Hard Lessons

[Excerpt from Navy Greenshirt]

I had completed almost two years of a tour in a Navy training squadron, and my current job assignment was that of assistant maintenance officer (AMO). When the maintenance officer (MO) went on leave, I ran the Maintenance Department and thoroughly enjoyed my two weeks in charge. Everything went smoothly and I didn’t look forward to the MO’s return.

My only concern was that the commanding officer (CO) never talked to me about maintenance problems or aircraft status. He always asked the maintenance chief. I knew he was supposed to ask me, and if I didn’t know the answers, it was my job to ask the maintenance chief. Bypassing someone in the chain of command violates Navy protocol.

However, how could I, a mere lieutenant, question what he did? He was the CO, and a commander, and must have a reason for what he was doing. I would find out later, to my sorrow, just what that reason was.

One of my responsibilities as AMO was coordinating job changes in the department. To allow all junior officers to get leadership experience, new division and branch officers were assigned twice a year. When I heard the CO had approved job changes, I asked his secretary for the list.

She made some excuse not to give it to me, and I kept after her for two days before she finally–and hesitatingly–handed me a copy. The first thing I noticed on the paper was someone else’s name next to “AMO.” Looking closer, I saw my name by “Material Control,” a job I had already held.

My mouth dropped open in shock. I stared at the CO’s secretary. She cringed, and then I understood why she had avoided giving me the list. She’d been waiting for my bosses to talk to me. She didn’t want to be the one to inform me I’d been fired.

I stormed through the squadron in search of the MO and found him in the ready room. Shoving the offending paper in his face, I raged, “Look what the Skipper did to me.”

As he studied the paper, I expected him to be angry, too. He would go immediately to find the CO and straighten out this mess. I knew he would fight for me.

Instead, he handed back the list and said, “Oh, so he did it.”

Shocked for the second time in five minutes, I stared at him. “You knew? You knew I was being fired and didn’t tell me? I don’t even know what I’ve done wrong.”

He shrugged his shoulders and advised me to talk to the CO myself.

Being fired was too painful to tell my family. I later explained the job change by saying the CO had found a new AMO who outranked me (he did), and that I’d gone back to my old job because the officer who had it transferred out of the squadron (he had).

In reality, I was being demoted not just one position, but two–from assistant department head, past division officer, back down to branch officer.

What I learned from talking to the CO was that he didn’t think I was aggressive enough. He didn’t give me any details, other than to say if I did a good job as Material Control Officer, I’d still leave the squadron with a good fitness report.

Now it dawned on me why he had talked to the maintenance chief instead of me while the MO was on leave. He was testing me to see if I would object to being left out. I failed the test.

Nothing like this had ever happened to me. I was accustomed to doing good work and receiving compliments. My bosses had given me no chance to correct whatever was wrong, and hadn’t even let me know they were dissatisfied.

I made myself two promises that day. The first was that I would never again fail to stick up for myself, or for the people who worked for me, if I thought we were being left out when we should be involved. If I thought I was right, I would not be intimidated by a senior officer merely because of rank.

The second was that I would never treat my subordinates the way I had been treated. I would never fire someone without first explaining shortcomings and giving that person a chance to improve.

I’ve never broken either vow. That experience, and the lessons I learned from it, made me a better officer. But I would have preferred not to learn the hard way.

© 1999 by Diane Diekman

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