remedy this, I strung up some Velcro straps along the length of the lockers prior to taking high speed rudder turns this underway.  It held, no paper fell out…WEPS +1, JAX 0

4. Treadmill

     a. Ok, so you probably gather there is some stress in our jobs, and know that exercise is a great method to relieve stress.  Well, it can’t be that easy on the good ship JACKSONVILLE.  Right in the middle of the one treadmill (yes, one treadmill-how’s that for ‘culture of fitness’?) we have onboard (and no, it’s not one of those nice LifeFitness models), there is a bare, unsmooth pipe in the ideal running spot, right between throat and forehead level depending on your height.  To adjust the speed you have to lean down, hoping not to rack your head, and stretch your arm out as far as possible, then you might just reach the speed button (shorter people probably can’t even reach that far).

     b. The real psychological kicker is that the treadmill will just die on you, because the circuit breaker is too small for all the loads-just a psychological test you see…not only does it ruin your workout, if not reacting quickly you’ll rack your head against a bare metal pipe (not smooth, but with edges and bumps to provide more direct pressure).  The belt doesn’t slow down gradually, but simply comes to an abrupt stop. It died on me last night with 0:20sec remaining while at a 10.0mph clip… maybe realizing there is some experiment going on allowed me to anticipate this and avoid crushing my skull.  I immediately went to find out where the breaker was to prevent this in the future, but also learned that when the Evaporator is running (our source of fresh water underway) the treadmill can’t be…FML!

5. Divisional Inboxes-3MC (Maintenance Material Management Coordinator) brought this one to light for me.  I was explaining our lame inboxes and he went on to explain the fault inserted into their inboxes.  The divisions have the vertical plastic inboxes-you know the ones that hang up on the wall with ~6-10 vertical files.  These files are special, they have holes in the bottom so that papers fall through.  To fix this they remedied it with tape (probably the Supply Dept as part of the experiment).  Not a great remedy since now the papers stick to the tape and rip when people try to pull them out.  Not really sure who was the genius that decided on tape, or why people settle for such inadequate solutions-guess after enough beatdowns people forget how to think outside the box.

6. New one today…we pulled into Kings Bay for a day to change rod programming (don’t even ask what that means-it would bore you silly). 23hrs-no liberty off-base, and liberty expires at midnight.  The Exchange here is only open until 1800-nope not even that cool, just heard at 1855 while typing this on the submarine that the Exchange actually closed at 1500, so the berth time change a couple days ago from 1300 to 1500 had served its evil intent. Since our liberty is only on base, the Exchange was going to be the only place to buy personal things for the rest of the 2-month underway. As mentioned, our initial berth time was supposed to be 1300, that changed to 1500 a couple days ago-such a small psychological dent that nobody even noticed.  It was even better when we actually moored at ~1515, and then they didn’t have a brow that would fit across.  Without a brow, there is no liberty, since there is no way to get from the boat to the pier.  At 1615, while waiting for a brow, we were informed that it would not arrive until at least 1800, yep, just a long enough wait that everything on base would be closed.  At least the bowling alley will be open, but it will probably be out of beer.  Update: the brow arrived and the only place they could put it such that it would fit was on top of the weapons shipping hatch (1 of 2 available exits).  We had a stores load to bring on more fresh food, which was slowed since there was only access to/from the ship via the FET (forward escape trunk).

 Digression: So I’ll have to explain a bit about the “escape trunks” – these are small compartments meant to save the crew in the event of a downed submarine. Up until the 2006-2007 this could likely never have been used realistically for an actual escape at any real depth, but maybe the intentional popping of the eardrums ahead of it, and the training of saying “Ho ho ho” during the entire ascent to the surface would actually work and one’s lungs don’t burst on the way up. Now we’d probably just die of exposure after a couple hours with the SEIE suit instead of the worthless Steinke Hood, but at least the idea of a submarine escape made mama feel good at home. 

 So it’s now 1903 and I’m still here in my poopy suit wondering if we really are pierside, or if Bierwag is just going to come by and wake me from this nightmare to stand another watch…forgot, that wouldn’t happen since Bierwag doesn’t ever do proper wake-ups.

