The Nimitz was one of the Navy’s largest warships, and as a disbursing officer of this immense aircraft carrier, I had a great deal of financial responsibility. The ship’s disbursing office, S-4 division, was responsible for managing the crew’s pay, allotments and other fiscal related services. In contrast with my previous nightmare assignment on the Hayler, this time around I was assigned to work with one of the most proficient services’ divisions onboard the entire ship. My assistant was Senior Chief Petty Officer, Disbursing Clerk Nicholas Rodriquez. Boy was he sharp! He was talented, well-seasoned and a highly respected professional; and he helped to make certain my transition back to sea was a seamless one.
Shortly after my arrival, I quickly proved I could successfully manage the disbursing operation. I was soon reassigned to manage one of the most challenging services operations onboard the carrier, S-5 division, the wardroom. I was in charge of renovating all of the officers’ staterooms (sleeping quarters) and several wardroom dining facilities. The wardroom and staterooms renovation was part of a much larger project. The carrier was undergoing a four-year major overhaul and refueling of its nuclear reactor plant. It had been docked in the New Port News shipyard for over two years, and the shipyard was fulfilling a four-year maintenance contract to provide extensive maintenance, repair and refurbishment to the entire ship. The wardroom renovation was at the top of the executive officer’s priority list, which put me under the gun and under a microscope.
My new assistant, a senior chief petty officer mess management (culinary) specialist, was no help at all. He had less than one-year to go before retirement, and he was clearly on his own “ROAD” (retired on active duty) program. I began to wonder if I’d inadvertently set myself up for a fall in my push to prove that I was a qualified Supply Corps officer.
The assistant supply officer (ASUPPO), a senior Navy commander, seemed determined to prove that I wasn’t competent to handle my new role. I thought his animosity was odd. It was also odd that he would call me by my maiden name, “Penland,” whenever he saw me, although my married name was clearly etched onto my name tag. I soon found out that the ASUPPO and the racist former commander from SURFLANT were golfing buddies, and they were swapping sea stories about me. The Supply Corps community is small and tightly knit and, as in any industry or organization, name and reputation mean everything. When the ASUPPO referred to me by my maiden name, it was clear that he was trying to get back at me on behalf of his racist SURFLANT buddy.
When the executive officer ordered all departments to “stand up” their offices on board the ship, all hell broke loose. During the ship’s overhaul, most of the crew had grown accustomed to working on a temporary barge facility (or trailer) instead of in the ship’s unsafe working conditions. Not a single stateroom was move-in ready.
One crucial part of my job was assigning staterooms to the officers. To that end, the services officer (my immediate supervisor) provided me with a copy of the officers’ personnel roster, ranked by seniority, and told me “guard it with your life.”
As in the real estate market, certain staterooms are considered to be prime real estate and the lineal list showing the officers’ seniority would (in the best of all possible worlds) determine their stateroom assignments.
The assignment of department head staterooms caused a major sexual harassment dispute onboard the ship and I was smack in the middle of it. A particular stateroom was officially designated for the only female department head, the senior dental officer. Her stateroom was next to the senior medical officer’s (SMO) stateroom, which shared an adjoining “head” (bathroom). The argument against assigning her that stateroom was, “a male and female officer should not be allowed to work and sleep so close to one another,” which was a ridiculous statement, considering that the ship was a completely co-ed working and living environment. In addition, the senior medical officer (SMO) never stood duty; therefore, he never slept aboard the carrier.
The “Air Boss,” a more junior male officer, jumped at the opportunity to be assigned to the dental officer’s designated stateroom, and my boss, the senior supply officer (SUPPO), authorized the deal. When the commander (dental officer) stopped by my office to look at the archived stateroom assignments, I’d been expecting her. She told me, “If push comes to shove they will force me to address their chauvinistic behavior up the chain of command.” Unfortunately her male colleague’s scheme prevailed and the Air Boss got the coveted stateroom, yet I admired the commander’s courage for not backing down. She put up a damn good fight!
