An Honorable Navy Hazing

CSS reflection Hazing/Courtesy of Christopher Carter Sanderson

Christopher Carter Sanderson’s enemy in the Navy had the element of surprise—he was on our side.

—-

With only two months left to go in my year of deployment, I got the news that I would be spending a month away from Kuwait Naval Base in Dubai. It was good duty, and much coveted. I had not expected to get it, and was surprised. Soon after I got the news, I was on a plane with a small group of compatriots. We took a commercial flight in civilian clothes.

It had been a while since I slept in a bed as nice as the one that was waiting for me in Dubai. From the marble in the foyer of the hotel to the car service shuttling us back and forth to work every day, this was indeed very different duty. Among the delights of Dubai for me were guarding the famous USS Cole, lecturing at a university there, and being invited to a day-long teaching visit at the American School. All that, and I lived in a luxury hotel that was two blocks from a giant luxurious mall, which featured a grocery store five times bigger than even anything I’d seen in New York. It gets more surreal: the mall had an indoor ski slope.

I was naively expecting to simply endure the grind for another month and then go home.

After the better part of a year in the desert, long hours and what seemed like the same five meals over and over again, Dubai did seem like something of a vacation for this enlisted man. I came back to the last month at Kuwait Naval Base a bit rested, but also completely unprepared for what was to happen. I was still very tired from the long deployment, and if anything Dubai put me off my guard. I was naively expecting to simply endure the grind for another month and then go home.

After a week of the usual schedule, it was obvious even to me that everyone was tired, not just me. Tempers were short, a coxswain who I had counted as a friend chewed me out so badly for nothing that I actually had to pull him aside and chew back. It was one of those things that happen when everyone is strung out; he was actually mad at the fellow I had replaced and in his exhaustion had simply got in the habit of chewing someone out every day. It took some barking just to remind him that I was not the other guy. It took what felt like a lot of energy on my part, and it left me further drained.

That’s what Chief Stogy must have noticed, and it was then that he chose to get his revenge for what he saw as the slight against him when he first joined the unit, months before we deployed.

♦◊♦

As I recall, the first time he called me aside was after a 14-hour overnight patrol. He acted worried, and very friendly right out of the blue as I walked back to my berthing after the long work shift. In a world of grouchy people, who all wanted very much to be somewhere else, Chief Stogy’s solicitous attitude seemed well… if not welcome, at least easier to deal with that getting chewed out.

So I followed him to a space between the berthing bunkers as he asked me to. I tried to seem attentive, though I was falling asleep on my feet. And I ignored the cigar smoke. I also struggled to figure out what he was talking about, because his entire subject seemed to be vagaries about the Navy, his life and career, and some condescending phrases about looking after me. I didn’t get it. So, when he said to get some rack time, I smiled and politely made a beeline for my berth.

This became a habit, with Chief Stogy meeting me often after long work shifts, especially over-night ones. I learned in there somewhere that Chief Stogy wasn’t working on the patrol boats any more. I didn’t think anything of it, but in retrospect I think he may have alienated the boat leaders—of which he was not one.

Now that may seem strange, and it was. Our boat leaders, or “coxswains,” were the ones in charge of the patrol boats. They were in a way the captain of the patrol boat when under way. Many of them were not Chiefs in rank, so when Chief Stogy had served on board, he would have been under the command of someone who he outranked, strictly speaking. That probably led to some conflict, it’s probably what got Chief Stogy tossed off of boat duty.

I also remember asking someone why there was a little square of black dirt in back of the bunker that the Chiefs were in. For a time, little sprouts of what looked like grass seed had struggled to grow up there. Then, it had seemed ignored again and was quickly going back to being a patch of inhospitable desert.

As I was told, it had been Chief Stogy’s attempt to plant a lawn. And the story went that someone had urinated in it, killing the grass.

On deployment, the chain of command went abruptly from our departments to the boats, and we were really not prepared for it at all.

Also, I should say that my department head Chief Grid was far away from my everyday existence, even though he had been the head of my department back in the States. Though he still was technically, we no longer had a departmental space or duties. On deployment, the chain of command went abruptly from our departments to the boats, and we were really not prepared for it at all. I had watched it make trouble; requests going through the old departmental structure were resented by coxswains, and vice versa. My reaction was to keep my head down and do my job—when I wasn’t able to fish or try to steal milk for the boathouse.

Into this void, Chief Stogy inserted himself as my friend and protector. I had no special need for either, but he seemed to be obeying orders so I simply fell in line. And somewhere in those meetings, it is still hard to recall exactly when, Chief Stogy made it very clear that I needed protecting.

I remember sitting at the picnic table and feeling abject fear. Chief Stogy had just said, after a bunch of the usual friendly vagaries, that I should fight back. I wondered, fight back against what? I may have asked. He said I should fight back when the unit gave me a blanket party, because I would not be able to really defend myself, but the guys would respect me more if I fought back. Blanket party? I had seen the movie Platoon, but I did not put two and two together so Chief Stogy spelled it out.

According to Chief Stogy, a group of my shipmates would pin me to my bed with the blanket, and then while holding me down they would take turns beating me. For what, he did not say. As to why, he gave no reason. And I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t think I asked. I was too scared.

And let me talk about that embarrassment. Talking about it was such a big part of my recovery from PTSD later that I need to mention it here.