Now for the actual ‘Port call’ if you can call it that…

     a. Ok, so I was wrong, the bowling alley wasn’t out of beer…initially (except the Bud Light, Bud and Guiness kegs were tapped about 40min after arriving for nearly an hour, remember by the time we arrived we only had ~2hrs 30min before liberty expired).  There was only one bartender, and she was a mean, old B*&^th, but what the heck, it’s only fitting for the hole they call Kings Bay.

     b. Kings Bay, I guess since this is a Trident base and people actually can have somewhat of a life when they hand over the boat to the other crew, they have to add some kind of torture and that happens to be the location (best 6 words in the world when you’re stationed on a Trident as Blue crew is the 1MC (announcing circuit) “Gold crew relieve the Blue crew”).  Kings Bay, GA is ridiculously hot and muggy, and the lower base where the piers are located is miles from the rest of the base. While waiting for transportation the one thing to keep you occupied is slapping yourself in an attempt to ward off the big, nasty mosquitos to prevent passing out from blood loss.  They probably import them from India/Africa so that the crew comes down with Malaria after returning to sea.  We had two vans to shuttle people from the base to the bowling alley.  We waited an hour for transportation, and it was nearly 2030 before a van pulled up.  You’d think that at least we could make some phone calls waiting, but that would imply they have cell phone towers in Kings Bay.  I think a few people were getting a bar or two of reception from nearby city Jacksonville and were able to sparsely converse standing in one specific location.  I’m not sure who this King is, but his Bay truly sucks!

     c. After the luxury of 2.5 hrs of liberty, we came back to the boat where duty section had messed up the vent heaters and the boat had turned into a rising temperature oven for hours…yep, probably a sick trick of the Supply Dept who had rooms off the boat at the TVQ.  It had to be about 105F throughout the ship, and we never could get the temperature to lower until we were already traveling back out to sea.  You couldn’t really sleep since it was so hot that if you shut your door to escape the noise, you also cut off any bit of air circulation and would just sweat constantly even without covers or a shirt on.  The next morning, I was the Maneuvering Watch OOD and I’m not sure which place was hotter, on the boat or standing in the bridge with the other 7 people hunkered together in a 3’x4′ box in the muggy Georgia sun.  All 7 of us were in harnesses as well making it more miserable- Sidenote: we still haven’t been able to get the “approved” harnesses that are actually supposed to work and keep us safe-yep, Supply Dept again. This is part of the psychological treat on submarines, it was so miserable that morning that you couldn’t wait to get underway to get some wind in your face…yep, couldn’t wait to get underway…how’s that for a mind-f%^k!  On a brighter note, at least the boat was so hot that the mosquitos couldn’t survive onboard and we weren’t slapping them off our sweaty skin for the rest of that night. JAX +1, WEPS 0

7. This one should probably be first on the list because if you’ve spent any length of time on a submarine (a week would be plenty), you know about this form of torture…the 18-hr day.  This had to be the sick joke that started the whole experiment, and when this didn’t completely ruin everyone they decided they needed to add the other pleasantries.  They don’t use the 18-hr day format on other platforms in the Navy, I guess they are placebos and we are the only group that gets the real hookup.  This is screwed up on so many levels it’s pathetic.

     a. Quick summary…submarines break up the entire crew into 3 sections to stand watches in 6 hr rotations (midnight-0600, 06-12,12-18,18-24).  Nominally, one stands a 6 hr watch, followed by 6 hrs of work on your off-going time, followed by sleep during your oncoming time, then back on watch to start the cycle again.  Thus if you were standing the midwatch (00-06), you would also stand the 18-24 watch that day…two days of work in one day…BONUS!  During the week we usually run drills most days from 06-18, thus if you are fortunate enough to stand the midwatch and the 18-24, you are guaranteed not to get but a wink of sleep, unless you luck out or battle rack effectively (catching a catnap still dressed in uniform awaiting the next alarm is very comfortable as you can imagine)…at least you can usually sacrifice meals to get some rest. We usually have Sundays off from drills and that day is just filled with meetings that DHs (Department Heads) and some CPOs (Chief Petty Officers) must attend-to ensure they don’t get any day of rest throughout the week, but at least the crew is not usually forced to attend any of these meetings.  I think we are all hypnotized initially since submariners tend to think, ‘I can get a downer on Sunday and I’ll be good to go for the rest of the week.’  Nice idea in thought, but not true in reality.  JAX +1, WEPS 0

