Q: What do you see as the most exciting development in the submarine community that Midshipmen going through school now will have to look forward to in the Fleet?
A: This is really kind of a neat story. We have these great machines that are stealthy, they have endurance, and have long dwell times and are able to go places and do things that we were not able to do 20 or 30 years ago. We now have systems that help us do all of those things so much better. We now have much improved communications; we have unique high-frequency sonar systems that help us see through the ocean environment better, we have the ability not only to be stealthy – but also to work in unison with SEALs and our Advanced SEAL Delivery System. So now we can be there and have specialists go to places and do things. We have intelligence gathering systems that are so much better than they were years ago, and so we can collect information and contribute. So for the incoming Midshipmen and future submarine officers, it is all about being able to do all those important things so much better. The Global War on Terror and other challenges place an even greater premium on the submarine’s enduring qualities of stealth, endurance, agility, and firepower.
We sent a group of Midshipmen out to visit the USS Virginia (SSN-774) recently. Here we have this submarine that can do it all, and the comments I received from each and every Midshipmen was, “We had no idea that submarines were so capable.”One of the things we don’t do quite as well as we ought to in the submarine world is to advertise and make clear that there are some neat challenges and that the Submarine Force really does contribute to the combat readiness of our Navy. It has been a “silent service” for a long time, and we don’t publicize what’s out there and what we can do. And that is sometimes a challenge.
Q: How important is diversity to the Navy? From your position now, what can you do to promote diversity in the Submarine Force?
A: I think, in general, diversity is important. But I think from a broader view, the world and this country are made up of two kinds of people. One is the group who has opportunities; and then there are the people who need opportunities. Frankly, we have no shortage of places for good people in the Navy, government, and service in general, so there are tons of opportunities out there, and for those who have them, you should take advantage of them. The diversity that is so important is giving other folks the chance to do great things. It is not to create particular set-asides or any of those kinds of things. It is about giving opportunities – and when you do provide them, you find that there are a lot of other people who are equally capable and can contribute to the good of the service and our cause. That’s what it’s really all about – getting the best out of the most people we can and not limiting those who might not otherwise have opportunities. So here at the Academy, it is important to have a broad spectrum and so I think I can contribute most by just being here, and not making any particular push. Just by being here may inspire some to say, “Gee, I would like to be like him. Not because of any particular ‘diversity,’ but because I think he’s a capable person.”
Q: You were awarded the Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale Leadership Award, which recognizes leaders for their qualities as moralists, jurists, teachers, stewards, and philosophers. You obviously excelled in each of these categories. What quality do you see as the most valuable to a submarine officer and why?
A: It was certainly an honor to win the Vice Adm. Stockdale award and – in my view – it wasn’t because I was particularly special. I can probably tell you twenty stories about things that happened in my command tour that were sort of special. But I guess the couple of things that were truly special to me were that as a ship and a command we didn’t win a whole lot of individual awards. However, we won almost every organizational award, and we won them because we had this group of folks who were all committed to the same things. I think I used the majority of my time trying to broaden the perspective of people who were willing to do more.
Our boat was noted for a couple things. We were called the “second-chance boat”. We had a half-dozen Sailors who were thrown off their boats for whatever reason, and they were probably soon to be thrown out of the Navy. For some reason – maybe I was asked, maybe I volunteered, I don’t remember exactly – we embraced every single one of those Sailors and took them to be a part of our crew. And the challenge was getting the crew to recognize that these new crewmembers really did have a lot to contribute. It turned out to be a positive-positive because even though they had somewhat bad reputations when they came aboard, they wanted a second chance, and they were willing to work harder. The rest of the crew saw that they were trying to do the right thing, so it just developed into a team effort.
The other part of it was that we had this program that we called “The Square Peg/Round Hole Program”, and as it turned out, and I think I learned this long ago – if you have a crew of 150 people, you will find that each of those 150 Sailors has an individual talent. Their particular skill may not be as the best submarine driver, sonar tech, or torpedomen. It is important to have those submarine skills, but it’s also important to tap into whatever it is that each of these individuals is capable of doing, both on and off the boat. I’ve found that there were always Sailors who didn’t come forward with their special skills. You have to find ways to figure them out by cultivating an environment and culture that causes folks to come forward. Once they feel comfortable coming forward, you never know what kind of benefits they can bring to the boat.
