Two weeks ago I did one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my professional life — I left my job. In the same one-hour ceremony I turned over command of “my” squadron, and I retired from the Navy. It’s the way I wanted it, and with each passing day I grow increasingly convinced that I made the right decision.
Before I rose to deliver my remarks, one of my long-time mentors spoke. He had many nice things to say — most were true. He pointed out that we’ll all take the uniform off at some point, and the decision on when that occurs is complicated and personal. He pointed out that in my case the decision was not borne of a deep dissatisfaction with the Navy, and not a lack of passion or commitment to my squadron-mates. Instead, my decision to leave was about pride. The “what next” for me, though attractive, was not sufficiently appealing to justify the disruption it would cause my family. If I’d stuck around it would’ve been for pride; and, in almost all cases that’s the wrong reason.
And so without knowing what each other was going to say he ended up providing a really nice segue for my comments.
I only share this because I’m sufficiently convinced there’s no way anybody could confuse it as grandstanding, attention thirst, or something else untoward. What appears below, with the notes I wrote myself to get going, isn’t a particularly remarkable speech, but I think if you read it — what I delivered — there might be a part of it that you connect with.
//Speak Slowly. Ready Slowly. Keep it Together. Vodka in the Water Bottle.//
I went through a number of ideas and themes for what I might stand here and say. I knew I didn’t want to talk about me, and I’ve said just about everything I had to say to the squadron at my farewell last weekend or with the Sailors yesterday. I could talk about the deployment we just finished — but what’s left to say about it? I think we’d all rather just forget it… So I ended up putting this together about an hour and a half ago, loosely repurposed from something I wrote last year, so please bear with me if it suffers from more than a few rough transitions.
Today I want to talk about fraternities and earning our place in them.
On the surface, I’m unqualified to talk about joining a fraternity. See, I never joined one in college. Frankly I didn’t have enough money. But, to be fair with the 50,000 other undergrads at the University of Florida, there was more than enough fun to go around — and my GPA bears witness to this. But once I left school and got to Pensacola, and more precisely, to my first fleet squadron, I realized I’d joined the greatest fraternity the world will ever see. The fraternity that is Naval Aviation — the greatest house on the row. And like all fraternities, this one has its legacies and legends, and those are the people I’m going to talk about today.
But before getting to those individuals, I’m going to ask you to recall an iconic scene from one of the best movies ever made — and somewhat ironically, a movie that has nothing to do with Naval Aviation. So humor me if you will and try to recall the following familiar image:
An aging man kneels in front of a white cruciform gravestone, one among a field of thousands of gravestones. Quietly, James Ryan asks his wife if he’s led a good life…if he’s a good man. James Ryan — Private Ryan — is visiting the resting place of Captain John H. Miller at the Normandy American Cemetery.
At the end of the mission to save Private Ryan, following the deaths of his three brothers, Captain Miller, with his last breath, demands Ryan live out his days in a manner worthy of the sacrifices made by the men sent to rescue him. Tom Hanks tells Matt Damon to earn this.
Sixty years on, James Ryan needs to know he’s achieved his final mission. In a movie filled with gut wrenching scenes, it’s one of the hardest to watch, yet it’s one of the most instructive for anyone who has walked in the shadows and stood on the shoulders of those who’ve gone before.
Briefly setting aside the image of Private Ryan, I want to now briefly talk to you about a few of our own — a few people who aren’t from the movies. Three of them were indeed Naval Aviators, and two weren’t, but nonetheless all their stories remain important to this discussion. Some of these names will ring familiar; others may not. Each matter.
Thomas Hudner, John McCain, George H.W. Bush, Senior Chief Shannon Kent, and Petty Officer James Suh. One became president, another ran for president after decades of service in the Senate, one contributed greatly to veterans’ service organizations, and another was a mother who beat cancer between deployments with special warfare teams across the Middle East. One of them was a college classmate of mine. Each of them wore either the coveted Wings of Gold, the fouled anchor a Chief, or the crow and chevrons of a Petty Officer. In many ways, they were us, and us them.
The day he turned eighteen, George H.W. Bush joined the Navy, eventually becoming the youngest pilot to serve in World War II. He flew 58 combat missions in an overweight, ungainly, carrier-based torpedo bomber. On one fateful mission his plane was hit by enemy fire during a bombing run. Rather than abort his attack, he continued on with his engine ablaze and delivered his ordnance on target. Once off target and over open water, the crew tried to bail out. Of the three men aboard the aircraft, Bush was the only survivor. He was eventually pulled from the sea by the submarine USS Finback, and was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
John McCain, the third generation of a legendary sea-going family, famously flew the A-4 Skyhawk from Yankee Station during the Vietnam War. After being shot down in October 1967, he was held as a prisoner of war for 5.5 years. Because his father was the senior naval officer in the Pacific, his captors, hoping to score a propaganda victory, offered McCain early release from captivity. Recognizing that accepting this offer would violate the Code of Conduct and break faith with his fellow prisoners, he rejected the offer, instead subjecting himself to additional years of punishment, torture, and isolation.
