Navy Nuclear Power Training Program: You Cheat You Lose

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.

Related Articles:

Sailors training as instructors in nuclear power program caught cheating

Posted on February 10, 2014 

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.
Continue reading →

Navy Nuclear Propulsion Training Course (NNPTC) for Elite

Posted on February 7, 2014 

By Martha Jette ~The program aims to ensure that all of the Navy’s nuclear propulsion plants are run in a safe and reliable manner. To do so, this course provides training in several areas Continue reading →

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6 responses to “Navy Nuclear Power Training Program: You Cheat You Lose

  1. You went threw the program during more difficult times. The courses have been shortened and are presented in ways that are easier to comprehend. This push to increase personnel to meet the Navy’s requirements has diminished the quality of its operators. The principles of construction, operation, and maintenance has been removed from the majority of Reactor Plant Manuals under the excuse that it is not required knowledge. However, this is an isolated incident specific to NPTU Charleston (not NNPTC). Inside rumors among operators claim the work load and stress levels of operating, maintaining, and instructing students on an outdated and broke down reactor plants led to the pressure of cheating via a lack of official study time during working hours. Training takes up a LOT of time on a specific topic and no one wants to spend valuable hours of family time with their nose in an RPM. I commend you on your service to our country and know, there are still valued operators in the fleet supporting freedom and democracy around the world. My question is, for how much longer?

  2. Thanks for your comment, AN! Should I change the title to Naval Nuclear Power Training Center? I know I made a mess by confusing the commands and associated acronyms. I tried to figure out what is going on in South Carolina by reading the “Joint Base” article on Wikipedia…that got me more confused!

  3. First I would like to commend you for the time and effort you put into this blog. Of course with that being said I fail to see the “exposé” on cheating. The title is misleading because you seem to think that telling you “that same time” was a ground breaking example of cheating on the Nuclear Field Qualifying Test? Please. Smoking pot in high school is no more an indication of academic prowess than attending the same party and doing shots of tequila. The fact that you “self taught” enough to pass (or fail by a single question) the NFQT tells me you are capable of learning. My guess is you failed Nuclear Power School as so many others before and after you, because you made the conscious or subconscious decision that you couldn’t do it. Pffft, I spend almost 9 years in the nuke field aboard 2 carriers and I know plenty of pot heads and delinquents who were outstanding operators. In fact one of the smartest, most honest hard working guys I ever met was a Navy Nuke ET. Aced all the tests, became ET1 after no time at all, never touched beer to say nothing of drugs….he shot two people killing one right before he drove to a Del Taco parking lot and blew his brains out. Point is, I want stable, grounded people in the reactor spaces and you can’t paint everyone with a wide brush. A single answer on a qualifying test hardly fulfills the expectations of this title. I will agree with the sentiment that even when your recruiter replies with an honest answer you rarely find a more jaded and expectant group than the US Navy Nuke!

  4. Great comment, thanks! I do work hard at this blog, and thanks to you Navy guys, it’s finally getting some traction, and a good amount of traffic. I was taking advantage of the “real” cheating scandal, with my selection of the title (there I go “cheating” again! lol) So, I can’t argue your point that it doesn’t really compare. I did fail out of nuc school because I wasn’t smart enough, at the time. I bet I could get through it now. As a matter of fact, it was nuc school that really gave me an interest in learning math and science, and I have been “self studying” ever since. It’s just that back in ’86, it took me many hours after class to grasp what was presented during the day. Then, the next day, I would be drained, and couldn’t pay attention properly, so it would take me even more hour after class to get the stuff. That made me even more tired the next day. This “catch 22” finally buried me. Because I was such a slacker in High School, I never really learned how to learn, especially in class, and to this day, I still prefer self study, even though it has a lot of drawbacks, like mispronouncing everything! lol You’re right about the guidelines. They don’t really determine the best person for the job.

  5. I recall a similar, but smaller-scale, cheating ring several years ago on an East-Coast Carrier (USS Roosevelt?). All involved were Watch-Supervisor / Watch-Officer qualified personnel, mostly chiefs & JOs. I can’t find any mention of it in news today. I must have read about it in Navy Times on an Exchange magazine rack back then.
    At any rate, I think that the “integrity concept” that was pressed into my brain over 15 years ago, while it may have made me unhappy while in-service, has made me a better learner today. I know that I would not be the (civilian) instructor I am today had I not spent that time in a “pressure-cooker” that was MM A-school, Power School, & Prototype.

  6. No regrets about learning military discipline at a young age. Even though I didn’t make it through to prototype, the time I spent in Nuke School taught me how to put military discipline to study, and learn at an accelerated pace. That’s helped me to become a better learner. There is a lot of pressure, I’m sure. Sometimes that can make sailors who usually operate with a lot of integrity, screw up, and cut a corner. I wonder how it all panned out?

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