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By David Poyer
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2004 David Poyer
All rights reserved.
Pier 8, Norfolk,Virginia
GLANCING through the porthole in the at-sea cabin, the tall man in choker whites checked the sky. Overcast but clearing. The wind light, the air warm. He rubbed his mouth. It might turn out to be a good day after all.
Daniel V. Lenson, Commander, U.S. Navy, had spent most of his career in destroyers and frigates. Some of those tours had been enjoyable. Others had not, and he'd seen shipmates die, had killed other men, and come close to dying more than once. Five rows of decorations were pinned above his breast pocket. The topmost was light blue, set with small white stars. His sun-darkened face was beginning to show the years at sea. Sleepless nights and tension had crimped crow's-feet around the gray eyes and scattered silver in his sandy hair.
His watch gave him ten minutes until he took command of USS Thomas Horn, a helicopter-capable Spruance-class destroyer. Just now he was having weak coffee and sugar cookies with the skipper he was relieving. For someone who was turning over command, normally a time to celebrate, the balding little man seemed tense and disappointed.
"You heard about the three envelopes?" Ross said, turning his cup in gnarled fingers. Dan wondered why he was so nervous, as if in the waning minutes of his watch some disaster might still overtake him. As to his own feelings, the less said the better.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, the civilian shrink had called it. From being caught and tortured by Saddam's Mukhabarat. That was behind the icy sweat, the breath-stopping sense of impending doom. When he declined her prescription, she said he could try to go on without drugs. But if he gave in to his fears, avoided stressful situations, or showed panic, the terror that hunted beneath his conscious mind would take over his life.
He cleared his throat. "Three envelopes?"
"Fella comes on board to relieve, the outgoing CO gives him three envelopes. He says, when you get in trouble, open the first envelope. When you get in real trouble, open the second envelope. And when you're ass-deep in gators and there's no way out, open the last one.
"So sure enough, the fella screws up and he opens the first one. It says, 'Blame your predecessor.' So he does, and it works. Then later on he gets in real trouble. He opens the second envelope, it says, 'Reorganize.' So he does that, and he's out of the shit. But then at last he gets in real, real deep kimchee and can't see any way out short of a court-martial. He opens the third envelope."
"So what's it say?"
"'Prepare three envelopes.'"
Dan chuckled, but then the silence came back. They'd gone over everything they had to talk about. Unfortunately, what he'd learned hadn't contradicted his first impression, which was of a ship that needed attention.
He'd heard things were less than rosy during his precommand training. The regional engineering training and readiness inspectors said Horn's engineering department lacked leadership. A master chief told him the ship got a present when it passed its reexam for certification. The second recurring theme was sexual fraternization. Dan took waterfront tales with a grain of salt, but the fact they were going around wasn't good.
Four men had been standing on the quarterdeck as he'd come up the brow the week before. By the time he'd finished saluting, only the officer of the deck remained. When crew scattered at the sight of khaki, something was wrong. His unease grew as he filtered through the spaces, talking to chiefs and white hats, learning who the shitbirds were, what gear was due to fail and which was bulletproof. He'd met department heads and reviewed inventory letters. Spot-checked ammo and crypto materials and the controlled equipment like night vision devices and handheld radios and computers. Signed the admin and relieving letters, and looked over the disbursing officer's audit of cash on hand.
Now he had to stand in the noon sun and show them their new skipper.
A trilling tone from the ship's service phone. Ross flinched and snatched it off the bulkhead. "They're mustered." He stood too fast, knocking over his cup. The dark fluid just missed Dan's whites.
Looking at the oily black liquid dye the carpet, suddenly he didn't feel well. A shadow moved over his perception, darkening the very light. He didn't want to go out in front of these people. Didn't want this command. All he had to oppose to fear was duty. That and the blue ribbon he wore. Which attested, like the Cowardly Lion's medal, that he had once been brave.
He followed Ross out into sunlight and the wind.
STANDING on Horn's flight deck as a cloud strains the sun into searching beams of golden light. Looking down past the Sea Sparrow launcher to the after five-inch, its tapered barrel centered and elevated.
Spruances were no longer the most modern destroyers in the fleet. But they were bigger, roomier, more comfortable than the Gearings and Knoxes he'd begun his career on. They carried antiship Harpoons between the stacks and Tomahawks forward. A tug churned by, screws whipping the Elizabeth River into malt frappé. He held the salute as the honors tape played over the 1MC, the ship's public address system. As a smiling, glasses-shining Commodore Saul Aronie, Commander, Destroyer Squadron Twenty-Two, passed between saluting sideboys. The sun was blazing now, right in his eyes. He was standing with Ross and Ross's wife, what was her name, he couldn't remember whether it was Cecilia or Cynthia or Cindy.
His own wife couldn't make it out of D.C. With the new administration, Blair had moved from Senate staff to the executive branch. It was one of those long-distance relationships. The week after the wedding, he'd been off to the Naval War College, while she briefed the new administration's transition team.