     b. There is actually a Navy medical group trying to defeat this psychological torture test, but they have failed to this point…apparently they don’t understand that the psychological test is the only role of submarines…why else would they take a noisy, beat-up, depth-charged, multiple collision, 30-yr old boat out from decommissioning…it’s the ideal platform for their test.  This medical group studies sleep deprivation and guess who they study as their testbed for research…yep, submariners.  They have proven that not only do we not get enough sleep, but that the 18-hr day is the worst possible cycle for the human body in terms of biorhythms.  Even after 45 days, your body won’t get completely used to it, and sometimes when you have an opportunity to sleep during oncoming time you just can’t because for some reason at that moment you’re not tired and just can’t fall asleep knowing full well that you won’t be able to sleep in the next 24 upcoming hours due to watch and drills. The typical submariner response to this phenomena, “You’re not tired enough, rackhound!”-did I tell you how smart the people are on submarines?  JAX +1, WEPS 0

     c. The cool part is that at least while we don’t have alcohol allowed on submarines we have the BAC of a drunk due to sleep deprivation as proven by their studies.  Ship Captains are authorized to give the crew 1 beer after 45 days at sea, but I’ve never seen that actually happen. How do you feel about your national security now, knowing that a boat full of drunks is driving around a $2 billion platform?  Pilots are required to have at least 8 hours of sleep, yes sleep, not off-watch time, but 8 hours in the rack prior to flying.  I have always thought the submarine force decided that if the combined sleep total of the entire watchsection is > 8 hours then we are ‘good to go’.  JAX +1, WEPS 0, FREEDOM -1, PILOTS +1 (last time I’m counting the good deals for pilots or I might have to inventory the small arms…)

      As an example of actually believing this insanity of not needing sleep, let me tell you a little story about the USS NEWPORT NEWS.  They were recently involved in a collision and during the investigation it came to light that the, “OOD had not slept in over 24 hours, but we do not believe that was a contributing factor in the collision.”  No, of course not, it’s standard operating practice to have the person in charge of overall safety of the ship awake for over 24 hours while transiting a very dangerous passage-isn’t that routine in other professions?  So we racked everyone out to have an all-day ORM standdown following this accident… yeah, I’ll bet those ORM cards we get to carry in our uniforms will save the day next time…

Definition of terms for you landsharks: OOD =Officer of the Deck, CO Commanding Officer-Captain of the ship. The OOD is the CO’s representative at sea in charge of operating the ship and maintaining the ship and people safe while accomplishing the mission. Gaining trust to stand the midwatch as OOD is actually a big deal since the CO trusts you to operate the boat while he is asleep.  Some COs don’t allow newly qualified guys to do this for a month or greater after qualifying.

     d. So, not only is it a torture to your body in terms of biorhythms compounded by sleep deprivation, it also makes the time at sea seem like an extra 1/3 the number of days…BONUS! There are a few people on the boat that don’t operate on the 18-hr day and don’t have their biorhythms all screwed up like the rest of us.  Now, I’m not saying they all get enough sleep, but they are not legally drunk in their decision making since they sleep on a 24-hr schedule.  They don’t understand that other people are on an 18-hour schedule…and thus don’t consider the watchbill when they rack you out for no good reason, and that one might be catching an hour or 2 of sleep after a full day and having to get up for another full day…not sure when the lobotomy occurs but maybe that’s what my next physical is really slated for…

8.LAN

9. RFRE

10. EDMC broken hand

11. 3MC flexorall not allowed

12. Chairs…4 total chairs combined for 3 Staterooms-one of those broke but complete plastic deformation incomplete so good to go

13. SOMS-No paper tags allowed so all production stop if label printer not working…

14. No Coffee during field day…denied by the CHOP

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