Skip to site content

Serving Country, but What about Self?

Sailors receive constant pressure from a variety of sources, including home, work, even play. Making good decisions under pressure is a challenge for everyone. Sailors are no exception.

Chaplains witness such struggles on a daily basis. One young man is frustrated with the way he is being treating down in berthing. He is new to the ship and his shipmates are welcoming him aboard with some introductory hazing. A female sailor is tired of undue attention. She is an attractive female on a ship predominately of men.

These are just two dilemmas posed by a shipboard environment, where other questions naturally arise.
How do we treat one another when we are not only fellow workers, but also shipmates who live together?  What does it mean to respect someone’s privacy or individual space when 350 people live on a ship 566 feet long? What do we expect to happen when we put men and women together on a ship for six straight months?

When it comes to making good decisions, sailors—like everyone else—can both amaze and disappoint. A friend will give a buddy a ride home after pulling into port. A shipmate will counsel a young sailor about his responsibilities. A sailor will stand watch for another who is exhausted and needs rest.

But a married sailor will have sex with a shipmate. A superior will cuss out a subordinate in anger. An underage young man will go out drinking with his friends. One sailor will strike another because that person was making fun of him.

Much shipboard frustration has roots at home, for Navy life is difficult for families. Some ships are underway for over nine months a year.

Families struggle to maintain bonds that once held them together. Marriages teeter on divorce. And struggling marriages often end through an adulterous relationship. Children grow up missing large amounts of time with one or both parents depending on who is in the Navy.

Instability at home is also caused by the frequent moves demanded by the Navy. Children grow up without the network of support that comes from a lifetime of friendships and connections built in one place.

Excesses of play pile on top of work and home demands. The intensity of the sailors’ work is matched only by the intensity of their fun. After weeks at sea, young men and women are ready to have some fun.

Problems arise when that fun includes getting drunk, using drugs or engaging in illicit sex. The Navy does a fairly good job of dealing with potential alcohol abuse. It also has a “zero tolerance” policy toward the use of illegal drugs, which means that if caught, one’s career is over. And sex aboard ship is always inappropriate. The Navy does respond to violations of its fraternization policy.

In the end, it may be the natural consequences of these behaviors that prove to be the worst punishment of all for the individual sailor.

The Navy is nothing more and nothing less than a microcosm of American society. As such, its men and women struggle like everyone else.

But unlike everyone else, sailors do more than work together. They live together. Tough decisions, then, are always close to home.

Bennett C. Sandford is a chaplain in the United States Navy.