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Letter to My Former Self: ENS Katie Labbe

Posted on: May 07, 2014 08:00 EDT by Naval Academy Public Affairs

No matter how many experienced teachers and mentors tell you that graduation will be the beginning of an exciting and challenging Navy career, nothing can really stop the elation and sense of liberation a first class midshipman experiences upon graduation from the Naval Academy.

But as a recent graduate of the Naval Academy and having just recently returned from an eight-month deployment, I am hear to tell you that while the challenges and lessons you learn at the Naval Academy do prepare you, no class or book can really fully prepare you for the challenges you will face when you finally request permission to come aboard your first ship.

After graduation, I used my basket leave to spend time with my family and then move into my apartment. I immediately reported to the Basic Division Officer Course upon completion of my leave. During the two months I was at BDOC, I contacted my sponsor and she informed me that my ship would be leaving for deployment the Monday after I graduated. Essentially, the first day that I stepped onboard my ship as a brand new ensign, my ship would be transiting the Atlantic Ocean to the Eastern Mediterranean for an eight-month deployment.

Needless to say, even after four years at the Naval Academy and two months at Basic Division Officer School, I still felt underprepared. In other words, I have included some small pieces of advice that I would have found informative and helpful before stepping aboard my ship that fateful day in August 2013.

Take advantage of your resources while they are available. This piece of advice applies more specifically to those who will be deploying soon after graduation. I was not prepared for the lack of resources that I would experience on a deployed ship. My practicum teacher gave a list of books that I would find to be helpful resources on my ship, and I did not take the time to purchase them before my deployment, which I regretted not too long after leaving. Computers on the ship are slow and can be a pain to access if you do not have one in your stateroom.

Some of your most valuable resources are the more experienced officers. Coming right from college, we are accustomed to reading and books and doing research to learn material. However, that is not the most efficient way to learn how to be a SWO. The most effective way to learn is to discuss SWO topics with the second tour division officers and department heads. The department heads will actually be the board members on your SWO and OOD boards, so the topics they find important to discuss with you are the topics they will find important in your board.

Time for personal development is rare and should be used wisely. If you are not willing to spend the extra five minutes of spare time to have an informative discussion with one of the department heads or second tour division officers, or sacrifice what could be a much needed hour nap for some time in the gym, then there is a whole line of eager first tour division officers who are willing. Making mistakes will not hamper your success if you adopt an ambitious attitude toward your job, your qualifications, and your personal development, because people will see that you care and in turn they will care about your development as well.

Prepare yourself and your loved ones for the challenges that wait. Again this advice more specifically applies to those who will be deployed. I found it very easy to take advantage of all the different modes of communication that I had at my fingertips in college. Having your own personal computer and a cell-phone make it very easy to maintain relationships and keep in touch with your loved ones. I was woefully mistaken when I thought that I would have time to email all of my family members on a regular basis on a deployed ship. I barely had enough time to send a short email to my significant other everyday and sometimes I did not have time. The lack of communication affects different relationships in very different ways, so you and your loved ones should be prepared to go through some tribulation when you deploy.

Your sponsor is an excellent resource of which you should take full advantage. Your sponsor is most likely going to be a first tour division officer that has been on the ship for a few months to a year maybe, and is not going to know what you do not know and everything that you need to know. They can guess what you need to know, but your sponsor will not be a good resource unless you take the time to ask the right questions. Good examples of things that you should ask are about materials, uniform items, and supplies you need. They will then inform you that you need a multitude of socks because there are evil sock gnomes on ships, and no matter how many pairs you bring it will not be enough. You should ask about the details of reporting to the ship, and what you should do before reporting.

Have a questioning attitude. Not understanding how to ask the important questions was what got me into trouble during the first few months of being on board. There were several instances when I would come to my captain with the intentions of getting his permission for something that my division needed to do, but he would ask me questions that I did not know how to answer. Granted he asked me these questions to help develop me as a junior officer, not to stump the brand new ensign. However, I would have saved myself much pain if I had thought more critically about what I was going to talk to my captain about, and asked more questions before I stormed into his office alone and unafraid.  

Be a team player. Every first tour division officer is on the road to getting qualified. The road to getting qualified will be much smoother and less stressful if you work with your fellow ensigns instead of against. Yes, you will be ranked against all the other ensigns, but it speaks more of your character to help out your fellow shipmates instead of leaving them behind. Not to mention that you will learn a whole lot faster with all those extra resources. I guarantee that no matter whom you are talking to or studying with there is something valuable that they know and can teach you.

Take full advantage of your basket leave. This is the only time you will have the opportunity to take a whole month of leave and not be charged for it. Use it to spend time with your loved ones, or travel somewhere, or just to yourself. Use your time however you wish, but make it YOUR time and not the Navy’s time.

Use your time at BDOC wisely. If you have the opportunity to attend BDOC before reporting to your ship like I did, use the extra time to actually study and learn as much of the material as possible. The material that you learn at BDOC is the same material that you will need to know for your SWO board. There is much debate on whether BDOC would better serve young ensigns after being on a ship for a few months or before having ever stepped on a ship. In my opinion, both have their advantages and disadvantages, but BDOC will only be as useful and informative as you choose to make it no matter when in your career you attend.

Trust yourself and your ability to make decisions is the last piece of advice I would like to bestow upon my former self. As ill-prepared and inexperienced as you may feel, you were accepted into the Naval Academy and you made it through four years of school for a reason. You can think critically and you have good instincts, so trust yourself when you make decisions. I am not saying not to reflect on your choices, because you should absolutely be constantly self-assessing and thinking critically about your own decisions. I am simply pointing out that you bring something valuable to the table even without the experience and Navy knowledge, so do not undervalue yourself and your contribution.

I hope that my experiences and lessons will help you with your transition from school to fleet. I wish you all success, and I cannot wait to have you all in the fleet!

Very respectfully,

ENS Katie Labbe

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