A few months later, she transferred off the ship and was assigned as the Officer in Charge (OIC) of the Norfolk Navy base dental clinic. When we crossed paths in the clinic lobby a year later, we resisted the impulse to hug one another and settled for a warm handshake instead. She told her staff, “I want you to place this nice young lady at the top of your priority list,” and I received preferential dental treatment for the next couple of years. I’ve always wondered what kind of dental treatment her former male colleagues received.
In general, it seemed that the females who worked in the supply department services divisions were assigned more challenging positions than our male counterparts. The senior female services officer was exceedingly knowledgeable, experienced and “played the game,” which made her intimidating to her male colleagues. Nevertheless, she didn’t provide the junior female Supply Corps officers with the moral support that we expected and rightfully deserved. Instead, she gave preferential treatment to the two junior male officers who worked in other services divisions, particularly the sales officer. The other junior officer was assigned to the Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) division, charged with managing recreational and leisure support services for the crew and their families.
The sales officer, in turn, would constantly shower the SUPPO and upper management with all sorts of freebies he’d received from the retail prime vendors. He put on a charade as if he had the “hook up,” although the “freebies” were meant for the enlisted crew. I was always repulsed by his self-serving attitude.
The sales officer was the most junior of all the Supply Corps officers onboard the ship, yet he was afforded better promotion opportunities. His division was always overstaffed, and he received the highest fitness report (fitrep) evaluation during the junior officers’ fitrep ranking board. I, on the other hand, was assigned to manage the most challenging of all the services’ divisions; renovation of over 150 wardroom spaces. I was constantly micro-managed by the executive officer and supply officer, and I was staffed with one-third the number of personnel required to accomplish my job. So why was I complaining???!
In early 1999, the Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS) steel workers went on strike, which pushed back the Nimitz’s refueling and overhaul completion date. There was still major work to be done before the Nimitz changed its homeport to Coronado Naval Air Station in San Diego, California. The strike caused nearly everyone onboard the ship to panic, putting Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS) in an advantageous position. While under extreme pressure to meet the increased wage demands of its steel workers, NNS management was trying to secure continuous shipbuilding contracts with the Pentagon. Meanwhile, NNS was under intense scrutiny to turn the Nimitz back over to the ship’s crew without major discrepancies. After weeks of intense negotiations, top NNS management and Nimitz senior staff finally agreed to a provisional maintenance contract. In the end, the Pentagon decided to finish the incomplete maintenance work pier side, after the ship changed homeport to San Diego.
Almost overnight my workload doubled, and the weeks seemed to have gotten shorter. Not only did I have to set up staterooms for the crew, I now had to set up staterooms for “riders,” top executives in the defense industry, who wanted to witness and experience the first “turn of the screw” (the first crank of the engine/diagnostic tests after a major overhaul) during the ship’s sea trials. Luckily, the riders’ staterooms were renovated with only the bare necessities while the ship’s company (officers assigned to the ship) staterooms received all the amenities.
At this time, the XO also directed my division to manage our operations from onboard the ship. We were one of few divisions to relocate, and the ship felt like a ghost town – an especially filthy and neglected ghost town. Once a week I had to make a renovation status report for the SUPPO and the micromanaging XO. The XO also made daily rounds of the ship. He would then send digital memos to the SUPPO, who would forward them to me.
Over the years, shipyard workers had turned the desolate workspaces into disgusting latrines, and the XO went around and recorded the compartment number of each stateroom that had become infected with human feces. In the SUPPO’s email, the subject line read: “CLEAN THIS UP!!” It was as if I were deliberately being set up to fail. I’d been busting my ass for the past year, and this was my “Thank You!” I was in charge of a division that was literally responsible for cleaning up “shit!”
In the midst of these issues, I was desperately trying to obtain my Navy Aviation Supply Officers (NASO) Warfare qualification before my official transfer date off the ship, but the ASUPPO consistently denied my requests to pursue the qualification. Failing to obtain a warfare qualification could hinder an officer’s chances for a particular job or promotion to the next highest grade, or could ultimately bring an officer’s career to an end. The ASUPPO would tell me, “Before you can pursue your NASO, you need to gain more leadership experience.” But how was I to gain leadership experience by supervising Sailors on how to clean up crap? I knew this was just another dis-qualifying test, straight out of some secret military fraternity rulebook about how to weed out female and minority officers…..