The day was as bright now, the wind as warm as his glance out the porthole had promised. The crew were phalanxed ranks of white. The commodore settling into his chair, adjusting his sword. At the podium, Dan's new exec. From behind he contemplated the small waist, the swell of her hips. This would take some getting used to.
Claudia Hotchkiss was a head shorter than he was, an energetic woman with apple cheeks and dusty blond hair. She looked like the actress who held the torch for Columbia Pictures. The same enigmatic expression, too. Horn would be the first warship in history to deploy to a combat zone with an integrated male/female crew. Hotchkiss had served in oilers and ammunition ships and had done her department head tour aboard Mount Whitney before screening for exec. She stretched on tiptoe to reach the mike. "Captain Carter Llewellyn Ross, commanding officer, USS Horn."
Ross lifted his cover, smoothed what was left of his hair. Gripped walnut-stained plywood and faced the ranks, the seated rows of guests, with the embattled crouch of one resolved to tell the unwelcome truth, come what may.
"Commodore Aronie; Commander Lenson; distinguished guests; officers and men of USS Horn. Thank you for joining me on this morning, on what should be a happy occasion.
"It should be happy; yet for me, it is not.
"I must speak out against what is happening to this navy I have loved and served."
A stir rippled across the sailors, listening at parade rest. Here and there Dan caught a bark, a grunt, a low, questioning growl.
"The United States military cannot be a laboratory for social change. We cannot allow the freedoms civilians take for granted. Nor can we accede to every fad or frenzy that agitates the body politic. We see this in the current attempt to welcome to the armed forces those who are not only condemned by Scripture, but dangerous to cohesion in battle.
"Linked to this is the attempt to place women in harm's way, aboard warships such as Horn."
The murmurings swelled to agreement, approval. Hotchkiss was straining forward like a small pit bull on a tight leash. The commodore sat motionless, legs crossed. His face had lost its tolerant smile. But he made no move to interfere. Dan understood. This was Ross's swan song. For the only time, maybe, since he'd joined the service, he was free to say exactly what he liked.
"Now, I have nothing against women. My parents taught me to respect and honor and care for them, as Cindy I think will attest. My daughters are smart and capable. That's not why I'm uneasy with those who, for their own political gain, are thrusting females into places they don't belong.
"Battle is a brutal business. It requires choices and actions no woman in any culture is prepared for. It also takes total concentration. Concentration that will be disrupted when young men and women are attracted to each other — or sidetracked from their jobs by the kinds of accusations and rumors that are inevitable in a mixed environment.
"Women personify creation and caring. In many ways, they're better than we are. Kinder, more helpful, more willing to sacrifice for those around them. They alone are capable of perpetuating and nurturing the species. This is their great mission."
Ross took a breath, flexed his fingers on the podium. He didn't look at the commodore. "Men are fitted for another task. Defending the home; and by extension, the homeland. There is a hard edge in us. Even, at times, cruel. It must be tempered by a warrior code. But in combat that ferocity makes it possible to win. Without it, defeat is inevitable. And the loss of all we've labored to win. Freedom. Democracy. Maybe, our very survival. The world may be at peace now. But as Plato said, 'Only the dead have seen the last of war."
"My own career is ending. I have no desire to stay. I have only respect for Commander Lenson. He is a war fighter. Like Petty Officer First Class Thomas W. Horn, the ship's namesake, he bears the highest decoration for courage our nation awards: the Congressional Medal of Honor. I wish him the best. But I don't envy the task he faces, because it's against Nature and God — to make warriors out of women, to ready a gender-mixed unit for battle."
Ross paused for a moment, gazing off over their heads. "Maybe I'm a stick-in-the-mud," he said, almost softly. "What they call a traditionalist. But what was our navy built on? The traditions of honor, of confidence in our brothers in arms, and, ultimately, of victory. That's what I learned off Vietnam, and on deployments to Westpac and the Med. From the men, the men, who went before me. Stretching back in a chain to Steven Decatur and John Paul Jones.
"The navy's downsizing. Well, we can build more ships the next time danger threatens. But without those core traditions, will we still have a force that can defend the land we love? Tradition unites us. It inspires us. It sustains us in the hour we face death. Without it, I fear for our future — and for our country."
He paused again, as if about to say more; then his eyes fell on Aronie's. Dan saw no signal passed, not so much as a blink. But the captain's face closed, and he ducked his head. "I will now read my orders."
While he read out the paragraph of terse navalese, Dan unfolded himself. He joined Ross and turned the page to his own orders. "Proceed to the port in which USS Thomas Horn may be and upon arrival, report to your immediate superior in command, if present, otherwise by message, for duty as commanding officer of USS Horn." He faced Ross. Snapped his hand up in a swift and perfect salute. "I relieve you, sir."
"I stand relieved." Ross returned the salute and shook his hand. Quickly, perfunctorily, without meeting his eyes. They both faced Aronie. "Sir, I've been properly relieved by Commander Lenson."
"I have relieved Commander Ross, sir."
"Very well. Congratulations, Carter. My best wishes to you, Dan."
When they sat, all eyes turned to Dan. Who stood shifting from foot to foot, presented with a dilemma.
