MILLINGTON, Tenn (NNS) -- U.S. Navy submarines have always been associated with close quarters. Today's modern fast-attack submarines house a crew of more than 130 sailors who rely on each other for the smooth operation of the ship. They eat, sleep, and work amongst each other 24 hours a day, seven days a week at sea, sometimes for as long as six months. That's why such a tightly knit community demands the highest level of competency from its members.
When Fireman Edward Chartier, a Waterford, Connecticut, native and machinist's mate serving onboard the fast-attack submarine USS San Juan, earned his "Enlisted Submarine Warefare" pin, he proved to his shipmates he was capable of watching their backs. Known as "dolphins," or "fish" in the submarine community, the pin is a culmination of months of Chartier learning everything about his ship.
"Earning your dolphins means proving to the entire crew that you now know all the important aspects of the submarine," said Robert Smith, a retired chief mess management specialist, who served tours on five different submarines from 1981 to 2003. "Most importantly, you have earned the respect of your shipmates, and they know that you will run towards danger, not from it."
Smith earned his dolphins in 1983 aboard the USS Guardfish. His dolphins were handed down to him from another retired submariner.
"My father worked for an apartment complex in Clifton Park, New York, and he was talking with one of the residents," said Smith. "The person asked him about his family and he told him about me in the Navy. He told the man that I was in submarine school."
"The man then went into his bedroom and came out with a set of dolphins that he had earned when he was in the Navy. He asked my father to give them to me and asked that I be pinned with his dolphins. He said that a 'sailor belongs at sea with the fish,' and wanted his fish to go back to sea."
Smith is currently the regional director for the U.S. Navy's Sea Cadet Corps regions one through four in southeastern New England. He was Chartier's Sea Cadet commanding officer when Chartier was a teenager.
"When I transferred to Groton, Connecticut, to serve aboard USS Hartford (SSN 768), I found the then Groton Division of the U.S. Navy Sea Cadet Corps and volunteered to join the unit," said Smith. "I served as the operations officer for three years and then became the unit commanding officer. When my son was old enough to join the program, he decided to bring a friend with him, and that friend was Edward Chartier. Both Edward and my son spent about eight years as cadets, both rising in rank to chief petty officer. It is quite a significant feat."
For Chartier, the Sea Cadets were a way to set him up for service in the Navy.
"I joined the Sea Cadets when I was in the fifth grade and this helped my decision to join the military and establish my values," said Chartier.
When Smith pinned Chartier during a ceremony on USS San Juan's pier, May 11, he gave him those same dolphins from 35 years ago.
"I never met the man who gave them to me," said Smith. "My father has passed on and I'm sure this man has as well, so I wanted to honor his wishes and let them sail the seas again."
Chartier's values enabled him to earn his dolphins in 10 months. Now, he gets to take three generations of submariner heritage back to sea, something that means a lot to Smith.
"As the man who gave me these fish said, 'a sailor belongs at sea with the fish,'" said Smith. "I earned them through hard work and dedication. They should not sit in a jewelry box on my dresser."
With the torch passed from one generation to the next, Chartier is proud to carry on the legacy of the old dolphins.
"This is a great way to start my career," said Chartier.
As his journey in the Navy begins to pick up steam, he can rest easy knowing he carries along to with him sea the proud memories of those who came before him.