Aboard USS Wisconson at Nauticus, Norfolk
RADM Martin Janczak, USNR: Remarks
Good afternoon, and welcome to this ceremony on this fine day, on this impressive ship. Welcome to the USS Wisconsin, BB-64, one of the Navy’s most impressive ships and to the retirement ceremony marking the culmination of 34 years of uniformed service for Captain David C. Poyer, United States Naval Reserve, one of the Naval Reserve’s most impressive officers.
“DAVID POYER graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1971. His thirty-four years of active and reserve Navy service included sea duty in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Arctic, Caribbean, and Pacific, and shore duty at Fleet Training Center, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Surface Warfare Development Group, and the US Atlantic Command/Joint Forces Command.”
This is the thumbnail sketch of his military career you’ll find on the back flap of one of Dave’s books. But it’s customary for the speaker at the occasion of a service member’s retirement to examine his or her career in considerably more detail. Sometimes this is a straightforward matter; at other times, it’s not so simple. Trying to summarize Dave Poyer’s course through life definitely falls under the rubric of “more complex.” His personal, naval, defense analytical, and literary careers have been so intertwined, and the relationships among them so involved, that someday someone will no doubt essay a Ph.D thesis on the subject. But as a former Animal Husbandry major I’ll make a stab at the oral recitation, and hope a coherent picture emerges.
Dave, or D.C. as he’s known to his Academy classmates, grew up far from the sea in the Allegheny Highlands of Northwestern Pennsylvania. His father, a World War II veteran of the North Africa, Italian, French, and German campaigns, suffered from significant mental illness and was hospitalized when David was a boy. So Dave grew up on welfare. He realized early that in order to amount to anything, he’d have to leave those Pennsylvania hills and strike out for the world beyond.
Dave joined the Navy on another bright June day, back in 1967. He saw salt water for the first time as he was walking downhill from the bus station at Annapolis to the U.S. Naval Academy. It was the glittering surface of the Chesapeake. He didn’t shine during plebe year; in fact he barely squeaked through. But I suspect it was his own experiences that there that gave him the wherewithal to write his 1983 comic novel THE RETURN OF PHILO T. MCGIFFIN, an underground legend and cult favorite that the Naval Academy bookstore still numbers among its most popular offerings today.
Dave began his active duty service in June of 1971 with his assignment to USS Bowen, FF-1079, a Knox-class 1200-psi steam powered destroyer escort out of Newport, Rhode Island – the classic beginning to a tin-can sailor’s career. A steam DE. One of the beauties of serving on small ships is that you get responsibility early. Dave was twin-toured aboard Bowen, and served in the capacities of gunnery and missile officer, navigator, first lieutenant, electronic maintenance officer, electronic warfare officer, and independent-steaming officer of the deck – although not all at once! He learned firsthand the distinct languages of boatswain’s mates, gunner’s mates, missilemen, electronic technicians, and operations specialists – or as they were still called then, radarmen. Dave earned his “water wings,” the then-new Surface Warfare pin and qualification. He deployed to the Med twice, and took part in a gruesome winter cruise north of Iceland during which his ship was ordered to find the worst storm out there and stay in it as long as she could, to test a new variable depth sonar rig. This sounds to me very much like the harrowing Arctic voyage of the fictional USS Reynolds Ryan Dave recounts in THE CIRCLE – which I understand is required reading in the Literature of the Sea course at Annapolis.
In April of 1974 Dave went from Bowen to the staff of Commander, Amphibious Squadron Eight. His official billet was as the supporting arms coordinator, the officer who coordinates the air support, gunfire support, and artillery support before and during amphibious landings. But he soon took on additional responsibilities as electronic warfare officer and the primary staff watch officer underway, qualifying as Fleet Officer of the Deck and qualifying to maneuver medium-sized task forces. He deployed again to the Med, and during the Cypriote war of 1974 stayed awake for five days and nights planning a landing to rescue American hostages and standing flag bridge watches as Task Force 61 expected attack from Greek or Turkish air at any time. Once again, it’s easy to notice the coincidence between these events and those described in his novel of the amphibious fleet, THE MED.
