Thursday, April 12, 2012

An American Chief in the German Navy

by Chief Fire Controlman Bret Levinton

I’m from Lincoln City, Oregon. After high school I didn’t feel like I was ready for college and I wanted to travel; the military was an opportunity for that. When I joined in 1996, I was expecting just to do a four-year commitment.
After I was stationed on the USS John C. Stennis, I went as an Individual Augmentee to Afghanistan. I was coming up to the end of my IA when I was up for orders and saw there was an exchange billet for a Fire Controlman Chief to Germany. I didn’t know anything about it, but I talked to my detailer and was able to apply.
I couldn’t just take the orders; I had to take the DLAB (Defense Language Aptitude Battery Test) to see if I could learn the language first. Once I passed I applied for special programs and put in my application, just like you would for any special program, along with my DLAB score and got accepted. My wife and I both went to DLI (Defense Language Institute) in Monterey, Calif. to learn German.

I found out midway through school that I was going to a German frigate. After eight months of instruction at DLI, we both walked out with an Associate’s Degree in German and were on our way to Wilhelmshaven, Germany.

My first day was hectic. They weren’t expecting me to arrive for six more months. They didn’t even know what ship I would be on. My landlord took me to the naval base and dropped me off at the base quarterdeck and there they figured out which ship I was going to. The next day somebody from the ship picked me up from my apartment and I checked in to the 123-class German frigate, Fregatte Bayern, wearing my dress blues with a set of orders in hand. I was the only American and I had no idea what job I was going to do. Nothing.

Even though the exchange program is pretty well known in Germany, I was the first person in the program to go to that ship. They set me up really well. I didn’t know what I was walking in to but they were really friendly.

I’ve been doing this for sixteen years and Nimitz is my fourth ship, I had forgotten that when you check onto a ship you know what a bull’s eye means after a couple of days -- that’s where you are on the ship. You recognize general quarters from movies -- you know people are firefighting. The German navy’s bull’s eye system is different, the way they fight fires is different, even the repair lockers weren’t like ours. It was like being an E-1 on my first ship all over again. I knew what I was supposed to do; I just didn’t know how to do it. I knew that the bull’s eye told me where I was on the ship, but I had no idea where I was on the ship, because it was a completely different system. It really kicked me back to my first days on board.

I checked in to the weapons and engineering department, which is basically their version of combat systems. The German navy’s a little bit different in the sense that everybody has a job title. They go more on what your position is on the ship rather than what your rank is. I was an Artillery Weapons Leading Master which is basically German for fire controlman chief.

I was the Leading Chief Petty Officer of the 25 people in the division. DLI is a really good school, but it doesn’t teach you military vernacular, or all of the different accents from around Germany. It took about six months before I could understand the 1MC.  They needed to speak to me slowly and really clearly. They have their own military acronyms that I had no idea what they were.

My Navy Enlisted Classification is carrier driven, so that was my first frigate. I don’t know if it was different because it was the German navy or because it was a frigate. I know I worked real hard. I mean, I work real hard here too, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that I was involved in every underway replenishment. I was in charge of all the line handling. I had to make sure that when we pulled in or pulled out of port it was done right. It was completely new to me and I had to learn how to do it in German. General quarters is all in German, I was in combat on a weapons console speaking in German so you had to get used to the way they say things. The only thing that was in English was the international communications. Whenever we had to read off warnings I would do that.

It was really rewarding to feel like I was part of the team. I knew walking in that I had to gain their acceptance. I didn’t want to just be the token foreign guy in the room that just got assigned there; I wanted to actually be a working chief on a German ship. I felt like the real rewarding times were just hanging out with the guys in my division. It took about three to four months before I got comfortable working there and to learn the way their culture does things. I think I started feeling like I was an actual part of the ship when my leadership started coming to me with actual questions not just, “Are you okay?” “Is your family okay?”

It’s a lot different when you live in a foreign country and when you visit a foreign port. When you live there, you have to figure out the way they do. When we moved in to our apartment it’s typical in Germany, I think in all of Europe, there’s no kitchen, there are no toilets there’s no lighting. It’s just a box with pipes and wires and you have to set up everything yourself. That’s totally normal for their culture but it’s completely weird for us.

My wife had a baby there and she did that completely in German with the German medical system. The entire birth and all of the prenatal classes were done in German. It was our first child, and I learned a lot about pregnancy that I don’t know the English words for.

I think programs like this are important; the U.S. and Germany do so many joint operations together. It’s a smaller world when we’re working towards joint goals. I feel like when I checked in, they were expecting me to come in and be really arrogant and be what they think of as a typical American. But, just walking in and being open to their culture I think really affected the way they viewed the U.S. Navy. Plus, they have really good ways of doing things. I learned as much from them as they learned from me-- the way they organize the divisions, held people accountable and how they didn’t micro manage.  It’s important to learn lessons like that and bring them back to our ship.

To be able to participate in something like this, you have to be open-minded and want a new adventure. It’s a great opportunity for people who want to do something a little outside of the box as far as typical sea and shore duties go. It’s a really cool thing to do if you’re really self-sufficient, self-reliant, a self-starter and you’re looking for something unique and adventurous. I made really good friends, and plan on visiting again soon.

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