News coverage of military life often focuses on land-based troops that endure searing heat and fire fights, or on massive aircraft carriers which function as floating cities (complete with garage bands!). But a recent case study went underwater to focus on the USS New Mexico sub during a winter voyage under the Arctic ice cap. This “tin can” is a nuclear-powered attack sub, among the most high-tech boats in the Navy submarine fleet.
And life aboard it is seriously bonkers.
Take the sub's punishment system. Operating a radio to properly send and receive signals while deep underwater is notoriously difficult, and among the more serious errors is “broaching” the boat. Here a submariner inadvertently surfaces the boat by misjudging the water forces, and gives away the sub’s position to any potential enemies lurking in the area. So how does an officer who commits this sin get wrist-slapped? He has to wear a pair of pilot wings on his uniform as an embarrassing reminder that subs aren’t meant to fly. Get it?! (Because we kind of don't.)
Given the grave necessity of mastering the sub's difficult systems, it also sucks to be new and inexperienced. Said one such unfortunate rookie, “Being new comes at great expense to your sleep and your happiness.”
To bring such recent additions up to speed quickly as possible, every new junior officer must be paired with a more experienced mentor to correct every single goddamn mistake a newbie makes. The relationship can be tense—especially since commanding officers love “Odd Couple” matches, with free-wheeling mentors often assigned to button-up, no-nonsense subordinates. The result: screwball hilarity. One skipper expressed getting “a lot of joy,” for instance, watching a stern junior officer tense up watching his mentor intentionally screw around.
But the rookies-have-to-hate-their-lives rule has an exception: The lowest ranking officers on the sub, ensigns, initially are granted a grace period during which their errors are quickly forgiven. Plus, the senior ensign aboard is tasked with creating funny rules for the entertainment of the beleaguered crew. And they're kind of amazing. Some examples from the USS New Mexico:
-Ke$ha music is mandatory to play on Fridays
-Certain orders are to be met with a reply of “hashtag optional." A lieutenant explains that “to get the joke, you need to understand there is no such thing as an optional order." Sub humor!
-An officer who declines to eat the prepared meal must be asked, “Are you a communist?” Zing!
I imagine that at the end of deployment, sub crew members walk onto dry land in a shifty-eyed, maniacal stupor. A submariner’s life—which involves being submerged for up to 90 days at a time, sleeping in bunks offering only 14 inches of head room—is truly not for the faint of heart. But if a sailor can avoid going bonkers, it’s pretty safe—only two nuclear submarines have sunk, both in the 1960s. And surely the Ke$ha Fridays help soothe those rattled minds.