In the waning days of 1975 Dave went to shore duty for the first time, at Fleet Training Center, Norfolk, supervising the training program for the then-new Spruance-class destroyers. Burned out by the poor leadership of those dark days of our Navy and trying to regain an even keel after the breakup of his first marriage, he left active service in 1976, intending never to return.
For the next four years Dave survived as a broke and struggling freelance writer. That life included travel to Micronesia, riding copra schooners from island to island. (Micronesia’s a part of the world I know too, but regretfully our paths never crossed there.) It also included many late nights at the typewriter on Bute Street – a few blocks north of us – teaching himself how to write. But gradually he realized there was a Navy-sized hole in his life. He returned to duty as a selected reservist in June of 1981 and was assigned as operations officer aboard USS Charleston, LKA-113, requalifying as a fleet OOD and participating in operations in the Caribbean and Atlantic. It’s just like riding a bicycle, you never forget how.
In 1983 he went ashore again, serving for three years as the Residual Capability Assessment Officer at CINCLANT – Commander- in-Chief, Atlantic Command. In that capacity he planned for the recovery of US forces and society from the effects of a nuclear, bacteriological, or chemical attack. Thank goodness that billet never became a growth industry.
In late 1986 Dave became a Navy spouse – married to an active duty first class aviation electronics technician – and moved to Jacksonville, Florida and a billet with Readiness Command Eight as Surface Programs Officer. After a year he finagled himself out from behind the desk and aboard USS Antrim, FFG-20, a Perry-class gas-turbine-powered missile frigate, as the unit Executive Officer, participating in law enforcement/drug interdiction operations in the Caribbean, Western Atlantic convoy escort operations, and the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway cruises. Yet again, I discern echoes of his service on Antrim in his 1990 bestseller, THE GULF, set aboard a Perry-class frigate he calls Turner Van Zandt.
During this period Dave also began pulling double active duty periods, spending the second period in an annual exercise at the J-3, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Pentagon, as part of the permanent exercise cell for Operations Live Oak, a NATO exercise designed to model and practice Allied responses to Soviet access restrictions in Central Europe. That’s why he wears that gaudy Joint Chiefs pin.
Unfortunately, the Naval Reserve provides few opportunities to go to sea after 0-5. When Dave put on his silver oak leaves he moved back to Norfolk, single again, and joined Surface Warfare Development Group as an antisubmarine tactics development officer. This billet made use for the first time of his defense analysis expertise, starting his evolution from a more or less pure ship driver to something more along the lines of a defense intellectual. This billet also sent him back to sea in charge of civilian-military-contractor teams engaged in running complex multinational exercises in such places as the East Med and the Sea of Japan. It also put him in charge of writing such essential Fleet reference manuals as NWP-61, Surface Ship Tactical Employment, and the manual Expeditionary Forces Conducting Humanitarian Assistance Missions, which has governed US Navy and Marine Corps humanitarian operations since. His most exotic deployment was to the Republic of Korea Navy, where he went through not one but two back to back typhoons aboard a gun-heavy ROK CODAG (“co-dag”) frigate on patrol against North Korean submarines along the DMZ, and got well acquainted with kimchee. During Desert Storm he served in suppport of the deployed forces, using his background in chemical warfare to anticipate and model Saddam Hussein’s possible actions. He then moved up to executive officer at SWDG (“swedge”) until promoted again, whereupon he began the most recent phase of his career, at US Atlantic Command.
In the seven years he’s spent on and around the compound on Hampton Boulevard, Dave has worn many hats, most of them “purple” – that means joint, or not purely Navy. He served as chief of the Crisis Action Team during the Haitian multinational force operation known as Restore Hope. As the unit training officer, he reorganized USACOM’s Battle Staff training and rebuilt training for the entire unit. After two years, he was tapped to become the Executive Director of the General Officer Steering Committee, a position involving the care and feeding of twelve to fifteen flag and general officers, including generation, research, and development of significant innovations in reserve component policy. Major issues he worked in the capacity included Reserve Component Joint Military Professional Education, integration of the National Guard into US war plans, and CINCJFCOM training and readiness oversight over the reserve and Guard.