I remember one case where we were out operating on a mission in the most challenging place known to man, and the water was shallower than I would have liked, and the environmental conditions were horrible, and then on top of that, there was this huge fishing fleet over us that posed a great challenge as well. As it turned out, two of my crewmembers had spent their entire childhood and adolescence as oceangoing, seagoing, littoral-environment fisherman. And so as we were struggling to get from point A to point B, I asked, “Hey guys, I’m no expert on this. I need some help figuring out where we ought to go.” Certainly there were some tactical parts to this that I could figure out pretty easily. After my announcement, a few crewmembers came forward and pulled out the charts and the maps with the fishing vessel traffic, and they said, “Sir, if you go this way through here, just based on the water, the time of day, the geography, etc. our experience tells us it’s going to work.” I said, “Thank you very much,” and we did just what they recommended, and we ended up just where we needed to be while avoiding
all the hazards.
As fate would have it, we were able to successfully carry out the operation. Now these crewmembers were wonderful Sailors, but they would not necessarily have come forward unless we had communicated our needs to them and given them the opportunity to contribute in their own unique way. Because of this, we all won, and that was a big part of the success of our boat. And now I’m trying those things here – creating opportunities to contribute.
Finally, if all else fails, take the time to listen to people. It is amazing what they’ll tell you if you actually take the time to listen. We all know how to speak, how to pontificate, how to wag our fingers, but often times we don’t know how to listen. People will only transmit pulses for a little while, and if they don’t get a return, they’ll be happy to stop transmitting – and shame on us for not listening and benefiting from what they had to offer.
Q: Based on your career thus far, what advice would you give an incoming Midshipmen or junior Sailor who has just joined the Submarine Force?
A: My advice to Midshipmen – my advice to anyone – would be this: life is really much simpler than we sometimes make it out to be, and the things necessary for success are sometimes the small ones. Think of the Naval Academy as Mount Everest. How do you climb it? The way to do it is very simple. First, set the goal of making it to the top. The next step is to understand that nothing comes naturally, so you have to prepare yourself by doing the absolute best that you can. This applies at the Naval Academy, in the Fleet, and in general. You need to study, work hard, and prepare yourself as well as you can. Third you need to take things one step at a time – from induction day to graduation, from commissioning to retirement, it is all about taking one step at a time. Finally, it is all about not quitting, having endurance, and sticking to it. Once you set out and start taking those steps, no matter how hard it gets along the way, remember that there’s a lot of reward at the end, and you’ll never see those benefits if you don’t endure.
So, really, those four steps – nothing mystical and nothing magical – is what life is all about for Midshipmen or young officers. I can tell you that after graduating and on my way to my first submarine as an ensign, I had some real challenges. Frankly, if it hadn’t been for them, I probably would have moved on to something else. Instead, I decided I would go on to the next step, because it had to get better. In my own case, it got better each time. Each assignment was better. When I look back, I’m glad I had those challenges, but more importantly I’m glad that I endured each of them to reach this wonderful point in my career.
Mr. Smith is the Managing Editor of UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine and an analyst with Anteon Corporation in Washington, D.C.
Ms. Anna Ward, Personal Secretary to the Commandant
Q: When you were informed you had another submariner as the commandant, what was your reaction?
A: I was pleased to learn USNA was receiving another high-level submarine officer. I have worked with several submarine officers in the past and know their personalities are strong-willed. They are determined to perform their job above and beyond what is expected. However, when selecting someone for the position of Commandant, I don’t believe it is because of their warfare community, but rather it is their leadership style and personal ability to successfully train and lead the Brigade of Midshipmen. Capt. Grooms is a superb leader and addition to USNA.
Q: How does the staff react to
A: The staff thinks he’s great and fully respects him; not just as an officer and the Commandant, but as gentleman. He has an approachable management style.
Q: How do the Midshipmen react
A: Some of the Midshipmen are a bit nervous around him. As Capt. and Mrs. Grooms continue to get settled into their lives here at the Academy, they are able to meet and entertain Midshipmen, which allow the Midshipmen to realize how loving and kind the Grooms truly are.
Q: Is there anything you would
like to add?
A: I consider it a great privilege to work for the Commandant of Midshipmen and to be involved in the day-to-day training of the Midshipmen, especially during this particular time in history, with war and natural disasters affecting our global community. I feel confident the men and women attending and graduating from USNA under the leadership of Capt. Grooms will be well prepared to lead the Fleet and serve our country and the world community.