20 Year Lessons

After 20 years, my military journey has ended...

20 Year Lessons by Rob McClellan

On December 21st, 1994, shortly after the commencement ceremony, my friends and I stood in the ballroom of the student center at North Carolina State University, raised our right hands, and swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Since then, we’ve spread across all services and have served all over the globe, in air, sea, and land.

After 20 years, my military journey has ended and I retired during another ceremony, this time across the continent in the Seabee Museum in Port Hueneme, CA.

Below is my retirement speech as written. If you would like to hear the recording of me delivering it, please press play below. If you would like to listen to my wife’s speech (and you should), you can do so here.

CAPT Edelson, Commodore Kurgan, CAPT Liberatore, Joe Alling, family, friends, esteemed guests and colleagues, thank you for the kind words and for coming to my retirement today. It’s an honor.

A special thanks to our master of ceremonies, LCDR Dan Wall, who was instrumental in making this happen today. Also, thanks to LCDR Sung, LT Nelson, BUCS Eaton, Chief Reeves, SWC Lowry, Chief Corea, YN1 Council, YN1 Medina, and EA1 Miller and all of those who have helped put this ceremony together.

And, before I get too far along, thank you to my loving wife Lisa for putting up with all of this craziness these last ten years. You are my love and inspiration, and I never would have made it without you.

And now, I suppose I should get to it…

Many of you know I can be a bit of a talker some time, but I promise today I won’t ramble on too long. To be honest, I hope I can make it through this speech without completely losing it.

There are a lot of variations of the retirement speech. Some are a stream of condemnations, others of platitudes. Some are happy, others remorseful. Some are praising and some are damning. Given my reputation as being a bit of a rebel, I’m sure some of you have been wondering what type of speech I’m going to give today.

I have had the privilege of having a very unusual career. While I can’t say that I’ve done everything I wanted to do, everything I have done has been by my choice. I chose the path I took, fully aware of the risks and with my eyes wide open. While it would have been nice to make to the rank of Commander, I’m very proud of my career and, if given the opportunity, I would have made the same choices all over again.

Over the course of the last 20 years, I have thrown my body, mind, and sometimes even my soul into the problems of the time. These experiences have taught me a great many things, shaping me in ways that even now I haven’t yet fully come to understand. I’d like to share some of that with you today.

It’s hard to describe what its like to walk through an Alpha Condition blizzard, where the snow falls so hard and fast you can’t see your hand in front of your face, desperately trying to find shelter for those whose home was destroyed by the storm.

It’s difficult to capture the feeling of being in the bowels of a warship that’s going down, fighting with everything you have to turn back the fate of the icy waves rushing in.

How do I explain the challenges of looking for an object smaller than your fist 4,000 feet below the surface?

How do you portray the pain you feel when an IED demolishes the vehicle you’re riding in, or the fear that washes over you afterwards as you check all of your limbs? How do you describe the terror that grips you when you look out your car’s window and see a bomb half covered by the sand?

How can you capture the love that you feel when you stumble off the plane in Baltimore, tired and worn from the war, and see your fiancee there waiting, radiant in her beauty and splendor?

These moments, and many more, are what define a career of military service.

These moments, and many more, are what define a career of military service. I’m not even going to try to explain those feelings today. For those who have felt something like them, you already know everything I can say, and we share the kinship of those experiences. For those who haven’t, there is no way I can convey it — certainly not in the span of this speech. My command of language is not enough.

Instead, I’m just going to tell the story of a few moments over the past two decades — probably not the ones you might think — and how they influenced not only my career, but my life.

Two of those moments were in Adak, Ak. One was in the war, and the last was in the Admiral’s office in DC.

Adak was an interesting place.

Adak was an interesting place. The land of the winds, they call it. I was sent there as an Ensign, straight out of CECOS. I was assigned to Public Works under then LCDR Gregory, now the Chief. Ray, Matt and I were the three original “Gregory Ensigns” and all three of us had jobs much larger than we were prepared for. As these things go, I was assigned the collateral duty of the PRT coordinator — 5% of the island’s population had failed the PRT, my primary job was to get them all back to full health. A few of them were repeat failures — hard to do on a one year posting.

In what has become a defining trait for me, I decided not to follow the standard PRT Coordinator script. I devised a plan to, in essence, rehabilitate these 30 failures. My idea was simple: lets train them to be healthy and help them get back on track.

LCDR Gregory, when she found out my plan, called me into her office to pretty much tell me to stop fooling around, hold remedial PT at 0500 every day, and punish those people for their laziness. Her idea was even more simple than mine, and was the presiding view of remedial PT at the time: make remedial PT so inconvenient and horrible that everyone would be dying to get out of it. At the time, the punishment perspective was the standard method for remedial PT and the PWO took her time to explain to me just how and why this was the only acceptable method for me to take.

I decided to stick to my plan. She was willing to let me fall on my sword.