When I reported aboard at JFCOM, Dave was described to me by another officer as the most intellectually aggressive officer I would ever know. I met Dave shortly after his departure from this position, and I was so impressed with his credentials and obvious policy expertise that I had no choice but to create a new position especially for him: that of Senior Policy Advisor to the Deputy Chief of Staff, US Joint Forces Command. His significant active duties during this period included work on Reserve Component health care issues, air ticketing procedures for active duty travel, and most recently, a two-week deployment with the Air National Guard to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in order to study applicability of the Air Expeditionary Force Concept to US Navy operations.
Such is an outline of Dave Poyer’s career. Yet even as I give it, I’m conscious how much I’ve left out. I know he was a submarine engineer with Newport News Shipbuilding, working on Tomahawk and the Seawolf submarine. I know he’s a family man; I’ve met his lovely and accomplished wife Lenore, who is also a novelist, and their daughter, Naia (“NA-ya”), who I fully anticipate will carry on the family tradition of brilliance. I know he’s published twenty-two novels, and that his fame and influence as probably the preeminent living American novelist of the sea is even greater than his influence as an agent of innovation in the Navy. I know he’s taught or lectured at Annapolis, Flagler College, the University of Pittsburgh, the Joint Staff College, Old Dominion University, the University of North Florida, and other institutions. I know that he’s a leading voice championing positions that stand in radical opposition to that of most senior officers, and I have some doubts about some of them myself. But I don’t need to know all that in detail to testify to Dave’s impact on his unit, on its junior officers and enlisted, on the Navy, or on me.
Dave is not your “typical outstanding naval officer,” as the language of our current fitness report system has it. He is something different, something more reminescent of a criteria from two fitness report systems ago. A criteria I have always admired and regretted it was removed. The mark was for: ”THE COURAGE TO DO WHAT’S RIGHT, REGARDLESS OF THE CONSEQUENCES TO ONESELF.” I’ve always thought that appropros for operational Naval Officers and I can tell you that David Poyer epitomizes what it means. Dave has never backed away from saying or writing what he believed because it was unpopular, or because it might endanger his career. His books and articles and addresses have subjected many of the most sacred cows of the military establishment to a searching and yet not often unsympathetic criticism., aimed at reinventing our military institutions for a new and less blinkered era. Why? Because it was the right thing to do.
And it served him well because here he is standing before us as an O-6, a captain, with a long career that we will cap today with a major decoration. Speaking the truth does not necessarily mean you are out of step. If it does then Dave’s success proves that being out of step with the rest can still get you to the top – if it’s accompanied by respect, good judgment, and the drive, hard work, imagination, and reasoning power Dave has always brought to his many various jobs. If he’d kept his mouth shut more often, who knows. But then he wouldn’t have been the Dave Poyer we all know and respect. There are other words we could apply also – words like: integrity, courage, and selflessness. Unfortunately, those words seem to be out of style now, replaced all too often by conformity, game playing, and careerism. Words that will never go out of style when applied to men of Dave’s creed. Patriots who have the courage to do what’s right, regardless of the consequences to themselves.
I believe we have room in the Service for far more men and women of Dave’s character and caliber. The message I would leave you with today is not only one of praise for him; but of a challenge to the junior officers, mid-grade officers, enlisted, yes, and every one of us here today. I can think of no better encapsulation of Dave’s creed than the words he used, I notice, as the epigraph to one of his books. They’re ancient words, from the Upanishad, the ancient Sanskrit text of the Vedas:
Awake from this fever of ignorance. Put aside this illusion of self. Put all your trust in me Then go forward and fight.
Dave Poyer fought. He took up the naval profession with integrity and sincerity and even, in a subdued and almost unnoticeable way, with a measure of joy. In its service he has earned what he left the hills of Pennsylvania to seek: personal excellence and the respect of others. He also discovered a world: a world he could reconstruct through his fiction into a parable of meaning. He has fought the good fight; not always with victory; but always with honor. I will miss him among us.
