Veterans

To The Fightin’ Fitz

We don’t write books or make movies about the men and women who drive ships any more. But maybe we should.

There’s nothing quite like it. There’s no peace like the peace you step into when you walk out onto the bridge wing to see a million stars, brighter than you’ve ever seen poking holes in the pitch black sky. And the only sound is the slow crash of the bow as it plunges through the rolling sea, casting off that eerie green glow. The smell of burnt coffee and the taste of Copenhagen seep into you as you wedge yourself in next to the empty captain’s chair to keep your eyes on the horizon for a while because you’ve got a thousand miles behind you and a thousand more to go on en route to places unknown, no course change for days.

That’s the beauty when it’s slow. And quiet.

When it’s not, it’s frantic. It’s living geometry. It’s the constant math of your speed and your heading and how long you have until your next decision. Because when you’re moving that unforgiving monster, wrong decisions are expensive. You only get to make them once. You’ve got one eye on the channel, one eye on the traffic, one eye on the aircrafts landing on you and one eye on the bottom of wherever you are. Because if you don’t keep enough space between you and anything else or enough water under you, it’s all over for someone. You’re standing on 9,000 tons of steel and machinery plowing through the water with the force of a couple hundred tractor trailers. Mastering it is the height of man’s mastery over physics.

It’s a hell of a task.

But that’s not the hardest part. The hardest part is the life. It’s living, forever, stuck one foot in two worlds. Bored or stressed. Nothing in between. It’s coming off the bridge of the ship at 7Am after five hours of watch and walking into the blinding light of the wardroom to eat and start your day. Because the ship and your team don’t care that you were up all night driving. The shaft is still turning and the war is still going. So you try to gut your way until noon and the fatigue starts to shut you down whether you like it or not. Then you grab what sleep you can, hope that nothing your team runs breaks and get ready to do it again on the mid-watch.

Six on, eighteen off. Six on. Twelve off. The days blur together. You talk on the radio in your sleep. And you run drills so often you can still remember the cadence of your tasking fifteen years later as you sit down to write a blog post about it.

I did three deployments in the ten years I served on active duty as a surface warfare officer in the Navy. Two attached to SEAL Team One. And one, on an Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer, the same class of ship as the USS Fitzgerald that collided with a Philippine flagged container ship off the coast of Japan a few days ago. Nothing about the two war time deployments I did in special operations took out of me what normal life on board that ship did. It’s gritty, brutal, thankless work. And it’s done by people who aren’t looking to cash in on a career of motivational speaking or book signing when they get done.

It’s done by hard men and women, often times with nowhere else in the world to turn.

It’s done by sailors.

I don’t have any idea what happened on the USS Fitzgerald when it collided with that massive merchant. But I have a pretty good idea what happened before it. And what happened after. Someone somewhere was putting up with a pace and a level of personal sacrifice few will ever know just to do the job of a sailor. And someone was running towards the rushing water and flooding compartments instead of away from them. Because they knew that’s the only way to keep the old girl afloat. And that was their duty. Above all.

Ship. Shipmate. Self. The unfair code of the sailor.

Every time a ship of war pulls back into the harbor, it’s a celebration of the iron men and women who bring her in. It’s a damn hard life. Harder than you can imagine. The Fightin Fitz pulled in seven souls light this time. Honor them like fallen heroes. Because that’s exactly what they are.

 

57 replies »

  1. That’s a lovely piece of writing, and brings back some memories. I served in the Vietnam era on the Samuel B Roberts DD823, a Gearing class destroyer, and the Dewey DLG19, and Arleigh-Burke class destroyer. It amazed me to discover recently that crew members from the Roberts, which was sunk for target practice in the early 1970s, still publish a quarterly news letter.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for composing this…….well said……and needed said…..Beautiful words…thank you for your service !

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  3. Beautiful article in today’s NY Times about the 7 sailors who gave their lives. Humbling.

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  4. Nicely Written Sir.

    I served on the CV-62 USS Independence, DDG-82 USS Lassen, CG-64 USS Gettysburg, and LSD-43 USS Fort McHenry. I concur with your comparison as I also served in Afghanistan in 2005. While on those ships we did train for what could be, as I’m saddened that we lost sailors. I’m especially happy it wasn’t more nor did we lose the ship.

