Commence reactor start up! The statement itself conjures up many memories for me, and can be a metaphor for the start of my Navy career. As a refresher (for those who don’t know), I spent ten years in the Navy as an electronics technician, nuclear trained reactor operator, and finally, a recruiter. In the Navy, there are three different enlisted nuclear rates – Machinist Mate (MM) that includes the Engineering Laboratory Technician (ELT), Electrician Mate (EM), and Electronics Technician (ET) home of the Reactor Operators. Now, I have to admit that whoever decided to make me an ET knew that my mechanical skills were…um…less than optimal for the other rates.
My career started in Great Lakes, Illinois at Recruit Training Command (boot camp). After boot camp in Great Mistakes er..Lakes, I headed off to Electronics Technician “A” School (during which I spent a grueling winter on the shores of Lake Michigan). After graduating, it was off to Orlando for Nuclear Power School (aka Uncle Hyman’s School for Misguided Children – nicknamed for the father of Naval Nuclear Power, Admiral Hyman Rickover). After warm sunny Orlando, it was off to Idaho (yes, a Navy school in Idaho) for prototype training, where I actually ran an operating nuclear power plant.
This is me with my Recruit Training Command Company. We were the Color Company of our graduating class (I’m in the lower right hand corner of the picture).
One very cool thing about graduation was the keynote speaker. Admiral Grace Hopper – one of the pioneers of modern computers – was our graduation dignitary! The lovely and adorable Lana often uses this quote attributed to Admiral Hopper: “A ship in port is safe, but that’s not ships are built for.” Powerful words from an amazing woman!
As I mentioned earlier, I was lucky enough to spend a winter in Great Lakes attending ET “A” School. We learned to troubleshoot electronics gear and managed to survive the snow and ice of a northern Illinois winter. For someone who had lived in South Georgia for a long time, it was cold and miserable!! Below is my ET “A” school graduating class.
Sunny Orlando was the next stop on my Navy journey. Before Nuke School started, I was a Master At Arms at the Transient Personnel Detachment. What does all that mean? We were the shore patrol for the barracks for the Nuke School drops that were headed for the fleet, or, depending on the reason for the drop, perhaps out of the Navy. Too many stories to tell about that temporary duty station, but it was certainly an eye-opening experience! The fun had to come to an end, though, and it was off to Nuclear Power School.
Nuclear Power School Orlando, FL:
How can one describe Nuclear Power School? To say it was difficult would be a massive understatement. Basically, you crammed mathematics, nuclear physics, electrical power and generating equipment, nuclear reactor technology, thermodynamics, chemistry, materials science, metallurgy, health physics, reactor principles, and reactor ethics into 6 months. Taught at the college level, our classes ran from 8:00 – 4:30 pm, and students still had to stand watches. Oh, and you had to do homework at school since the training materials were classified and couldn’t leave the building.
Grades and studying:
That was 40 classroom hours per week. I was on suggested 20 study hours while I was in Orlando, so I had at least 60 hours per week in the classroom. Others had mandatory study of 40 hours, so 80 hours per week in the classroom. Add to that the pressure to excel or even to keep up, and it’s understandable why the attrition rate was and still is, by some accounts, > 70%! We had to maintain at least a 2.5 GPA on a 4.0 scale, and the popular view was 2.8 and skate! Somehow, I made it through with a decent GPA and it was off to Idaho! Here is the 8407 Class picture. Interestingly enough, my future Executive Officer (XO) on the Sandlance is in this picture.
Prototype in Idaho Falls:
I arrived in Idaho Falls, Idaho on February 14, 1985 to three feet of snow. After Great Lakes, though, I was ready for the snow. What I wasn’t ready for was prototype. Yes, we still had a lot of theory to learn, but now we were actually running a nuclear reactor.
We worked 12 hours days on a rotating shift, rode a bus for an hour in each direction (which turned our 12 hour days into 14 hour days), and generally lived at the site. Prototype training lasted 6 months, just like Nuclear Power School, and was just as intense – though in a different way. A lot of students who did well in the theoretical world of Nuke school struggled putting theory into practice.
Again, with a lot of help from my sea dad, my advisers, and my classmates, I made it through prototype. I actually performed a reactor start up for the first time at prototype. Idaho Falls was its own adventure, but that is a story for another time! I was the second person in my class to qualify Reactor Operator. My orders sent me to the USS Sandlance (SSN660) home ported in Charleston, SC.
There you have an outline of the beginning of my time in the US Navy. In a future post, I will talk about my time aboard USS Sandlance (SSN660) a Sturgeon Class fast attack submarine. If I hadn’t had these experiences, I couldn’t have used them in my fantasy adventure series The Gemstone Chronicles!
I love to connect with other submariners and current and former Navy nukes. If you are one, or know one, please leave me a comment and let me know about your experiences. As always, shares and feedback are always welcome!