In the "Letter to My Former Self" series, USNA graduates lay out the advice they would give themselves as midshipmen based on their experiences as junior officers in the Navy or Marine Corps. This week's letter was written by ENS Kellie Hall, who is serving on board USS Pinckney (DDG-91), based in San Diego, California.
Let me be frank: there is in fact life after the Naval Academy. I am writing this letter from a coffee shop one block from my townhouse and only three blocks from the beach, as I sit and overlook the palm trees that are highlighted by the beautiful San Diego sunset.
While at the Academy I was too distracted by six-week exams, noon meal formations, sports period, company events, and downtown Annapolis to truly reflect on the idea that I would graduate and eventually join thousands of Naval Academy alumni to serve as an officer in the fleet. Being officer is not a myth; it is not some outlandish idea that may or may not happen—it will happen, I promise—and everything that happens after Induction Day truly affects how you will react to it.
I found out two weeks before graduation that I would be meeting my ship for the remainder of its deployment in the Pacific. I read my orders as I was studying for my last final, thinking “deployment will be like an extended midshipman cruise, it’ll be fine.” Little did I know I’d be thrown into USS Pinckney's peak of operations out in 7th Fleet. On July 4th, I packed my sea bag to the brim and caught a ride to San Diego International Airport to be flown to Guam to meet my ship for her remaining seven weeks out at sea. Welcome to the Navy.
It was this experience that served as the biggest “reality check” in my life and in result, generate these words of wisdom from my short naval career thus far:
You cannot always use the excuse “I’m an Ensign.”
A multitude of officers and mentors at the Academy told me “don’t worry, you’re not expected to know anything as a brand new Ensign.” Within the first twenty-four hours of being on my ship, I was expected to conn. Not just conn from point A to point B, I would be driving the ship during “Guamex,” an exercise with eight Japanese vessels used to help increase interoperability. I quickly realized that I was being trusted as an Ensign to drive the ship (with the help of my Officer of the Deck) and that my role was completely imperative to make “Guamex” a successful exercise. No longer was I conning just an afternoon YP exercise on the Severn before sports period—this was the real thing. The bridge watch team, standard commands, and the Japanese Maritime Defense Force were my harsh, new reality and I was expected to know how to do my job.
Retain the information you learned at the Naval Academy – and keep your notes!
After four years of sitting in a classroom, thinking “When am I ever going to need this information?” I wish I could turn back time and hit myself over the head with a textbook and say, “learn and understand this! You’ll need to know it to look like a competent Surface Warfare Officer!”
I didn’t take my weapons class seriously; I thought it was another check-in-the-box course I needed to get through in the Naval Academy’s curriculum. Navigation was often my last course before the start of my weekend, so my attention span was at its most minimal level. Then there was Thermodynamics, my last real hurdle to jump before graduation. Little did I know that these three classes are the foundation to everything a Surface Warfare Officer will need to know. Nothing is worse than trying to qualify for your SWO pin and realizing that you’ve seen all the information before, you just didn’t retain it the first time. I had many palm-to-forehead moments during my deployment when I was asked questions about radar, the AC cycle, or how to calculate “PIM” that I legitimately couldn’t remember but at one point—before the final exam at the Academy—I did. Don’t let this be you.
My commanding officer often reminded me the reason why those two gold bars set me apart from the rest of the ship. He said, “There’s a reason why you make the big bucks. You’re not paid to listen, you’re paid to think. And you must think about what’s best for the ship.” I was motivated to learn and relearn what I once forgot because my lack of experience and knowledge was only hurting our ship’s mission.
Play to your strengths.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the best Surface Warfare officer there is. I find myself flustered when the OOD asks me what sound signal I should utilize or what day shapes need to be up during an underway replenishment. I’m not the fastest to learn and at 5’2 and 100lbs I can’t necessarily pull off the intimidating-authority figure persona. But at the end of the day I know I can do one thing right: utilize my experience in public affairs to publicize the ship’s successes.
My assignment as my ship’s Public Affairs Officer has been a true blessing so far because it has given me an opportunity to showcase my biggest strengths to my Commanding and Executive officers, as well as the rest of the wardroom and crew. There is no task I am assigned as PAO that is too big or too small that I won’t try to knock out of the park. I write articles, take pictures, organize media events, and even orchestrated my ship’s participation in Fleet Week San Diego. Even though I struggle as a SWO, at least I have one way to prove I’m still competent.
If you are good at something, showcase it. It will help give you the confidence boost you need to push through the stress of being a new ensign.
Be ready to juggle personal and professional issues.
From the Academy I moved to San Diego and quickly realized I needed to take out my own trash, cook my own food, and pay bills. I still struggle to scramble eggs yet I’m trusted by the Navy to drive a multi-billion dollar warship.
Everything since graduation day has been a challenge, whether it was putting together IKEA furniture or conning behind an aircraft carrier at night in the rain. Even though I may not have retained the physics, calculus, or rules-of-the-road knowledge from the Academy I did learn how to multi-task, be disciplined, and stay organized. For this, I will forever be grateful for the Academy and the harsh lessons I had to learn then in order survive in the fleet now.
Luckily, the Navy does not foster a “sink or swim” atmosphere. But, if you find yourself sinking and your stress flowing overboard, I promise you there will be someone to sound those five short blasts and order an Anderson turn to help get you back on course.