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 LTJG Dave Galluch, an explosive ordnance disposal officer who and 2012 graduate.
Hello and Happy Thanksgiving. I hope this letter finds all of you well and that this semester is shaping up to be a successful one. Congratulations Firsties! You have just a few months left. Congratulations Plebes! You are almost done with your very first semester. Time will fly by, so value this opportunity. All, this is not your normal Officer-to-Midshipman edification on what the Fleet is like or why honor, courage, and commitment are virtues you must possess as a leader. This is meant to be a bit deeper. My intent is to open your eyes to some issues and philosophical topics that are essential to an officer but are rarely emphasized as openly as they should be at the Academy.
First off, a bit about me. I graduated in 2012 as a member of 18th Company. I was an Honors Economics major and service selected Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD). Before beginning my training pipeline, however, I worked at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) in Washington, D.C., where I was a research associate on a team that analyzed the Joint IED Defeat Organization's impact on the counter-IED fight in Iraq. After completing my time there, I went overseas to Cambridge University in the United Kingdom where I completed an MPhil in Development Economics. I began Dive School in August 2013 and moved on to EOD school after that. I recently received my warfare pin on September 19, 2014, and have since completed Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. I will report to EOD Mobile Unit Two in Little Creek, Virginia this winter where I will begin my tour as OIC of an EOD Platoon. The last two and a half years have brought me a lot of change and have taught me some valuable lessons. I'd like to focus on the ones that apply across service selections and have a direct bearing on the most important task you will all have upon graduating: LEADING.
1. A Naval Officer's first job is to lead and manage the application of violence. This is something the Naval Academy does not focus on enough. It is easy to forget, amidst the Versailles-like landscape of the Yard, of how violent the places you will be deployed to truly are. It is easy to lose track of how uncomfortable you may be in cold water, an engine room, or flying 30,000 feet above the ground when you're cozy in your SDB's at a NAFAC or Leadership Conference dinner party. Make no mistake that no matter your service selection, you are a leader whose task it may be to take human lives. Realize that the Naval Academy does not typify the world around you; prepare yourself accordingly. I encourage everyone to participate in the SEAL and EOD screeners, as well as other physically challenging events that will tax you to the extreme. Speak with the officers and SELs on the Yard that have seen combat. Pick their brains and truly understand what you are getting yourself into. As Aristotle suggests, virtue and character are built through habit. You cannot flip a switch after graduation that will make you an effective combat leader. Only you can do this, and it is done through repeated reflection, challenge, and moral growth.
2. Do not base your service selection decision off the social pressures of the Academy or superficial conceptions of what a job requires. Let's be honest. Everyone has seen Lone Survivor, Hurt Locker, Act of Valor, and the HBO series The Pacific. Being a "doorkicker" is glamorous and it gets you major "street cred" in Bancroft Hall (even though you haven't even begun a training pipeline or graduated college). Choose your service selection only after deep moral introspection and a full investigation of what each community offers. Ensure that you are ethically able to carry out the tasks that you may be given, e.g. shooting a child that picks up a rifle or launching an ICBM that will obliterate cities. If your main reason for selecting SEAL or EOD is that you're in shape and are good at swimming, think again. Your motivation must be deeper than that to connect with your people and to be an effective leader. Look past the stereotypes of the warfare communities that abound at USNA. Take advantage of your summer cruises and truly explore whatever unit you are sent to. Most importantly, get to know the Sailors there closely. Spend time doing their job with them to get a feel of the quality of individual you might be leading. This will provide invaluable insight into what service selection is right for you.
3. Drink the Kool-Aid, but only a little bit. You're in the military and you're going to have to conform. This is easy to forget at the Academy. Good news: in the Fleet you cannot get "fried." Bad news: you can get a lot worse. That said, maintain your independence and don't be afraid to ask why. Do not blindly follow every rule and regulation simply because they exist. Good officers know the rules and know them well; that way, when they have to break them, they can justify why and protect those under them. I'm not telling you to destroy good order and discipline. What I am saying is that leaders that make positive change oftentimes buck tradition, orthodoxy, or the system and adapt to circumstances that policy or regulation is ill-suited to deal with. The military does not need automatons that look, act, and think the same. Find a way to remain unique and maintain a healthy separation between work and who you are. What helps me do this? Honestly, it's keeping my hair just on the right side of regulations. It sounds silly, but this allows me to preserve just enough independence from the majority and helps me retain the ability to think critically and question things that don't make sense.
4. You must be willing to sacrifice yourself for those under you. Do not hide behind the authority you have. Be an active officer that works alongside your subordinates. Take an active interest in their personal lives and show them you are more than just "Sir" or "Ma'am." Be willing to make decisions that may get you in trouble but that will improve the quality of life of those under you. For example, don't make people stay later than they have to until you don't have a choice. If a task is completed by 1400, let your team or division go early if that's all that needs to be done for the day. If you get in trouble for letting everyone go prior to the official end of the workday at 1600, so be it. What is important is that your subordinates will realize that you care about them and are willing to endure a bit of hardship on their behalf. They will repay you tenfold. Conversely, however, taking care of those under you may also require you to be a disciplinarian. Be clear and consistent from your first day on what your expectations are. Work closely with your Chief or SEL on delineating your left and right limits and trust him or her to effectively enforce them. Realize that any punishment should be designed to remediate and rebuild a Sailor that has gone astray. Do not abuse your power. Remain level-headed, especially when you're most upset. Do not allow emotion, bias, or outside influence to interfere with making the decision that is in the best interest of your subordinate.
5. Live life slowly. Achievement is not everything. Since graduating, it has become apparent to me that life is about the journey, not the destination. This is easy to forget at the Academy, where there is relentless pressure to achieve at a high level in a multitude of activities. Take time to enjoy your friends and company mates. Trust me, you will never be closer to another group of people. Value those friends and family members that provide the love and support you oftentimes never recognize. Chill out from time to time. Sometimes work can wait. Set goals but temper them with introspection and a healthy appreciation for the role others play in aiding you to get where you're going. Feel only your own pressure. Your own is sufficient. Take on various opportunities calmly and collectedly. Don't get so caught up in where you are going that you miss all of the fun along the way.
In closing, I want to emphasize how enjoyable life at the Academy is and what a chance it provides for moral, academic, and professional growth. Remember, take each day as it comes and always reflect each night on what the day brought and how it relates to your ultimate goal: graduating and becoming a leader of Sailors or Marines. At the end of the day, you, with support from your friends and loved ones, determine the type and quality of leader you will be after leaving Annapolis. Take this responsibility seriously, but not so seriously that your responsibility becomes the sole end for which you wake up in the morning. Take a walk around the Yard from time to time. Appreciate its beauty, those individuals you are there with, and the tranquility of life that will be replaced with the hustle and bustle of Fleet life upon graduation.
Go Navy! Beat Army!