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MCPON joins debate sparked by 'obituary'

Oct. 21, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
(Angy Peterson/Staff)
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Rest in peace: Obit got it right, Navy getting it wrongThese readers mourn the “death” of tradition:
It has indeed been a drawn-out death, by paper-cut swords wielded by pundits of bureaucracy. Those who opposed our traditions were the very people allowed to take away the inspiration of our core values — honor, courage and commitment. We have become a society of weakness, entitlement and fear.
Those of us who chose gladly to participate in traditional ceremonies are now viewed as pathetic. These ceremonies were designed to develop teamwork and dedication to your shipmates: We needed unfailing loyalty to each other to overcome unimaginable obstacles.
Generation after generation has passed the torch of integrity to those who came after us. Slowly, however, we have lost the very essence of our strength. I was proud to participate in the ceremonies and will miss them.
AEC Chris Derby (ret.)Jacksonville, Fla.
I served for 26 years, and some of my fondest memories are my chiefs’ initiation, along with shellback and bluenose [crossing the Arctic Circle] initiations.
I remember the times when if you needed something done, you asked a fellow chief and it was done — no paperwork involved. Sailors had pride in their commands and the Navy.
SMC (SW) Russ Nance (ret.)Danville, Ill.
I had my crows tacked on as I made E-4 through E-6. In 1979, I was proud to have my dolphins pinned on by my captain and then tacked on by the crew ... and later drank.
I wonder if this generation of sailors will be able to look back on their service with the same fondness I have for mine?
MM1 (SS) Joseph Morales (ret.)New York
After reading [the obituary], I cracked open a beer, went out to my back porch and looked out to the Mediterranean. I raised my bottle, said a prayer in respect, and drank my beer in honor of our passed friend and shipmate.
I then reminisced how our fine shipmate “Tradition” guided and mentored me throughout my career, from undesignated seaman recruit to lieutenant commander. What wonderful memories they are!
Lt. Cmdr. Sousa, thank you for such a superb tribute, and rest assured there are so very many of us that mourn right along side you. Tradition, I wish you the fairest of winds and calm following seas. Our Navy will never be the same without you.
Lt. Cmdr. Dave Kush (ret.)Crete, Greece
Having served proudly in the ’80s with some of the best men I’ve met in my life, I’ve watched the transformation over the last 30 years firsthand. I, for one, don’t think [removing traditions] has created a better, more cohesive or more efficient force.
Former STS2 (SS) Ian RogersLisbon, Conn.
Tradition lives: Active, retired sailors cite Navy’s ‘evolution’Tradition dead? Preposterous, according to these readers:
To tie the pride of the naval service to acts like eating cherries out of the belly of a fat guy is not only disrespectful but sorry. Simply because sailors in the past enjoyed the college-frat-boy initiations doesn’t mean that they should be continued. The strongest and most meaningful traditions held throughout Naval history endure and flourish. If we’ve jettisoned the trash of hazing along the way, we’re more combat-efficient for losing the dead weight.
HM1 David NortonAgana Heights, Guam
Navy tradition is not dead and buried. Tradition, like the rest of our world, has evolved.
Prior “traditions” have included segregation, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., and our Navy has evolved through those times.
No more alcohol at [chief petty officer initiations]. No more eating/drinking strange concoctions. No more shillelaghs. No more crawling through slime during a “shellback” ceremony.
Our Navy today is smarter, better educated, better trained and more physically prepared than ever.
We retired folks have our memories, and, for many of us, they are treasured. I would call on all the naysayers to get involved in passing down OUR history. Let the traditions evolve and grow.
RMCS Tom McLuckie (ret.)Oceanside, Calif.
Death of Navy tradition? Who reported that? Don’t tell me it was a freakin’ ossifer!
When a chief hospital corpsman pronounces the Navy deceased — then it’s deceased. Not before. We chiefs know when it’s a rusting, worthless hulk of a wreck and when to scrap ’er out. And it ain’t damn time.
So knock yer [expletive] off! And turn to, ya lazy sons-of-bitches!
Reserve MACS Ronald J. Riml (ret.)East Boothbay, Maine
I am curious if Sousa knows any other “long-time friends” of “Navy Tradition” who would describe being groped in the “gauntlet,” losing the use of an arm due to “tacking” or a drunken driving incident after “drinking his dolphins” as one of their greatest memories?
Or did removing the abusive behaviors from these activities make tradition healthier, turning the ceremonies into events all sailors can look forward to?
Is it possible that a newer, healthier version of Navy tradition is being forged? Didn’t we, as Navy tradition’s shipmates, have a duty to point out the places in which it can become an even better, stronger shipmate?
Tradition has put aside some of its more salacious tendencies and has grown from its experiences. Is it a bad thing if it evolves into the kind of shipmate that holds us accountable for things that would be considered assault in the civilian world?
Reserve Lt. Michael SheehanSt. Paul, Minn.
The obit:
‘Here Lies Navy Tradition’
Join the debate:

