"Goooooooooooood evening U.S.S. AUSTIN...Navy-Marine Corps blue and green fighting machine! If you've been topside, you may have noticed that we've been going in circles…that's because we're waiting on getting clearance to leave--one of the great things about these Europeans is they don't hurry to do anything. Now, I want to congratulate you all on a great port visit in Malaga…like I always tell you, if you're treated like adults you'll act like adults, and you proved me right in fine AUSTIN fashion. I speak for both the Colonel and myself when I say that we're very proud of the way you conducted yourselves. Well, I've talked at you long enough, but I just want you to know that I love you guys; AUSTIN is the best ship in the Navy because it has the best crew. Whether you wear blue or green, you are doing something important for your country and I love you for it. So, get some shut-eye, and I'll talk at you more tomorrow."
Every morning and night I was aboard the USS AUSTIN (LPD-4), CDR Crow, our CO, would rattle on for a good five minutes on the 1MC in his vaguely southern drawl, explaining to the crew what was going on and how much he cared about them. While on my summer "dungaree" cruise I got to see Spain, France, and Italy for the first time, just as exciting was getting to see empathetic, transformative leadership firsthand on the AUSTIN: CDR Crow epitomizes the kind of naval leader I want to be.
After a perilous crossing to Rota, Spain (apparently, the Air Force doesn't have planes that fly all the way across the Atlantic, so we had an extended pit stop in the Azores, where our plane broke down), five other midshipmen and I were flown out to the AUSTIN on a CH-46. Shortly after we got on board, we found our Midshipman Training Officer (MTO), LT Rocci, a former submariner and the ship's navigator. He took us aside on the port bridge wing, pulled out a cigarette (I swear, Marlboro must sponsor boot camp--almost everybody in the Navy smokes) and said, "Boys, you lucked out. This is the best ship in the Atlantic fleet, if not the Navy." Now, I knew as well as the rest of the mids that the AUSTIN was 35 years old--the oldest ship in the Atlantic fleet (excepting Old Ironsides herself, the CONSTITUTION), but hardly what one would expect to be the best. Plus, she's an amphib…and everybody knows that the CruDes Navy is much better than the Amphib Navy, right?
Over the course of my stay on the AUSTIN, beginning with the first time I heard CDR Crow's long-winded 1MC announcements, I actually came to agree with LT Rocci: if it wasn't the best ship in the Navy, it was sure close. There was a sense of camaraderie and teamwork on board that struck me, which the prior-enlisted midshipmen said they had never seen before. I'm convinced that, while both the wardroom and chief's mess were full of great people (one chief told us "Usually there are at least a couple people on a ship who you just can't stand…but honestly there isn't anybody like that on this ship"), the magic that is AUSTIN comes straight from the top.
Within the first couple days, the CO had us meet him in his office, where he outlined his philosophy to us, rocking back and forth in his chair with Frank Sinatra playing in the background. The three goals of AUSTIN, he explained to us, are Readiness, Safety, and Quality of Life, and while he sees the first two as being of overriding importance, he thinks that the last is often overlooked in today's Navy. For example, he makes every port a liberty port: "We tell these boys 'Join the Navy and see the world!' and then when they get there we keep 'em on the ship!" Likewise, when in homeport, the AUSTIN's workday finishes at 1400, so that people have time to spend with their families. He peered over his big, squarish glasses and recalled, "The department heads were totally against that one. I asked them to try it out for a week, and sure enough, we were able to get more work done in less time, because there was a real reward for finishing on time."
"Encourage people to say, 'Why do we do it this way?'," he implored us. That's how the AUSTIN got its modified underway uniform, consisting of a custom-embroidered T-shirt and shorts combination available in the ship's store for $20. Given how hot it can be in the Med, the crew really appreciated the idea, which came from a junior sailor.
"What about things you can't change, especially when you're a JO?" asked one of the other mids.
"Well, I made a notebook of all the things I would never do when I got to be CO. One of them is making the engineers work longer than everybody else. That's why we leave port in the middle of the day if we can, rather than early in the morning, so the snipes don't have to stay up all night lighting off the plant. But if you're diplomatic--for that's what officers are, if you listen to John Paul Jones, he says officers must be diplomats--then you can make changes even as a JO." Throughout all of the CO's talk, I felt that he had a real feeling of love and respect for his crew, which shone through during the course of my stay.
My first department was Operations, where I followed the Electronics Technicians (ET's) around, repairing radars and fretting about the satellite dishes. One day, I talked to our chief, ETC Mylin, about the captain. "These guys just don't appreciate what he does for them...I'm telling you, I've never seen a CO like this one. I mean, a uniform with shorts and a T-shirt? I never heard of it! ...I think he overdoes it a bit with his 'I love you guys' bit but it's true: he really does love the bluejackets, and they work really hard for him." Shortly before we pulled into Malaga, the chief Mylin explained that the CO had granted all-night liberty (as opposed to "Cinderella" liberty where one has to get back to the ship by midnight), emphasizing how much CDR Crow was putting himself on the line for us. After all, one incident could put a black mark on not just the AUSTIN but the entire Amphibious Ready Group (ARG).
Later in the cruise, I switched to the Engineering department, being stationed in the "pit," a steam plant that looked nothing like the clean diagrams LT Meyer drew for us last year. There, one of the machinist mates likewise waxed eloquent on CDR Crow: "Man, I love the CO. He's amazing. In fact, I got in trouble with him once...I talked back to one of the chiefs and went to Captain's Mast. But he asked me, 'Do you want to stay in the Navy?' and I said 'Yes." So, although I was punished, he gave me a way out. I really appreciated that." He mentioned that his enlistment was almost up, and I asked him if he plans on staying in. "I don't know," he responded. "A captain like ours makes you want to stay in. I'd stay in for sure if I knew that my next CO would be like him. Our last CO, you could tell he just wanted to look good and make O-6, but this one, you can tell he really cares about us. Especially us Engineers…he has us on three-section duty now rather than two, so we get more time in port, because we figured out a way to do the same amount of work with less people."
Someday, we will be in a position of leadership, charged with the responsibility for a group of men and women in the Navy or Marine Corps. I only hope that we can follow CDR Crow's example, respecting and taking care of our sailors and marines.
Photos from Luke's Cruise on the USS Austin