By Kevin Leland
On the heels of the U.S. Navy Scandal involving cheating by a ring of at least 30 instructors at the Nuclear Propulsion Training Unit facility at the Joint Base in Goose Creek, South Carolina, I would like to recount my own personal experience with having been given the answers to a test that allowed me to be accepted into the Naval Nuclear Power Training Program, when it was located in Orlando, Florida in the late 1980’s, before it was closed in 1999.
“My recruiter lied to me” is not something you will say very often in the Navy, without getting a no-shit chuckle out of your more seasoned shipmates in response. I learned many social skills, social survival skills really, in the United States military. “Don’t whine” was a very important lesson that has served me well in the thirty years since.
This story isn’t a whine. It isn’t a rant. It’s not even meant to be an expose’. I’m not going to mention the recruiter’s name, though I remember it well. Recruiters have a job to do. They are a kind of salesman, and although they don’t get paid commish, they have quotas to meet. If, like any successful salesmen, they need to spin the truth, maybe sometimes until it faces the other way, then “caveat emptor;” which is Latin for “tough titty said the kitty but the milk’s still good.”
These quotas are not simply the number of heads that will later get shaved at some Navy RTC. It’s required of Navy recruiters that a percentage of those heads need to be filled with the type of brains that will get them accepted into one of the toughest training programs in the world, it’s graduates making up just 3% of Navy personnel. Instructors are then recruited from that percentage of elite sailors, after more testing and re-qualifying, who graduated in the top 50% of their classes.
Of the Sailors accepted into NNPT, an attrition rate of about 50% is common. Not all of these are academic. Some are physical, personal and often even integrity issues come into play, considering a “secret clearance” is required to study and operate these high tech propulsion systems.
I was a seventeen-year-old virgin when I negotiated the terms of my enlistment with this military man, twice my age, and ten times wiser in the ways of the world. My ASVAB score probably left his in the dust, which didn’t help me here, and just proved the juxtaposition of aptitude and intelligence vs. common sense and wisdom. I wanted to be a Seabee. I built many forts and tree-houses as a kid, liked war movies and wanted to travel and shoot guns and operate heavy equipment and build things and blow things up. I was enrolled at that time in a Construction Trades Program in High School.
When my ASVAB score came back, even after an intentional poor performance on a section that I thought would make me a Yeoman if I did well at it, it was high enough to qualify me to apply for the Nuke program. My recruiter was psyched. I was less enthused. My heart was still set on the Seabees. Then, he sold me on the accelerated advancement (in rank). That was a true story. I went to bootcamp, at seventeen, already an E3, and sewed a crow on my shoulder a couple months after my eighteenth birthday, not even a year after first sitting down with the recruiter…I even got laid somewhere in between that time. Life was good, and it was about to get better.
He also sold me on the program by telling me about these redunkulous bonuses that “Nukes” get, on top of higher pay. In the eighties, this was more than enough to buy a brand-spankin’-new Corvette –cash money. I saw myself, as a lot sexier, sitting in a Corvette as opposed to sitting in a bulldozer. He sold me on using the Navy to get this valuable schooling (my folks couldn’t afford college, and I was a pot-head and a slacker in school, so no scholarships for me either) in trade for five years of serving my country. This training and experience would land me a job in the civilian world starting at six figures.
Sign me the frick up! I thought. Who wouldn’t? Imagine having such an awesome career path laid out for you at such a young age? And not only laid out, but also with the full force and discipline of the American military establishment to relentlessly guide and push you through it. At twenty-four, I could have the job, the cars, the house, the trophy-wife and the social status that it takes University graduates, with wealthy family trees until they are in their thirties to acquire.
I had a few concerns and obstacles to overcome. So did my recruiter. He also had all the solutions.
The first was my illegal drug use. He advised me to tell the truth when asked. I experimented with marijuana three times. Once when I was fourteen, once at fifteen and again, the last time, at sixteen. He also advised a little, white lie of omission: “Don’t mention that each experiment lasted a year.”
The second was my lack of college courses on top of my academic slacking. I needed to pass another exam, testing me for my knowledge of chemistry, physics, advanced math and other subjects not offered to students in a construction trades program. He told me he could delay the time before I needed to take this test for a couple months. In the meantime, I would have to self-study.
I carried the dusty set of “Encyclopedia Britannicas” up from our cellar, and actually succeeded in learning this stuff after many hours with my nose in these old, mildew-smelling, pre-Interweb books.
My third and most important concern was the 50% attrition rate. It was especially a concern because I passed that second test by only one question, and it was a question that the recruiter gave me the answer to, about a bullet fired from a level rifle, and a watch falling from the rifleman’s wrist at the same moment. Which, would hit the ground first? “The same time” was the answer to this physics question that I otherwise would have gotten wrong, because I had yet to learn about gravitational acceleration.
I knew that this tough curriculum would be presented to me for the first time, not counting my self-study efforts, at a pace that would even be tough for some of the guys in the program who had it before in High School and even in College. I didn’t want to set my sights on this different goal unless I was going to achieve it. Otherwise, becoming a Seabee, or even a Hull Tech, would be my thing.
My recruiter assured me that if I gave my full effort, I would pass the program. If I needed extra help, asked for and made myself available to receive it, I would get what I required to pass. He reasoned with me, convincingly, that the Navy was not going to invest all that time, money and training into me, and not get what they bargained for. He warned that I may have to study till my eyes bled, and I couldn’t screw around like I did in High School.
If High School offered fast cars, hot women and cold cash as rewards for academic achievement, instead of just a few letters on a report card Mom could hang on the fridge, then no doubt I would have spent more time in class, applying myself, instead of spending it in a row boat, fishing and smoking weed while bunking school chronically.
“Sign me up! I’ll try my damnedest.” I said. And try I did. I took all the extra help I could get. I studied till my eyes bled. I failed. I was transferred to the fleet. It was one of the saddest, most disappointing days of my life. I remember sitting on the floor with two other guys in the Chief’s office, stifling tears while ripping pages and pages of notes out of my spiral notebook, and running this classified material, written in my own hand, through the shredder. I was angry. I felt hustled by my recruiter and by the Navy. The rest of my extended enlistment that I committed to, as a Machinist Mate, and as an often disrespected “push-button, petty officer,” was going to suck.
But, it didn’t. It wasn’t all good, by any stretch of the imagination. But I have no regrets. I gained a certain type of maturity that men and women have no access to or understanding of in the civilian world. There were a lot of other heart-wrenching disappointments over the next four years. But there were also esteem-building achievements. At twenty years old, I was the lead Q.A. inspector, aboard the USS Orion (AS-18) in La Maddalena, Italy, overseeing the swap-out of the steam generator feed valve on a nuclear-powered submarine, while my friends back home were asking “Do you want fries with that?”
It didn’t take me more than a year after being transferred to the fleet to realize that I deserved to be dropped from the program. Not only because I wasn’t smart enough to be a nuclear reactor operator, but also because I didn’t have enough integrity. I cheated my way into the program. I conspired with my recruiter, I wasn’t exploited by him. He didn’t have anywhere near as much to gain by his involvement in our scheme. All he got was credit for two recruits (one nuclear power recruit counted as two non-nucs) The temptation to cheat was great, especially for a young kid. But as these cheating instructors have found out, like I did, you can’t play the United States Navy, or fool your Superiors.
I hope they also learn the other tough lesson that I did. When you cheat, you lose, and you deserve to forfeit any ill gotten rewards.
By Martha Jette ~According to an Associated Press report, this investigation involves about 30 sailors. With about 150 instructors at the South Carolina school, training will suffer, as these suspected cheaters have been at least temporarily suspended.
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