NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - There are so many things the U.S. Navy prepares its officers for as they get ready to take command of a nuclear warship, especially an aircraft carrier.
The officers are the cream. They have had the right previous commands. They have excelled in all the required courses. They have run the gauntlet.
But there’s nothing the Navy can really do to prepare a commanding officer for taking charge of a first-of-class, next-generation carrier like the Gerald R. Ford.
Even under the best of circumstances, the expectations are high. But in this case, with a carrier that is so technologically advanced, so far above budget, so in the spotlight – and often not for the best of reasons – even Atlas would be hard-pressed to shoulder this burden.
But it’s obvious that Capt. John Meier doesn’t consider this a burden at all. He considers it a privilege. It’s an obligation the Ford’s first commanding officer takes quite seriously.
Standing under the bow of the ship last week just before the Ford’s christening, Meier said, “I did some soul-searching about this. ... This is different than an operational carrier. I want to build a command climate and culture. A lot is going to depend on how they’re led from the very outset.”
Leadership, though, is more than just giving orders. It’s about mutual respect. And part of the respect the Navy has for its Ford sailors is reflected in the very design of the ship and how it meets the basic needs of its crew.
The Ford generates more power and fresh water than previous carriers, providing greater Internet connections and more bathing water than on previous carriers.
“The sailors will be able to take more traditional showers,” Meier says.
There will be fewer sailors per showers and bathrooms, he notes. “It’s an enormous improvement. It shows more investment in the crew. It says, ‘We value you.’”
On the surface, those seem like small things. But they have a major impact.
“No matter how much this ship costs, it will not sail itself,” the Ford’s commanding officer says. “The crew is its most important warfighting system.”
And this crew is not sitting idly by as Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding unit completes their ship. “The crew on this ship is looking right over the shoulders of the builders,” the captain says.
Such intimacy will give him and his sailors knowledge of the Ford their successors will never have. “The captains who follow me aren’t going to know all those nooks and crannies.”
Meier’s gone a long way toward creating and maintaining that culture of excellence by avoiding shortcuts, doing things right and setting an example for those that follow.
The example is especially valuable, given the headlines on other recent Navy commanding officers relieved of duty for taking those shortcuts and failing to live up to such a culture and code.
And his ideals seem to have taken hold with the sailors under his command. With all of the naval and national dignitaries who made their way to the Nov. 9 Ford christening, Meier received – by far – the loudest and longest applause of those introduced.
And most of that acknowledgement came from the Ford sailors, proud to be part of that culture.