Thank you Dave. For all you have done for our Navy and our country.
Now if Dave will join me , we would like to formally recognize his career achievements.
Captain David Poyer Remarks
Retirement Ceremony June 9 2001
GIVEN ABOARD USS WISCONSIN AT NAUTICUS, NORFOLK
Good morning everyone; Admiral Janczak; Captains Stango and Bennett and Federov; Colonel Bill Bickel; Lenore and Naia and all my friends; officers and troops. It’s a beautiful day to gather on these old teak decks.
I guess I do date back, when I remembering holystoning decks much like these. It was in 1968, during summer cruise aboard the USS Springfield, CLG-7. We mids were taken in hand early before dawn by a boatswain’s mate who had sailed the China Station. Barefoot, with our white duck flarelegs rolled up, we sloshed seawater from canvas buckets, wet down and stoned the teak as the old cruiser rolled through the Caribbean. Sometimes we found flying fish flipping in the scuppers like live silver coins. They’d landed on the forecastle during the night, off course and doomed to be fried with our morning eggs. They were the most exotic thing a boy from rural Pennsylvania had ever eaten.
I see some few faces from my Bradford roots are with us today. As are others from Annapolis; others from active duty; more from the twenty-three years of reserve time; very many from Joint Forces Command and our associated institutions, such as Joint Staff College and CINCLANT. I’m happy to have you here on what counts as a milestone in anyone’s life: the transition to looking back on the Navy, instead of being in it. I will mention only a few of those I want to thank in particular for coming today. They include my brother Alan and his lovely wife and family; rear admiral Harry Fiske, USN, retired; Captain Keith Larson; and above all my beloved and lovely companion Lenore and the self-confident young woman my daughter Naia is fast becoming. And all the folks with whom I’ve sailed and worked; and the junior officers and enlisted with whom I have had the pleasure of working at Joint Forces Command. Your presence here, not this magnificent ship nor this magnificent harbor, nor official honors and ceremonies, makes this day worthwhile.
Retirement is traditionally the day when the departing serviceman or woman takes the floor, as it were, to pronounce a valedictory on not only his career but on what he perceives as the state of the Navy.
I am happy to speak to the first portion of this charge. By any measure, I count my career as a resounding success. It has spanned a goodly portion of this globe and more than fulfilled all my boyish dreams. From the Naval Academy I learned the essential lessons of self-discipline, craftiness, perseverance, and subordinating the self to the welfare of the team. From my first ship, and its hard, motley, and at times near-ungovernable crew I learned the deepest lessons of the seaman’s craft: unending vigilance; resourcefulness; being prepared for disaster, that disaster may never occur; and that much may, and occasionally must, be forgiven in men who know how to rig for underway replenishment in less than ten minutes. From staff duty afloat I learned the essentials of leadership by seeing it negated daily in every possible way practicable. These lessons in leadership by negative example continued at training command ashore, but again the strength of the enlisted who worked for me carried the unit through.
Aboard USS Charleston I learned that one has to forgive oneself an occasional screwup; and that whenever one goes to sea, disaster is at one’s right hand. Aboard USS Antrim I learned the art of leading reservists, most of whom didn’t want to be there, and learned that even the most daunting job was not outside my capability if I worked hard. And in the shore stations and commands since I have learned the hidden processes and policies that drive the Navy we see above water and below, and learned to muster logic and facts to support and promote the closer integration of the active and reserves into the Total Force.
Indeed, I feel something less than optimal in the fact that, as soon as one has adequately learned the lessons the Navy has to teach, as soon as one feels competent to meeet any challenge within it, it is time to leave. But my knees agree with the Navy that it’s time for me to look for a new challenge, something that doesn’t require passing a PRT every six months.