    MAC(SW/AW)(Ret)

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  5. Bravo Zulu Shipmate! I’ve read other pieces about this incident, and it was almost as if the authors were more interested in boosting about their own resumes, rather than the tragedy. This captures nicely the essence of what I experienced as a 23 year old standing OOD on the USS Briscoe in the mid 80s. God bless these “magnificent seven” and their families!

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  6. Sean,

    That was one helluva tribute to the Fightin Fitz and the sailors who kept her afloat.

    It was also perfectly described life at sea in the US Navy; it even brought a tear to this ol’ Bos’nmate’s eye.

    Bravo Zulu Commander!

    Make it a HOOYAH Navy day!

    V/R,

    Tony Palm
    BMC (SW/DV) USN (Ret)

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  7. Loved what you wrote, my son was an officer on the USS Barry and The Enterprise. Thank you for your comments, God Bless You and all the men and women on the Fightn Fitz.

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  8. The next time someone asks me what my life was like as a SWO, I will suggest they read this article. I couldn’t have described it nearly as eloquently as you, even after 4 sea tours – two of which were in 7th Fleet.

    As much as my heart has been repeatedly broken in the past few days, it also swells with pride – for the Sailors who didn’t give up the ship, for the Navy community who has ensured that our brothers and sisters will be taken care of, and for the Sailors who continue to stand the watch.

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  9. I spent 31 years on active duty and served on five ships while going from E1 to O5. What you wrote succinctly and eloquently captures life at sea. Ship, shipmate, self!

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  10. Beautifully eloquent with a quality of pure clarity, it brought me back onboard the two ships I was honored to serve aboard DD-835 and DDG-38…

    A wonderful tribute to life at sea and to the magnificent of the Fitzgerald, who demonstrated with their selfless actions, duty, honor, courage in the highest traditions of th United States Navy…

    May we always remember the 7…

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  11. Men and Women in our Military service are always 24 hours watch. Making sure to protect us, our country, our family. They are our “Unsung Heroes” Our salute and prayers will be always with them. God Bless you, what a beautiful message you impart to us. God Bless all the brave Military Men and Women. We’ll always pray for all of you.

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  12. Beautifully written Mr. Hughes,

    As an amlunus of the USS Fitzgerald, my fellow shipmates and I feel this loss very close to our hearts. For some, she was a first and only command, and for others, one of many. The common feeling amongst all prior sailors of the Fitz is what an amazing crew we had aboard. 13 years gone, and the brothers I met onboard remain my first port of call when in need, and I for them.

    Thank you for writing this beautiful tribute, I’ll pass it along to my shipmates.

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  13. Thank you for this. It was so well written and so true because like you, I stood the watch and although it’s been over a decade since standing on that bridge, I remember it like it was yesterday. The ship’s crew becomes your family and you would give your life for them. Bless the crew of the USS Fitzgerald. ’99

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  14. Beautifully written article that hits a lot of the same emotions I have about USN surface warfare. I probably shouldn’t nitpick such a fine piece, but here are a few feedbacks:

    – “no course change for days”: I have never experienced this. Even when crossing an ocean, you’re taking a great circle route which will have minor course changes throughout the day.
    – “Six on, eighteen off. Six on. Twelve off.” Don’t forget Six on, six off. We did this on USS Virginia (CGN-38) for months during Operation Desert Storm :-(.
    – It probably wasn’t the intent of the article, but I want to point out that sometimes being in the shipyard is even harder than being at sea. Have stood duty in nuclear engineroom for 24 hours straight every third days for several weeks.

    Thanks for the excellent blog, shipmate!

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    • Hey, Shipmate, good to see you on line. I well remember the 6 on/6 off on VIRGINIA during Desert Storm, the liberty in Souda Bay, as well as our time in NNSY and the “great” times we had there.

      Carla and I are currently on St. Martin celebrating our 25th, and I remember our great liberty (w/ Steve, Kevin, as well as others) on this island. Oh, to be young again!!!

      Hope everything is good with you, and would love to hear from you.

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  15. Beautiful and well written Mr. Hughes. I teared up reading your beautiful and eloquent article. It brought back memories when I was onboard the Mighty Pearl and did two deployments during the Iraqi war. I am so proud to have served with hundreds of men and women of the Navy and Marines for 20 years. May all the 7 Sailors onboard the USS Fitzgerald Rest in Paradise!!!