The spotlight at the change of command belonged to the outgoing skipper. The incoming CO was expected to confine his remarks to wishing his predecessor well. Yet Ross's words required an answer. He couldn't let the crew go with them ringing in their ears.
Was Ross right? Were they trying to force something that in some deep way cross-grained how the universe was built? He absently pressed his ribbons above his heart, making sure they hadn't come loose.
He didn't deserve the medal. The glances it earned him, the startled salutes. By tradition — that word again — every man in uniform saluted the wearer of the Congressional. But since the navy had awarded few decorations of any kind in the Gulf War, compared to the other services, Dan wondered sometimes if he'd gotten it to fill some ambiguous and unutterable quota.
And the even more sobering story he'd had at third hand: that the U.S. Navy hadn't put him in for the award at all, that he owed it to a personal nomination by General Norman Schwartzkopf, who'd ordered the Signal Mirror mission.
He cleared his throat. Looked out over the sparkling river, the bay, imagining the sea beyond that. Its implacable fury. Its intolerance of human error, of weakness, of any lack or shortcoming. He didn't want to face it with a divided crew. But he couldn't insult Ross on his last day in command.
To hell with it, he thought. If the guy didn't want to get stepped on, he shouldn't have brought it up. He snapped the book closed on his prepared remarks.
"Commodore Aronie; Captain Ross; honored guests; officers, men, and women of USS Thomas Horn. Good morning.
"We are here today to honor Carter Ross and to thank him for his service. A long service, going back to USS Morton, DD-948, on the gun line off Vietnam. A period that saw the vanquishing of the Soviet Bloc and the end of the Cold War, that he'll now cap with an honorable retirement.
"It is for us to pick up the torch he sets down and to carry it into an unfamiliar world. One without the old verities, the old enemies we knew for so long.
"But constant change is the law of life.
"Horn will lead in that change. Pursuant to legislative initiatives, we've been selected as the test ship for the Women at Sea program. This is a great honor, and due no doubt to the fine record you've all racked up under Captain Ross's leadership.
"I have a great deal of respect for Carter Ross, and for those who believe, as he does, in the importance of tradition. But in one respect I have to disagree with them.
"Women have been serving at sea in tugs, tenders, oilers, for almost twenty years. Now they're taking the next step. Horn's been tasked with making sure the mixed-crew concept can work. And we will make it work. Because in combat, we have to fight together, as a team, or we'll all go down. I've been there. I know it's true."
Now the flight deck was quiet. No murmurs of agreement, but neither, he noted, of dissent. The women, who'd looked dismayed at Ross's remarks, seemed to have gained heart.
"All standing orders will remain in effect until further notice. Again, I look forward to serving with you."
There, that was enough. He pushed his sword behind him and perched again on the green baize-covered chair. Feigned attention as Aronie began his remarks, lauding Ross and going over the ship's deployments and awards during his command. Keeping his back straight, looking interested, while his gaze roved over the audience. He caught the eye of the command master chief, Woltz. The senior enlisted man nodded slightly. Met next the glower of the outgoing engineering officer. Dan had already told him he'd be leaving. Other than that, they were strangers to him.
They looked so young. Even the chiefs! What had happened to the grizzled, profane E-7s who'd instructed him as a fresh-caught ensign and sustained him as a lieutenant? The department heads looked like callow boys or self-conscious college girls.
He blinked, seeing suddenly, in their places, the crew of Reynolds Ryan, so many dead in the icy North Atlantic. Of USS Turner Van Zandt, lost in the hazy Gulf. Of Bowen and Barrett and Gaddis and the other ships he'd served in. Just as young. Just as unformed.
Did he have what it took to command them, to take responsibility for their lives?
Aronie finished by presenting the outgoing skipper with the Meritorious Service Medal. The benediction pronounced, Hotchkiss dismissed the crew. Usually the ceremony was followed by a reception in the hangar, coffee and bug juice and a sheet cake cut with a sword. Instead, Ross and his wife left at once, passing down the line of sideboys as the pipe shrilled.
Aronie lingered, talking to Hotchkiss. When Dan came over, they looked up. "Commodore," he said.
"Congratulations, Lenson. You're making history."
"I hope so, sir."
"I've seen female soldiers on duty in Israel. They'll do fine. And you're taking over with enough time to get everyone used to working together before you deploy. I'll be in touch tomorrow. We'll discuss what has to be done before the joint task force exercise."
Dan said that'd be fine, he'd be aboard all day. Hotchkiss nodded past him, and a moment later bells pealed out. "DESRON Twenty-Two, departing," said the 1MC.
Aronie got into a sedan on the pier. And suddenly Dan was alone. A curious sensation, to be an isolate amid the bustle of the in-port quarterdeck. He caught furtive glances, swiftly averted as men passed. Woltz, and Camill, the operations officer; a young chief named Marty something. He wanted to say something to break the ice. Crack a joke. But he didn't. His presence inhibited them. Perhaps even intimidated them.
Excerpted from The Command by David Poyer. Copyright © 2004 David Poyer. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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