It is true that thirty-four years have passed far more quickly than I ever imagined they could. Looking back on the scared boy who raised his hand on Tecumseh Court on a hot day in June of 1967, I can still remember clearly the emotions of one who had embarked on the first minute of his naval career. I can recall the face of the surprised Marine to whom I gave a dollar – the custom being to tip the man who first saluted you after commissioning. I still recall walking down the pier to the steam-shrouded form of my first ship. The ear-ringing impact of the first time the main battery fired under my spotting – detonations the continuing echo of which I still hear when otherwise surrounded by silence. Fighting to repair topside damage as fifty-foot waves bore down on us out of the Arctic night. Pulling sea-swollen bodies out of the blue Mediterranean, and wondering if we’d be next. Staring in wonder at an Allied navy’s answer to a balky black-water system on an LST: putting a three-holer on top of the engine room escape trunk and turning it into a gigantic cesspool. Conning a fifteen-tousand-ton AKA up the Cape Fear River, and judging the turns by the amount of daylight between the captain’s ass and the bottom of his chair. Serving as a liaison officer with the French Navy, with four different kinds of wine at lunch, and with the Korean Navy, thirty-two different kinds of kimchee. No air conditioning, no showers, no computers, a world war two kind of war along the DMZ. Telling a three-star at JCS J-3 he was wrong, and observing in admiration as the captain in charge of the watch team turned dark purple. All the way to this February, rolling through Saudi in body armor as Operation Southern Watch was launching air strikes against Iraq.
It seems like such a short time; and yet, when that briefcase is opened, what depth and richness of memories come out of each file folder. And what depth and richness of friendship, camaraderie, and the memory of shared work, danger, and challenge. Truly, it has been a voyage to remember.
I remember those who made it with me; the commanding officers, many of whom are here today, who set the bar of professionalism and conduct so high for me; and who encouraged me that it was within my grasp. I remember the chiefs, those doughty men and women who tolerated me when I was junior, worked in tandem with me as a field grade officer, and who I could depend on as loyal supporters when I became a senior officer. And I remember the men and women who worked for me, the people who always have and always will be the steel core of the Navy: the enlisted sailors.
And no less must I recall to memory those who enabled me to serve, by carrying on the tasks of home and family while I was absent. In my case those whom I would like to honor are my mother, who could not be here today; but whose absence by my side at this moment I regret deeply. My father, whose service to his country in North Africa, France, and Germany were neither acknowledged nor rewarded. I would like to honor Lenore, my mysterious companion of the heart, whose shouldering of all the many burdens I have laid on her without complaint and with consummate grace leaves me wondering at my luck, blessing, and good judgment in marrying her. And I can’t leave out Naia, my beautiful daughter, whose cheerful voice on the phone and whose squeezy hugs when I come home have made my absences from her smile a little easier to bear.
To all of you, my heartfelt thanks.
And now let me speak about the state of the Navy; and in a wider sense, that of the military in which I have been privileged to serve.
In my current position as policy advisor to Rear Admiral Janczak, I have had the opportunity to gain a wider perspective on the role both of all the reserve components in the defense of the united states. At time same time, I’ve participated in the counsels of senior personnel of all the services. Though most of my fellow officers are hard-working professionals, I must caution them that many of them are following a course that may feels good in the short term, but which may ultimately prove self-defeating and dangerous to the country.
There are those – I won’t dignify them by citing names – who refer to those of us who serve in the United States military – active or reserve – as “spear-carriers for the American Empire.” An empire they describe as greedy and militaristic, imposing a hostile imperium on the nations of the earth. I reject the contentions of this argument, at least as applies to the US Navy. Comparisons are invidious; but there are many government agencies, both in DoD and without, who have contributed far more to the sum of human unhappiness than we have. No human institution has clean hands. The Navy too has made its mistakes, and then made things worse by trying to cover them up. I fault the senior leadership for this, not the rank and file. They know admitting a fault up front is the best policy. But on balance the sea-blue banner of the U.S. Navy floats as high as the best. I believe my service in it helped defeat a dangerous adversary and served as the underpinning for a more secure and more democratic world. I am proud to have served in it, and I wish it well. But I also admit to occasional anxiety about its future. And I will explain why.
I believe that the only adversary that can defeat the US armed services is themselves, in the forfeiture or estrangement of their support from the broad masses of the republic. This was the lesson of Rome: that the downfall of the republic occurred only when citizenship became separate from service; when the Romans themselves left it to others to provide defense of their polity. But when did they turn away from service in their army? When it became the maker of the Caesars.