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      • News continues to percolate regarding the upcoming Tom Hanks WWII Movie “Destroyer.” Thanks for a most moving piece, Sean.

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    • OMG, that’s great. In memories of our great soldiers. My Son is aboard that ship too. He is so sad cuz he lost 4 of his friends among the 7 who passed away. And I’m really very supportive for him right now. I know how he loves them. Not only as shipmates, but family as well. Please continue writing this movie. And thank you so much. God Bless always.

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  16. Nicely done! True reflection of living, working and sharing life with sailors. Having served on two DDG’s, I “see” what these young men did (& those that still serve -do), everyday onboard a US Navy vessel.
    BZ to you and Fair Winds and Following Seas to my shipmates.

    DCC (SW) West
    Retired USN

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  17. BRAVO ZULU. Well said. Sad to see shipmates gone. That is the way of the sea. Hopefully the crew pulls together and gets stronger. Standing OOD — or any watch on the bridge — is the most critical in the entire Navy, IMHO. CWO4, USN, Ret.

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  18. A perfect encapsulation of daily life as a SWO. God bless those seven, and all the countless others who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

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  19. Well said Sir. As a former DDG sailor, I know these feeling all too well. The 7 lots on Fitz came from the berth where I laid my head on my own ship. This could have easily been myself or the crew that I hold so dearly.

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  20. This is exactly how life is as a SWO. The author did his Division Officer tours and got out from what I can infer.

    It gets exponentially harder as a Department Head. I did, essentially, five consecutive DH tours over the span of eight years.

    You don’t even get a break in homeport.

    You dread those late-night or weekend phone calls regarding critical equipment that failed or about issues with your Sailors (misconduct, death in the family, kid eating a Tide Pod, etc.)

    You have your CO and XO (and CMC and fellow DHs) on speed dial, ready to relay the latest bad news and what YOU are doing to correct it.

    You sometimes get caught off-guard over things you somehow didn’t know anything about. Sometimes, that involves taking a public face shot from the boss at a DH meeting.

    Like the Flying Squad running to the damage, you, as a DH, metaphorically run toward the hard jobs and associated splendid misery, thinking it will all pay off with a shot at command and promotion.

    You might lose your mind. I knew a few fellow FFG CSOs who developed mental issues and snapped.

    You bring the work and associated stress home because you have to. It has ruined many marriages.

    Anyway, I am missing the good aspects – the triumph of achievement, the leading of good men and women at sea in ships. Three of those DH tours resulted in the Battle E. I’m already forgetting the hard aspects and missing the good times. My last ship just made a port visit in the Bahamas. I’m sure all hands had a blast. Unfortunately, my eff FTS were not rewarded with command or promotion. I also let it ruin my marriage. Oh well.

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  21. As a former SWO appreciate very much indeed this article. Remember fondly the mess cooks running a tray of cinnamon rolls up to the bridge each day at 0500. Great way to start the day.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Thank you for this post. I’m not military but I have family that have served. My sis – 2x in Afghanistan, my cousin who’s as good as my sis – marine 2tours in Iraq and her hubby – marine 1 tour Iraq and 1 on ship. Your story paints a good picture. I just can’t know what it’s like for my family but I can tell you we at home hold our breath until you come home, every time. We send our care packages hoping you can feel our love baked in the cookies and written in the cards. My heart breaks for the families of the men and women lost in their service to our nation and I thank you for this post and your service.

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  23. I am not military but my son is NAVY and proud of him and the other NAVY and military personnel. God bless the lives we lost and thank you for your service and sacrifice.

    A NAVY Mom and couldn’t be prouder of it!

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  24. So true — whether SWO or submariner — as the JO on a diesel submarine in the early 70s, my watch rotation on patrol/specops in the Vietnam war zone and other denied areas was 4 on/4 off. And at least the 1st hour of the “off” time was spent synthesizing the various logs to write the patrol log. It was a right of passage — testing endurance and cognitive ability. In port, as a division officer and department head, you were constantly on call and every third day was a duty day.

    But I would not trade the experience and the camaraderie of shipmates for anything. They may have been rough around the edges, but they were the finest men I’ve known — they were Sailors in the truest sense.