He's not the first crusty veteran to long for the old days. And he certainly didn't break new ground when he accused Navy leaders of being too politically correct and degrading his beloved service.

He's not the first crusty veteran to long for the old days. And he certainly didn't break new ground when he accused Navy leaders of being too politically correct and degrading his beloved service.

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He’s not the first crusty veteran to long for the old days. And he certainly didn’t break new ground when he accused Navy leaders of being too politically correct and degrading his beloved service.

But retired Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Sousa did find a creative way to make his point and incite a Navy-wide debate: He declared “Navy tradition” officially DEAD in 2013. Not only that, he wrote a rousing obituary, submitted to Navy Times, that championed the Navy’s early days of battling pirates off the Barbary Coast and warring in the Pacific, and conducting initiation rites in between.

“But in his later years, Navy Tradition was unable to fight the cancer of political correctness,” Sousa wrote in the obit. “He tired as his beloved Navy went from providing rations of rum to its sailors to conducting Breathalyzer tests on the brow. He weakened as he saw ‘Going into harm’s way’ turn into ‘Cover your backside,’ and as ‘Wooden ships and iron men’ morphed into U.S. Navy, Inc.”

Sousa’s lament quickly spread across the service, generating hundreds of comments online and triggering debate in the chiefs’ mess. The story was posted Oct. 7 on and became the most viewed story of the year.

While Sousa had many supporters, plenty of others provided counterarguments and what they said was proof that the death was a hoax.

The 57-year-old submarine veteran — a resident of Indian Harbour Beach, Fla., now working as an emergency room nurse — said he was pleasantly surprised by all of the attention. He had been inspired by recent news events: anti-hazing campaigns, changes to chief initiation and skipper firings involving alleged mistreatment of sailors.

“It’s just the way I kind of saw it,” Sousa told Navy Times. “This slow death of the Navy that I lived through. An obituary was the appropriate way to get across, rather than just harping, that we should still be able to do crossing the equator [ceremonies] or chief initiation.”

Sousa’s message even got the attention of the Navy’s top enlisted sailor, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens. When asked to comment on the obituary, Stevens invited Navy Times to his office to talk face to face, knowing this was a passionate topic among sailors young and old.

He wanted to make clear right away that he respects Sousa and his service.

“I believe that he has the right to express his thoughts, and I respect them,” Stevens said. “But I have to respectfully disagree with his assessment. Our traditions in the Navy are alive and well, but there were some traditions that, rightfully so, needed to be changed or retired.”

King Neptune and 'tacking on'

Sousa would like to see King Neptune (and the associated shenanigans with grease and fire hoses) return to the “shellback” ceremony in which sailors crossing the equator for the first time are initiated.

He’d also like to see “tacking on crows” return. In his day, everyone lined up and gave a ceremonial tap on the shoulder to every new petty officer. Sousa, as a submarine officer, faced a similar tradition when he earned his “dolphins.”

By today’s standard, tacking on is hazing.