The most worrisome development I have witnessed in the course of my career is the overt politicization of the US officer corps. When I joined the Navy the discussion of politics was strictly forbidden in the mess. Men had private convictions, but they remained private. They were not imposed on their peers or still less on their juniors. Yet in recent years this has changed. Over and over I have been privy to remarks made overtly, in the presence of junior officers and enlisted, insults, slander, and gossip distinctly political in nature and heavily weighted to the side of the conservative party. I would label these clearly, in the terminology of military discipline, as “remarks to the prejudice of good discipline.” I have countered such statements to the extent of my authority when made in my presence, but I feel like King Lear, raging against the coming of the tide. And I know junior members who feel differently do not feel as comfortable speaking up against their seniors. They may not argue back – but that doesn’t mean they agree.
A second danger is the wilful opposition of some in the military to inevitable demographic and cultural trends of change. To the extent we do not move forward with America, we will move away from America. The tendency towards political conservatism goes hand in hand with a rejection of pluralism and diversity that I find dangerous to the future of the service. Powerful figures of former authority promote this policy of rejectionism, abusing, in my view, their positions of trust.
I do not call on members of the armed forces to all become liberals. That would just as bad. I call for our senior officers to lead us in a return to the traditional non-political stance that holds the military apart from the world of politics. As it is, the military looks more and more like not an instrument of the common defense, but as just another lobbying group – like the NRA or the NEA, the Sierra Club or the Christian Coalition. And to the extent we become such, we accomplish two unintended ends; we estrange ourselves from half the body politic, and we subject ourselves to being hostages of one political party. As a priesthood apart, we can command support from all quarters commensurate with our professional dedication and skill. As a tool and client of the conservative party, we trade our birthright for a mess of pottage . . . the bowl of which seems to get smaller and smaller as it approaches our lips.
In like regard, I have little respect for those who belittle the contribution of women to our armed forces. I have served extensively with women. I had my first female CO in 1975. I have worked for them, worked with them, and had them working for me. In every situation I have found them the functional equivalent of their male running mates. It is far past time the Navy’s anachronistic mindset about who it permits to serve moved from the nineteenth century into the twenty-first. The only yardstick by which we should judge our new accessions is: have they the potential to do the job? Once that question is answered in the affirmative, our task is to so train, supply, indoctrinate, and lead them so they can they do so. No other consideration should remain in our mind, especially prejudices that belong to earlier phases of human development: nativism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia. In the armed forces of the standard bearer of democracy, service must be open to all – and it is our task to make it so. This is the only way we will continue to merit the support of the American people. They have renounced discrimination. They expect no less of us.
I am nearly done. But I wanted to go one step farther, and address what I think is the reason we give way to such temptations to exclusion. Why we see others as inferior, less able, degenerate, dangerous, and ultimately dangerous. In part it is pride in what we have built. But in truth others built it, and passed it to us. It in turn will pass to others, in many cases those others we scorn, and they will build of it a new thing, stronger and more beautiful than we have dreamed. This in itself makes it easier for me to step away from the wheel today: the sure knowledge, from observation, that those who are already in the pipeline to senior rank are as ready, probably more ready, to lead us into the future than were we.
The reason human beings discriminate against others is fear. We fear those whom we perceive as different from ourselves. But fear is the other side of the coin whose face is faith. I believe the world is not directed by us. I believe it’s directed by someone wiser, and I believe that destiny is in good hands. When you believe that, it’s hard to fear other human beings, or the reverses of fate, or the imminence of age and death. It is the only answer I have ever found that is good for all the questions. For me, it was not a gift. It had to be pursued. And I too have to struggle to remember it sometimes. But it’s there.
In closing, let me say how deeply I feel the brotherhood of arms and of the sea which has bound us all together and will till the youngest here today breathes her last breath. The last bar before the open sea is not yet at hand, but it has heaved over the jagged horizon. From here the course line extends beyond human sight. It is time to relieve the watch. Let the pipe sound.