Thomas Hudner graduated from the Naval Academy in 1946. He initially served on surface ships but soon felt the pull of blue skies and applied for pilot training. He flew with VF-32 during the Korean War. On December 4, 1950, he launched from the deck of USS Leyte with Ensign Jesse Brown, the first African-American Naval Aviator, as his wingman for a dangerous mission near the Chosin Reservoir. During the attack, Brown’s aircraft was hit, forcing him to crash land on a snow-covered mountain. Laying aside concern for his personal safety, Hudner intentionally crash-landed his aircraft in an effort to free Brown from his mangled cockpit. Though Hudner’s efforts proved unsuccessful, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Shannon Kent enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to serve as a cryptologist. She was fluent in four languages to include several dialects of Arabic. She deployed to the Middle East five times, and was one of the first women to complete the rigorous course required for other troops to accompany Navy SEALs on their missions. She could run a three and a half hour marathon, do a dozen strict pull-ups, and march for miles with a 50-pound ruck. In addition to these accomplishments, she brought two wonderful little boys into the world, and successfully battled cancer. She hoped to earn a commission and continue her service as an officer and clinical psychologist. The Navy screwed this one up — as it’s wont to do — she was deemed medically unqualified due to her previous cancer diagnosis. Not medically cleared to commission, but medically cleared to deploy to Syria where she was killed last January by a suicide bomber during a mission in Madbij. She was posthumously promoted to Senior Chief Petty Officer. Her name appears on the starboard side of our aircraft 501.
Petty Officer James Suh was a college classmate of mine. He was the son of Korean immigrants and worried about letting his father down by choosing the Navy over a more traditional career choice. I met him while enrolled in ROTC at the University of Florida. James REALLY wanted to be a SEAL — really really wanted to be a SEAL. But, he soon realized that getting an officer slot to BUDS was VERY unlikely from ROTC. Most of the officer slots went to prior-enlisted guys from the Fleet or to Naval Academy dorks. So, James quit ROTC, finished his Math degree and the enlisted in the Navy so he’d have a greater chance of achieving his goal. And he did it. He crushed BUDS and went on to serve with SDVT-1. James was killed on June 28th, 2005 when the helicopter he was in was shot down over the Hindu Kush range in Kunar Province Afghanistan. He and his teammates were on a bold daytime rescue mission for Michael Murphy and his team — the mission was memorialized in the book and movie Lone Survivor. His name also appears on the starboard side of our aircraft 501.
Now, if I’m in your shoes I’m wondering: Great Farva… You’ve got us feeling all the feels, and at the same time wondering exactly what these five people have to do with Private Ryan, or anything else for that matter. What gives..? I suppose it’s a fair question, but for those of who have the privilege of wearing the same uniform, these shipmates have everything to do with the scene in the movie — and everything to do with us as leaders. Because they remind us to ask ourselves some tough questions.
Every time we don our flight gear and strap into our aircraft, every time we walk into the hangar to lead our Sailors we should be asking ourselves the same question Ryan asked that day at the cemetery — have we earned it? Each time we have an opportunity to represent our nation, our Navy, and Naval Aviation we should ask ourselves if our actions are upholding the rich foundation laid by the likes of Bush, McCain, Hudner, Kent, and Suh. We should ask if we’ve earned the right to wear the same wings, anchors, and chevrons as such great Americans.
Are we committed to the success of our squadron and our fellow aviators, even if that means we don’t receive recognition we feel is deserved? Do we make time to invest, mentor, and develop the young, talented Sailors who keep our flying machines airworthy? Do we recognize that our nation and our Navy depend on us to be masters of our craft and put in the preparation, study, and practice required to win? Do we recognize and respect that our achievements are not actually ours as individuals, but instead those of a team whose players come from all walks of life, each having made a voluntary and deeply personal decision to serve?
At the expense of sounding cliché, do we choose the hard rights over the easy wrongs? In our moments of solitude and honesty, how often can we answer “yes” to these questions?
Each of these men and women made difficult and incredibly personal decisions to put others ahead of themselves. The question we should ask ourselves as the protectors of our heritage is whether or not we’re following their noble examples of selflessness and integrity.
Admittedly, this is a difficult question to ask; it’s even more difficult to maintain any pretense of humility while asking if our actions stack up to those who were awarded the Medal of Honor or elected to some of the highest offices in the land. And, these observations should not be seen as virtue signaling or boasting on my part. When I ask myself these questions, I conclude that I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded during my 20 years in the Navy. Fortunately for all of us, real success and real growth can be achieved simply by asking the questions and then seeking a way to get to “yes.”
Our Navy stands today as the finest fighting force in the world because of the sacrifices these men and women made. They made difficult decisions in some of the most trying circumstances imaginable. Mercifully, most of us will never be placed in such situations, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have ample opportunities to find a home in a fraternity of greats. But like James Ryan, we have to earn it; we have to earn our membership in the fraternity. We have to earn it every day — in everything we do.
And so as I prepare to close, please indulge me for one more moment, because as the ready room knows, it wouldn’t be like me to have an audience and not make some reference to a man whose writing and philosophy has informed much of how I’ve led my adult life. Several years ago at the annual Tailhook convention, Vice Admiral James Stockdale said,
“There is no doubt in my mind that to have been diverted from this Tailhooker life would have been to be disdained by destiny. You all know as well as I do that it was worth the trip.”
Yes sir, it was, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Zappers, Fly safe, Lead Well, and continue to Earn your place — everyday.
XO, it’s time for you to relieve me.