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Gunboat1

Sea Stories: #53 - Serving An Admiral

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Sea Stories: #53 - Serving An Admiral

 

One of my most enjoyable tours on active duty was as Aide and Flag Lieutenant to a Rear Admiral. All Flag Officers in the USN rate a personal staff in addition to the command staff assigned to whatever unit they command. In my case, I was assigned to Commander, Service Group TWO, in Norfolk, VA. The Commander at that time was RADM M.E. “Jim” Toole, USN.

The Admiral: RADM Toole was a very interesting man. He obtained his commission though the NROTC. He was a Surface Warfare Officer, who had in his time commanded a River Division of PBRs (riverine gunboats) in Vietnam, a Destroyer Escort, a guided Missile Destroyer, and later a Guided Missile Cruiser. Upon selection to flag rank, he was given command of SERVGRU TWO, which was a collection of support vessels of the Atlantic Surface Forces. These ships included Destroyer Tenders, Oilers, Ammunition Ships, Refrigerated Stores ships , Salvage and Recovery ships, and a Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit, all organized into three squadrons. This was the logistics support arm of the Atlantic Fleet, as well as the NATO Strike Fleet, Atlantic. A wise man once said “Amateurs debate tactics. Professionals worry about logistics.” This is exactly right, and it was a huge responsibility. RADM Toole was a very tough, very capable and extremely intelligent officer. He was a voracious reader and serious student of history, with tremendous powers of recall of details. His father had been an actual horse cavalryman who was sent into Mexico to chase down Pancho Villa! As befitting a Vietnam War “brown water navy” veteran (he is favorably mentioned in the book Rogue Warrior, by Dick Marcinko) he was all business and no bull****. He demanded accountability from those who he led. And he was known for convening disciplinary hearings (Admiral's Mast) for a large number of officers of the group whose ships had problems or incidents. He was not at all averse to calling senior officers in front of the “Long Green Table” and rendering punitive judgment when it was called for. He was also very tough in his role of logistician for the NATO Strike Fleet. He was the first USN admiral to make the annual wargamers at the Naval War College consider the LOGISTICS aspects of their battle simulations. These annual wargames were factored in to force levels and tactical plans; prior to RADM Toole, it was all about who shot who, with how many missiles or torpedoes. But Admiral Toole made them be realistic. “OK, how many missiles did USS Belknap fire yesterday in battle? 62, sir.   OK, then how did she just fire 40 more? She only had 18 remaining!.....Well, sir, she replenished last night! From whom? USS Nitro, sir! No, Nitro departed the battle group yesterday morning to refill her magazines in Iceland, she wasn't there. Uhhhhhh........OK, so Belknap was sunk, then.” BIG DIFFERENCE IN OUTCOME, based upon logistic realities instead of simply throwing around imaginary missiles. RADM Toole spoke his mind and did what he thought was right. I really liked and respected him, and enjoyed being his Flag Lieutenant. He had a flamboyant personal style, too. He was single, and had a striking, well-endowed blonde girlfriend who was very impressive when they attended social events together. He was quite a guy. He was very good to me and I did my best to take good care of him.

 

Personal Staff: A Rear Admiral had a personal staff of four who reported directly to him: A Flag Secretary, A Flag Lieutenant/Aide, a Flag Writer and a Driver. The Flag Secretary was a Lieutenant Commander (Limited Duty Officer) who was an admin specialist, and handled the Admiral's personal correspondence as well as overseeing the Group's official paperwork. The Flag Writer was a First Class Petty Officer Yeoman (later a CPO) who typed, prepared low-level notes, and created drafts of some correspondence, and directly supervised the Driver, who was an E-3 Seaman whose job it was to drive the admiral to wherever he needed to go, and to keep the assigned pool vehicle clean and ready. And I was the Flag Lieutenant/Aide (more on this later.)

 

(Uniform and historical note: officers assigned as personal staff to a USN Admiral wear a distinctive item of uniform apparel called an aiguillette, on their left shoulder. It is a looped cord of blue and gold, with the number of loops signifying the rank of the admiral, corresponding to the number of stars he wears. In this way, the officer can instantly be identified as someone who is serving the immediate needs of an Admiral, and be given appropriate priority. The dress aiguillette is extremely ornate, whereas the daily wear item is simpler. And according to the history I was taught, the aiguillette has its historical origins in the 1300s. A very senior Spanish officer, the Duke of Medina Sedona, had a small elite bodyguard force of personal troops, who he used for important missions when required. And each man carried a small coil of rope around one shoulder at all times, as an insignia of his membership in that unit. And if the man ever failed to accomplish an assigned task, he was expected to immediately hang himself with that rope! Today's aiguillette is a stylized symbol of that ancient tradition. )