    Frank Dunn
    Captain, U.S. Navy (Ret.)

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  25. Thank you for your service and for this beautiful & inspirational testimonial to all the men & women who are serving now & those who already served in the Navy. The 7 sailors who gave their lives are truly heroes. God bless them & their loved ones. You showed us what courage & hard work & commitment it takes to keep ship afloat. My grandson, Josh, is serving on the US Carl Vinson. I am so proud of him.

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  26. What many people don’t know or understand is that just going to sea is inherently dangerous. However, as described by the author, there’s nothing in the world like driving a destroyer. Some may argue that flying an airplane is and, while perhaps equally special, it’s not the same.

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  27. Oh, that I had a way to engage my local community. I would be so at peace by helping put a box for people to place well wishes and condolences for the ship’s personnel. Now that I think about it, I wonder if every Navy League in the USA could unite and do this (collect letter from the public) and send them forward?

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  28. Thank you for writing this and thank you for your service! It really brought up some good and tough times from my own naval career. I started as a Deck Seaman and later became a Quartermaster. I served on 5 ships (2 DDGs) in my 20 years and never once since, have I found the same level of responsibility that comes with standing watch onboard a naval ship. As you stated, Ship, Shipmate, Self. The ultimate sacrifice was made by those onboard the USS FITZGERALD and I hope everyone keeps our fellow service men and women in their thoughts through difficult times like these. I know I will for all my remaining days.

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  29. Sean, appreciate your beautifully written tribute to the FITZGERALD crew. I well remember you walking into the wardroom for breakfast after your 5 hour watch, always with your jacket on and squinting in the bright lights. Well done!

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    • Skipper! Great hearing from you. I still can’t believe you let me drive your ship! This thread has turned into a JPJ reunion. We need to figure out a way to get another one of those together. I’m on it!!

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  30. I’ve accomplished a great deal in 52 years on earth, but earning my water wings as an Ensign in 1988 is still one of the proudest accomplishments of my life. The surface line is mighty fine.

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  31. Thank you Mr. Hughes. Speaking for our shipmates and portraying what we feel mundane as something much-much more!
    OS3 Brister(SAR)

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  32. SPH, Well done!! This perfectly captures the essence, complexity, and gravity of what the Fleet does, and why we do it so well. Thank you for sharing your gift and for your service.

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  33. Well written. Brought back memories that were 45 years old. Served on the first class of Guided Missile Destroyers, the Adams Class. I was on Barney DDG-6 at D&S Piers Norfolk. Barney was in dry dock in Portsmouth Shipyards. It was February 1970, and there are few things colder on this earth that a steel ship, with a cold plant, and the exterior can’t be dogged down against the freezing cold, because life giving water and steam are running through those doors in 6″ rubber coated pipes. Your bunk consists of a canvas bottom, 3″ of foam, inside a cotton “fart sack”, a single sheet and one grey wool blanket. And most of the career Navy crew goes home at the end of the day to a warm house and their families. I was an Interior Communications Electrician. I was in Engineering. I loved and hated it. I was from Los Angeles, so I only had time and money to go home every 12 to 18 months or so. We spent a lot of time at sea. Those DDG’s were 100 feet shorter and 20+ feet narrower than the Arleigh Burkes. The current DDG’s were the size of what we called DLG’s in the early 70’s. The part I hated was being so far from home and female companionship. But I made terrific friends, many of whom I still contact, and the memories are priceless. UNREP’s at 2100 hours because the oiler didn’t have time for us earlier. Mid-watches in addition to a full work day. Mid rats with Lipton dehydrated vegetable soup. And being around the craziest and best people in the world. You had to get crazy once in a while, just to stay sane. It was Vietnam, it was hard, it was tedious and I would go back in an instant.

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  34. Well written piece. I’d like to add six on six off with an eight hour work day for three straight weeks without a day off. Basically wake up at 5AM to relieve the watch at 6AM. Off watch at Noon, eat lunch, back in the hole at 1PM to work. 5PM eat dinner, back in the hole for watch at 6PM, off watch at midnight, eat mid rats, shower, hit the rack by 1AM. Startover at 5AM. I always said, I will never have to work as hard at a civilian job as I did in the U.S. Navy, but wouldn’t change it for the world.

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