Last Thursday, approximately 250 midshipmen from the United States Naval Academy chose their first duty station at Ship Selection night. The duty stations available range from exotic locations abroad in Spain and Japan and even Hawaii, to homeports on both the east and west coasts.
For many, this will be the only chance they have to choose where they will go with any degree of certainty. For all, this is the start of their career as a Surface Warfare Officer. And whether these midshipmen continue to serve for five years or 20, there is no doubt that a junior officer’s first ship has a significant impact on their career.
This is the ship that will mold them from a newbie Ensign to a competent and qualified officer of the deck and eventually a Surface Warfare Officer. This ship will teach them the practical applications of fundamentals they learned in an academic environment. The lessons that a first tour junior officer learns on their first ship stay with them throughout their career.
Rightfully so, Ship Selection is a big deal for Naval Academy seniors, or “firsties” as they are called at the academy. The ships of our Navy each carry unique personalities based upon their histories, mission sets, namesakes, command leadership, and of course, location. It is not uncommon for midshipmen to spend the weeks prior to Ship Selection narrowing their choices down to a handful of options from the list of available ships.
And on the last Thursday of January, hundreds of midshipmen and their friends, family, mentors, and professors, along with representatives from some of the available ships and key members of the Surface Warfare community, gather to determine where the year’s graduating class of SWOs will scatter to throughout the Fleet.
Meet some members of our Surface Fleet and see how they chose their first ship:
Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Schaeffer, class of 2004, and currently stationed at U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters in Hawaii, remembers feeling the pressure to choose his first ship was largely based on location.
“I had simple, yet specific instructions from my girlfriend: Hawaii,” he confided.
Schaeffer chose USS Lake Erie (CG 70), then homeported in Pearl Harbor. To future SWOs, he offers this advice:
“At the end of the day, a ship is a ship to a certain degree. Yes, it is true that some wardrooms are better than others, but your job on your first ship is largely the same wherever you go, listen (to your Chief), learn (from EVERYONE) and get qualified. If you assume that is true, then you are just picking where you want to spend what little free time you may have.”
Lt. James Deal, class of 2012, was “that guy who was sitting near the end of the last row of people to pick.” As he watched his classmates pick ship after ship, the last in Hawaii and San Diego were taken off the board, leaving only Norfolk.
“I looked at the board at the names and platform types for anything, even a shred of what to do because everything I had wanted was gone. With just Norfolk left, all I remember is seeing the ship that I had done my youngster summer cruise on – USS Monterey (CG 61) – and I thought ‘hey, I know that ship and I had a good time on there,’” said Deal.
“I had a positive experience on the Monterey. Who knew I was picking a flagship of the fleet with a ridiculously solid crew? I couldn’t have picked a better ship for myself, now knowing what I know,” he added.
Lt. j.g. Theo Miller, class of 2015, chose USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51), homeported in Norfolk, VA. He remembers feeling as though ship selection was the “NFL draft of the Navy, because we had family, friends, and admirals come to observe us pick our first ship. At no other time in your career will you have 100% control to pick your homeport and ship.”
Miller, now stationed in Bahrain, said “your first tour as a Division Officer will set up how you view your time in the Navy. Having a great command as I did on Arleigh Burke made my time on the ship fly by, gave me great memories, and made me realize that I want to make a career out of the Navy.”
For Midn. 1/C Caitlyn Vernon, her choice last Thursday was defined by a bit of family history. Vernon’s father sent letters to every living Medal of Honor recipient a few years ago, and received a reply from a Mr. Thomas Hudner.
The letter Vernon’s father received said “to Officer Wayne Vernon and your children, best of luck.” The future USS Thomas Hudner (DDG 116) will be commissioned later this year, and then head to its homeport of Mayport, Florida.
“Once I saw he got a reply from Hudner, I was like, I have to get that ship. It was meant to be,” said Vernon.
Congratulations to all ship selectees and we look forward to seeing you in the fleet!