TR Mustangs: Earning It
Going Up in Rank the Hard Way
Rucking through the mountains of Afghanistan, scrubbing elbow deep in a scullery sink, recovering aircraft on the flight deck of a carrier in the world's greatest Navy - the life of an enlisted Sailor is filled with views from the peaks of success and even valleys of failure.
"Oh, the places you'll go."
Dr. Seuss wrote these words at the introduction of one of his most legendary books of the same name. The book is commonly referenced in cards and mementos gifted to service members during their military tenure. From the Rock of Gibraltar with shipmates in abundance to the top of the Burj Khalifa with liberty buddies, the places and relationships built during Naval career are invaluable and coveted for years.
When Alexander Lamis pictured his life as a Sailor in the United States Navy, he may have imagined exotic foreign ports but he never foresaw a life in the Wardroom. Now serving as the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) security officer, Lt. Lamis enlisted in the Navy in March 1995 as a master-at-arms.
"I truly never envisioned that I'd make a career out of the Navy so I didn't really ever think about commissioning," Lamis said. "I've always tried to set myself up for success to make the highest rank possible but I definitely didn't envision myself as a mustang. But it worked out that way and the rest is history."
The places mustangs go are of the exceptional sort. Cmdr. Michael Garber, TR's gun boss, began his career as a seaman recruit and gave his interpretation of the spirit of the mustang that lives within about 80 officers aboard.
"A mustang is a spirited horse," said Garber. "It's a very strong-willed and competent animal. A mustang can be hard to tame and at times it can revert back to its spirited ways. Sort of like an enlisted Sailor who goes on to make officer. That's what we are. Mustangs: prior enlisted Sailors that commissioned to become officers."
Ensign Sequoia Youngblood began her career in 2000 as an information systems technician seaman recruit (ITSR). She attributes much of her success to the support she received from her mentors.
"I had a lot of mentors at my first command and that was key," said Youngblood. "I had to align myself on the path they laid before me, starting at ITSR on up through the ranks. Each mentor gave me a tool for my toolbox and built me up for success."
"A mustang is a spirited horse; it's a very strong-willed and competent animal... sort of like an enlisted Sailor who goes on to make officer. That's what we are."
The Navy offers several commissioning opportunities to its enlisted community. Each opportunity is unique and tailored to ensure the Navy commissions the right Sailors with the right skill sets.
The Seaman to Admiral-21 (STA-21) program, once referred to as the Broadened Opportunity for Officer Selection and Training (BOOST) program, is a commissioning program that provides an opportunity for highly motivated active duty enlisted personnel. The program offers an eight-week training course to provide Sailors with core fundamentals before sending selectees to a four-year college. The selectees receives full pay, allowances and benefits for their enlisted pay grades and are eligible for advancement while participating in the program. While obtaining their bachelor's degree, service members are attached to a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) unit and participate in drills with their unit until graduation and commissioning.
Sailors with their bachelor's degrees often take the Officer Candidate School (OCS) route on their path to butter bars. Applicants for OCS may request designation depending upon individual qualifications and available community designators. OCS is a 12-week program of intense officer training and indoctrination located at Officer Training Command (OTC), Newport, Rhode Island. Designed by Navy officers and educators, OCS provides a basic knowledge of the high-tech Naval establishment afloat and ashore. Training prepares candidates to assume the responsibilities of a Naval officer.
Two TR Sailors most recently selected for commissioning are still hard at work in their enlisted roles. They decided to commission via the limited duty officer (LDO) and chief warrant officer (CWO) programs. Aviation's Boatswain's Mate (handler) 1st Class Nandesh Baliraj is slated to commission in December and will follow on to serve as a ship's boatswain. Chief Culinary Specialist Karen Thompson was selected for chief warrant officer and will serve as a food service officer.
The LDO and CWO programs provide commissioning opportunities to qualified enlisted personnel and CWOs. In order to be eligible for the CWO program, the applicant must be a chief or a board-eligible E6. Each LDO designation has specific applicant requirements depending on the community.
LDOs are technically oriented officers who perform duties in specific occupational fields and require strong managerial skills. CWOs are technical specialists who perform duties requiring extensive knowledge and skills of a specific occupational field.
Baliraj said it was humbling to be one of three Sailors chosen Navywide for his LDO program.
"It felt like a great accomplishment especially since this was the second time I submitted a package," said Baliraj. "I was on leave when I found out. I received a call and it really took a moment for it to all sink in but hard work and determination really do pay off. It's always a good feeling to see your hard work recognized."
Always ready to serve his shipmates, Baliraj is looking forward to the opportunity to make a difference at the officer level.
"Whether I'm in a situation to gain or not, I always lend a helping hand," said Baliraj. "I'm always there to share what I know. Whatever I know, I pass it on. Sometimes you have to do things you don't agree with but that's all a part of being in the military. I always try to work through the bad and hold onto the good. I always try to take the negative and make it into a positive."
Thompson picked up chief her first time up and thought her career path was sealed by the fouled anchors she dons on her collar insignia, but her evolution as a Sailor was not complete. Shortly after receiving her anchors, Thompson was selected for CWO.
"I was shocked," said Thompson. "I just picked up Chief this cycle. It really was bittersweet."
With tears in her eyes, Thompson described the irony behind her more recent success.
"I just feel so much pride as a Chief," she said. "April 1st is the Chiefs' Mess' birthday and I've only spent one as a Chief. I've always wanted to go the officer route. All my mentors pushed me to be a chief but I've always wanted to be an officer. I really do love being a chief and I didn't expect to pick up CWO within the same year, but it is a blessing. It's an overwhelming feeling."
Thompson and her husband met at her first command. He will be the first to render her honors at her commissioning.
"I've been with my husband for thirteen years," said Thompson. "We've made every rank together. When I made chief, that was the first time we didn't make rank together and I made CWO immediately after. I wanted to know how he felt. He was very supportive. He told me, 'you're my wife, I'm very happy for you. Your success is my success.' I wouldn't have my first salute from anyone else in the world."
Navy mustangs hail from all sorts of humble beginnings that enlisted Sailors know all too well. Like their motto says, they've done it the hard way and earned their commission in countless working parties, through stripping decks and painting seemingly endless bulkheads. No matter how different the path, there is one major thing they all have in common; their unyielding spirit and the savior-faire that only the enlisted experience can provide. Despite the odds and despite each proverbial "no" that presents itself in a lifetime - these mustangs trailblaze through obstacles with relentless resiliency. All the places they go, they are a testament to where stout work ethic can take you.
"I mean, what a ride," said Garber. "What an opportunity. From E1 to chief petty officer to commander - I've got to do so many wonderful things at so many wonderful billets. But for me, walking around this ship, I love working with Sailors. Just knowing that we're out there and that we were once enlisted, it's a reminder to all of our Sailors that we walked in their shoes. The same opportunities that were presented to me are there for them. We've lived the enlisted life and dealt with the same things. But I'm here to tell you - the harder you work, the higher you get in rank and the better it gets."
Just like the Mustang Motto suggests: - We did it the hard way ... We earned it -