“We’re not looking to give us an opportunity to hurt people and embarrass them,” Sousa said. “It’s a rite of passage.”

But Stevens said sailors “never looked forward” to a potential pummeling. “They just tolerated it.”

“Originally tacking on a crow meant exactly that,” he said. “When a sailor was promoted to petty officer, a crow was sewn on his sleeve by the crew, one stitch at a time. At some point, someone decided that they no longer wanted to really tack the crow on. That we would just let them put it on and then we would punch ’em in the shoulder, right? So, what was considered to be an appropriate tradition was changed to be an inappropriate act.

“We broke sailors’ arms, we caused internal damage to the muscle tissues. There were sailors that were black and blue from their wrist to their shoulder because of this. It wasn’t safe. It wasn’t right.”

Sousa’s counterargument: Commanding officers are capable of policing these traditions. If someone is inflicting pain, that sailor needs to be corrected and, if necessary, taken to mast, Sousa said.

He cherishes a photo of his father, an enlisted sailor who fought in World War II, going through a shellback ceremony. Sailors, including Sousa’s father, can be seen crawling through a tube while fire hoses are trained on their backsides.

When Sousa crossed, King Neptune was there to lead the proceedings. And he had to “kiss the Royal Baby,” or, in other words, get up close and personal with a fat sailor’s gut and even eat a cherry out of the belly button.

Gross, yes. But Sousa said it built camaraderie.

“If I were just a civilian, I would say, ‘What is WRONG with these people?’” Sousa said. “But if you’re out there, and you go through it, it’s something you’ll never forget.”

Sousa’s son, Lt. j.g. Kristopher Sousa, served nine years in the enlisted ranks and also earned his shellback title. The son’s ceremony was much tamer, however.

Sousa said he and his son often swap sea stories.

“He pretty much always says the same thing,” Sousa said. “‘Dad, you wouldn’t last 10 minutes in today’s Navy.’”

Stevens has participated in some of the same traditions as Sousa, but has a different takeaway.

“Crossing the equator, yes, I thought that was great. Making chief petty officer, yes. But the process we went through to essentially be initiated wasn’t something that I look back on and say ‘That was awesome,’” MCPON said.

While he never faced “bodily harm” during these ceremonies, Stevens said he did have to eat items that would “exercise your gag reflexes.” And he remembers singing songs with inappropriate language during the shellback ceremony, adding, “I don’t think I kissed a baby.”

“When I went through CPO initiation and shellback, I had nothing to judge it against, and I thought it was OK,” MCPON said. “But as time went on, and I had the opportunity to look back on it, that’s when I made the decision to myself that much of what we went through was inappropriate.”

'Not being cheated'

When asked how the Navy still honors tradition, MCPON cited a number of examples: morning colors, saluting, using ranks and titles, burial ceremonies and changes of command.

“The Navy since 1775, for 238 years, has been evolving, and a key part to evolve is to recognize when change needs to take place,” Stevens stressed.

“I was talking about this with a group of chiefs the other day. Was sleeping in a hammock a tradition? And if so, at what point did we deem we needed to provide better berthing to our sailors? Was keelhauling? Was flogging? Was hanging? Were those things deemed traditions that we at some point said, ‘This is not appropriate anymore’?”

Stevens said the sailors serving today are “some of the bravest men and women that have ever served.”

“I kind of feel like [Sousa’s letter] is written in such a way that the sailor who served today should feel like they’re being cheated, and they are not being cheated,” MCPON said.

“They are being provided sound leadership. We recognize the sacrifices they’re making ... and want to make sure they have an opportunity to serve in a Navy that treats them with the utmost decency and respect.”

Meanwhile, sailors of Sousa’s generation will continue to fight for the “respect” of the initiations and traditions they cherish.

“King Neptune is always going to be there. Davy Jones is not going away. People need to respect King Neptune and pay their dues,” Sousa said. “You don’t get that going on a Carnival cruise across the equator.”

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