Sunday duty at home is usually quiet. Very seldom is the brass onboard. No contractor work or major evolutions means that watchstanding is more relaxed. We have no choice but to be on the ship, so those on duty try to make the best of it by catching up on work, getting ready for the week ahead, or just doing whatever activities they would have done at home. One of my coworkers, anticipating an easy day, brought his guitar. I had a book.
In this mindset, on my last Sunday duty day, I asked my duty department head if I could go to Church. Technically, we’re not supposed to leave the ship on duty, but as long as it doesn’t interfere with watchstanding or other responsibilities, DHs usually let their sailors take off for a short time. So, when I asked, I had my arguments all ready.
“Ma’am, can I go to Church this morning at 8?”
I braced myself. I was revving up for a fight.
“Yes, of course,” she said, gently, kindly. “Go.”
“I’ll only be gone an hour and I’m not on IET or – oh,” I stopped, awkwardly, realizing that she wasn’t giving me even the slightest bit of trouble. That’s it? Just like that? I can go? A wave of relief washed over me. I thanked her (twice) and left. No one stopped me.
Ash Wednesday Mass in Busan, South Korea, 2014. A holy day. A duty day.
Joining the military necessarily means a loss of one’s autonomy. The needs of the ship often come before the needs of individuals. Personal plans that require time away from work, even on weekends, are never a guarantee. In many ways, you forfeit control over your ability to manage your own time and make decisions. A recall, ship’s movement, major evolutions, duty – all of these take priority. Those with families have it especially hard, and a supportive spouse is more or less essential.
I also understand very well when it’s simply not possible to attend Church: underway, an all-day watch, a major event, a casualty – all of these would understandably, from a professional and, I think, moral perspective, would take precedence over a Sunday Mass. I have a commitment to the ship that goes beyond any other civilian job responsibilities. Sometimes the ship needs me in a way that nothing else could.
In a conflict, though, which takes priority: your ship or your faith?
I have had a few negative experiences at my command when it came to balancing the needs of the ship and my own need to practice my religion. Specifically, the conflict was that I had no demands that would have prevented me from attending Mass, but I was reprimanded or outright forbidden from doing so anyway.
One of these situations was a duty day. It was a holy day of obligation. I asked to go, citing the lack of responsibilities (late night watch, no team membership, work done, no drills), and was told the following: “If I let you go, I have to let everyone else go, and that’s not realistic or fair.” This argument was both fallacious and insulting, a great example of the rules being read too literally to the point of being nonsensical. Besides, on the same day, this person also allowed a number of duty personnel to attend two separate events off the ship – a mando-fun picnic and a Captain’s Cup game – because they were “command functions.” The hypocrisy was overwhelming and still continues to trouble me, more than a year later. I was scolded for having a bad attitude (true) and for not taking my duties seriously (not true). I was not allowed to leave the ship. And, according to the duty status instruction, he wasn’t wrong for preventing me from doing so.
The other situation wasn’t a duty day. I was in engineering. We were getting ready to light off after a long SRA, which meant working weekends. My chief openly admitted that our work was done and we were coming in on Sunday just for show, since the rest of the department had to work. With that in mind, I asked to come in an hour late so I could go to Mass before work. I offered to stay an hour later to make up for the lost time. Chief said no, citing the same reason as above: “If I let you come in late, I have to let everyone come in late.” This time, I lost it. It wasn’t that there was some tasking that was preventing me from going. There was no work to be done, especially during that one hour. We all knew that we would just be standing by all day until they let us go – one of the many infuriating aspects of ship life. The fact that I couldn’t fulfill this moral obligation for absolutely no reason made me totally break down. My division officer, seeing me clearly upset, told me, with agitation, “Just go.” It was humiliating that it had to come to that. This time, I got to go, but it was at the expense of my professionalism and military bearing. My chief and division officer thought I was using Church as an excuse to not work. That hurt me.
Given these two negative experiences, it’s pretty clear why it was such a relief to be given that one hour for Church without any drama. My DH didn’t have to let me go, but she did, and it made a huge difference in my attitude. I was engaged and involved in the demands of the day. I was eager to be supportive of the duty section, as though in return for a favor. I was positive and attentive on watch. My morale was great, even on weekend duty, and it cost the duty section nothing at all. Isn’t that a good example of the correct balance of priorities? In the absence of necessary or urgent professional demands, why not allow personnel to address their personal, human needs? It makes for less resentment and more productive, reliable sailors.
It actually doesn’t matter how many personnel are onboard the ship at any time if they’re all bitter and vindictive, showing up late for watch or not at all, hiding when duty section gets called away, not responding to casualties. We’ve all seen the creative ways that sailors get into trouble after their liberty has been curtailed for a while. After being told “no” to their needs for so long, even the strongest willed person will eventually break, turning around and telling the Navy “no” in response. A healthy balance of personal and professional priorities keeps everything (and everyone) going.
For better or worse, the ship is rarely the most important thing in a sailor’s life. When I think about whether or not to stay in the Navy, it’s those negative experiences – those restrictions on my autonomy, particularly being needlessly prevented from doing something that is very important to me – that come to mind first. It is difficult to belong to an organization which prioritizes strict (“strict”) adherence to rules at the expense of practicality and of their personnel’s non-professional wellbeing. Sometimes, shit happens. I know. You can’t always get what you want, especially as another cog in the wheel. But, repeatedly, in the long run, is it worth it?