Because, yes, in retrospect I was embarrassed that Chief Stogy’s techniques worked on me. If any of the things he did had been done to me when I was well-rested and comfortable, I know that I would have laughed them off or, if they had persisted, simply reported them up either or both of my dysfunctional command chains.

I can see now that I was not alone, but Chief Stogy went to great lengths to assure me that I could trust nobody but him. Of course, now again in retrospect, I can see that part of his plan was to talk to other members of the unit and stir up resentment to me. So my fear that the members were turning against me would have some basis in truth among anyone who believed what he was telling them. And I was so tired and strung out that I guess a little of this seeming evidence went a long way.

Day after day, I became convinced that the simple daily resentments and tired grumblings of my shipmates were evidence that Chief Stogy’s threats were real. It must have been slowly developing step by step, but it all seems to fast-forward in my memory to the night I finally pissed myself in bed. I woke up from the usual nightmare of a blanket party, felt the combat knife in my hand that I had taken to holding like a teddy bear, looked down at myself fully dressed and with my boots on and realized that my pants were wet from pissing.

Yes, over time, I had become dependent on having no bedclothes at all, sleeping in uniform with my boots on and with a combat knife ready. It had become the only way I could get any sleep at all, and very little of it. Despite how extreme that all seems, it was the bed-wetting somehow that finally got through to me that something might be wrong.

And so the next day, I found a petty officer I trusted and confessed what had happened. Thank God for this shipmate. He was clearly concerned, was very reassuring and now in retrospect I can see that he took steps to help get me home in one piece. God only knows what might have happened without him.

What I do know is that he arranged to take me to the nearby Air Force base where there was a psychologist who he got an appointment with. He also arranged to tell the command that I needed a new ID and that this was why he was arranging to drive me to the other base. I later understood that he spoke to another trusted member. This is because I remember that person pulling aside my bed curtain from the foot of my bed. In retrospect, I am sure he was checking that I was sleeping in full uniform with a combat knife, but at the time I just took his assurance that he had the wrong bed and went back to sleep. He was someone I trusted and not one of the people Chief Stogy said were planning on giving me a blanket party.

The people who Chief Stogy said were planning that party included a fellow I had roomed with once back in the States. He had come back to our room one night in Groton where we were based, woken me up and challenged my to a fight before I left the room and called my chain of command. The incident was something I had forgotten about, but I think Chief Stogy must have stirred it up as a way of getting that shipmate angry at me. I had been assured at the time that the shipmate was going to seek treatment for alcohol abuse and I just let it go.

What I do know is that alcohol was strictly forbidden and easy to get.

Now, that member had also very recently woken up the whole berthing area in what seemed to have been a drunken furor, so who knows how that was involved? I can only hope that Chief Stogy had merely taken advantage of the situation and not been the one to give that shipmate alcohol, but I can’t know. What I do know is that alcohol was strictly forbidden and easy to get. Honestly, I could not see how a top could be denied to most of the sailors I worked with after a long hard shift. The one bad apple doesn’t mean everyone should go without. Nonetheless, the Navy is dry and Kuwait is dry, and we were officially supposed to be dry. Perhaps resentment that I had been sent to wet Dubai was something Chief Stogy used against me as well. He sure as Hell didn’t get that duty, so maybe it further inflamed him against me. I don’t know.

What I do know is that the people I trusted helped me. The one I had spoken to got me to treatment. The one who had checked on me put up a circle around me. I saw it. He had trusted members check on me, stay around me and pretty much made it clear that any “blanket party”—which by the way I am still sure Chief Stogy made up—was going to have to go through him. This was the first aid I needed. It got me onto the airplane home in one piece. And it gave me enough mental clarity to ask for help from the Navy when we got home. And when I didn’t get it from the Navy, it helped me have the strength to walk into a civilian doctor’s office and ask for help.

♦◊♦

I got that help. I took the six-months automatic leave I was told that we were granted and went to therapy religiously. I made sure I was ready to serve when I reported back for duty.

The funny thing was Chief Stogy had been busy in my absence. When I returned to the unit was made known to me that not only was I no longer a member of the unit, but that I had been granted an honorable discharge and was no longer a member of the US Navy Reserve. With no trial, no process, nothing but the signature of some unscrupulous louts, I had been drummed out of the Navy without even being told—until I got out of my car and walked back into the unit.

Oh, it gets a little worse. After three years of trying to get back into the US Navy Reserve, getting fed up and trying the Army Reserve (not as crazy as it sounds, the Army has more boats that the Navy), I finally discovered that my “honorable” discharge had an invisible administrative code attached to it. This code let anyone in the system understand that I was not to be considered fit to be allowed to serve.

Sounds like more paranoid Chief Stogy nonsense doesn’t it? But it isn’t. I’ve applied to the US Navy board in charge of this area, written my Senator for help, and continued to ask any Navy member who was in charge of me for help. And so far they have not been able to help, but they have never once disagreed with the problem or denied the existence of the administrative code. And I have a copy of my DD-214 and honorable discharge. That’s not in question.

What’s in question is how a hazing in the US Navy was allowed to go so far as to have the victim kicked out. What’s in question is how the Navy can think this hazing was in any way honorable, because it is the hazing that they’ve honored, and not my service.

Photo: Courtesy of Christopher Carter Sanderson

 

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About Christopher Carter Sanderson

Christopher Carter Sanderson (BFA, NYU. MFA, Yale.) is the author of the adapted works of Tucker Max for the stage, among other things.

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