 

The Flag Lieutenant: How do you get this job? In my day, one single civilian employee at the USN Bureau of Personnel was responsible for identifying officers whose records indicated good potential to be flag Aides. When an Admiral needed an Aide, she would send over several service record nominations for the Admiral to choose from, and he would pick one. I'm not sure how I got into that pile, but I'm glad I did. ( I think Admiral Toole picked me because I got my commission from NROTC, and had been serving on a cruiser like the one he had commanded.) The job of the Flag Lieutenant (also known in Navy parlance as a “dog robber”) is to take care of the Admiral's daily needs. To help him carry out his daily routine, and fetch him whatever he needs to do it. To get him to events on time, in proper uniform and knowing what he needs to know to be effective. To give him briefing materials and to track them when they are classified so they don't get compromised. To carry his bags, fetch his drinks, get him to the proper seat at the table, and do whatever is needed so that he looks omniscient, vice unprepared. To get his car serviced, to help him prepare for and carry out social events in his home when of an official nature. Basically, to help him make the most efficient use of his limited time, but doing WHATEVER he needs done to accomplish the mission. In return for this difficult, time-consuming job, the young officer is given a graduate-level education in big issues, learns how the Navy actually runs, sees and hears much of instructive value, and meets a lot of powerful people. The Admiral usually helps the officer get a career-enhancing next assignment (assuming that he has done well. Not everyone does.)

 

Pitfalls: I know of two Flag Lieutenants who didn't do well, and were fired from the job. One guy had a fender bender with the Admiral's official car while he was off using it without permission during a duty day. He knew that the Admiral had to have a car, and driving around in a badly dented vehicle wouldn't go unnoticed. So he rushed over to the base motor pool and demanded that they give him a new vehicle for the Admiral while they fixed the old one. He mentioned this to no one. And later that afternoon, the Admiral took the keys, drove himself to the golf course and opened the trunk, looking for his expensive set of golf clubs.....which weren't there. They were still in the car over at the motor pool garage. Oops. You're fired.

 

The other one was my predecessor, who was already gone when I reported aboard to replace him. (That's never a good sign.) While some Admirals are notorious for firing their Aides at the first drop of a hat, Admiral Toole was more patient, but in the end the guy had to go. For starters, he apparently had legendary halitosis; this isn't a good reflection on the boss. Then the “Uniform Incident” happened. The Surface Forces Atlantic Ball is a major social event of the year. All the brass are there in resplendent seasonally-appropriate full dress uniform. Dinner, drinks, dancing, major schmoozing, it's a big deal. So the Aide has helped the Admiral prepare. And upon the hour, the Admiral pulls up in his car with his girlfriend.....and sees that he is in the WRONG uniform. He drops the girlfriend off at the mall with his credit card to buy an appropriate evening dress ( she is now angry, so buys a REALLY NICE ONE...on his dime.) He races back from Virginia Beach to Norfolk, changes into the right uniform, and speeds back to pick up the girlfriend, who is now wearing haute couture and rocking the cleavage and mile-long legs on stiletto heels. And they are very late....so late that in fact they walk in and proceed to their head-table seats, right in the middle of Commander, Naval Surface Forces Atlantic (the Admiral's boss)'s speech (thereby causing quite a stir! ) No one remembers the slightest detail of the speech, ever. But they sure remember the entrance and the Girlfriend.

But the straw that broke the Aide's back, so to speak, was the “NATO Speech Incident.” It is a major briefing to a huge NATO annual fleet exercise staff. The Admiral is at the podium, addressing the assembled crowd of senior NATO officers, with dozens of admirals, generals and other seniors of several NATO countries listening to his presentation. My predecessor is sitting in his chair in the front row, aiguillette on his shoulder, with the Admiral's briefcase at his feet, in case he needs to provide any other materials. The room is crowded with a couple of hundred people and is quite warm. The Aide dozes off....and falls out of his front-row seat, onto the floor, as his (my) Admiral is speaking.

 

I reported in as the new Flag Lieutenant about a month later.

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Edited by Gunboat1
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I had the privilege of being unexpectedly assigned as the Admiral's driver during a port visit to Malta, and was instructed to pick up the Admiral at his hotel.  When I arrived at the hotel, the Admiral greeted me with, "You're not going to kill me, are you son? My last driver tried to kill me."

(They drive on the wrong (left) side of the road in Malta.)

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