We had classes on nutrition and weight loss. PT was held twice a day at shift changes, so everyone could make it and no one missed work. We even had psychological counseling in a couple cases. This was a lot of work, more than I could do on my own, so I empowered every department and division PRT coordinators on the island to help. We had a schedule. The end result was that everyone had a friend at remedial PT.

The program was a resounding success — a 100% graduation rate with no repeats. Ever. This method has since evolved of the last 20 years to become much more of the standard for the Navy’s remedial PT program.

This evolution taught me two things: The way it’s always been done doesn’t mean it’s the right way. And you’re never going to improve anything if you just keep doing the same thing.

I learned a lot of things in Adak, it was definitely an educating time. My first military posting, my first real job. It was an amazing experience.

One day during that tour, LCDR Gregory held a meeting in our small conference room. This was an unusual thing for her to do because she invited all of the Chiefs as well. So, it was Me, Matt and Ray and all of our Chiefs. The purpose of the meeting was we were three Ensigns and we were screwing up left and right. She wanted to instill on us to us that we needed to listen more to our chiefs and that the chiefs needed to be more engaged with the three of us. We needed to learn from their experiences. And, of course, I don’t know if either Matt, Ray, or I had any idea, really, what she was talking about because all of us, being fresh from college, really thought that we were geniuses and what could we possible have to learn from them. We did not know enough at that time to understand the importance of what she was trying to tell us.

At the time, I was the Safety Officer, which meant I didn’t have a chief assigned to me. So, sheepishly, I raised my hand and said “Ma’am, I don’t have a chief.”

A moment of silence ensued, and every one of the five chiefs at the table said, one by one, “I’m your chief, sir.” And in that moment, my Ensign Training started in earnest.

I’ll be honest, when I started I was pretty sure I was the worst Ensign in the Navy — it certainly seemed that way. Eventually, the five of them got so tired of telling me how much of an idiot I was all of the time that they elected a spokesman, SWC Parkhurst, who was, literally, the crustiest and grittiest chief that has ever lived, and they had him do it for them. And at the end of the day, every day, for the better part of a year, he came into my office, sat down, and proceeded to tell me how I had screwed up that day. Many things came up in those discussions. I don’t think, in my defense, that I ever made the same mistake twice, but I sure did make a lot of mistakes once…

Slowly, my naivete and college bubble eroded away and I learned. I learned the trades — they taught me carpentry, plumbing, welding, machining, and, what would come in handy later, even lockpicking. They taught me not only how to give orders, but also when they were needed and, more importantly, when they were not. They taught me how to trust those who worked under me. How to lead small units of technical professionals, and how to train new ones to take their place.

Eventually, shortly before I transferred to NMCB 74, Chief Parkhurst came into my office but he didn’t sit down. Instead he stood at the doorway. And he said something to me he had never said before: “You did good today, Ensign.” And then he walked off.

I will never forget that moment for as long as I live.

That informal training from a dedicated cadre of chiefs changed everything about me, impacting my view of leadership for the entirety of my career. I would not have been able to do the things I’ve done if I had not been given that gift, and I will be forever grateful for it. Too much these days we take a zero tolerance view towards officers — and even our enlisted to some extent. Perfection must be the norm. Failure is remembered, cataloged, quantified and eventually shows up on FITREPS or EVALS.

Ensigns needs strong chiefs to grow into strong officers. And they need the opportunity and the leeway to make mistakes — a lot of mistakes. I am convinced that there is no other way to learn our business. It can’t be taught in school. It can’t be lectured or taught online, and it doesn’t come naturally. Nothing about what we do in the service is natural.

Chiefs, the future strength of the Navy is in your hands, so find an Ensign and start swinging by their office at the end of the day to tell them how bad they dropped the ball. Start today. Twenty years from now they’ll thank you. Twenty days from now your troops will.

The war, as you would suspect, was a crazy time.

Many years passed, and those lessons from Adak helped me through several successful tours: two deployments with a Battalion, grad school, dive school, and three years with SUPSALV. In 2001, I was in DC and, after the attack, I spent three days at the Pentagon helping with the recovery and removing the bodies. I was in the Middle East a month later, getting a damaged warship back to sea. I watched the war on the news like many of us, and in March of 2004 I was deployed to Baghdad as an IA (Individual Augmentee for the civilians), and that is where the next defining moment took place.

The war, as you would suspect, was a crazy time. Especially during the days of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Which was the original government after the fall of Baghdad.

On my IA, I was assigned to one of the Senior Advisors — these were appointees of the President responsible for an aspect of the rebuilding of Iraq, accountable to L Paul Bremer himself, the highest authority in the country. They were very big fish, about a dozen of them. And mine was dirty.

It’s a real gut check when you face that. My predecessor knew, but advised me to steer clear of him. “Don’t take this guy on,” he said to me. “He’s too big. Just do what you can.” But, I couldn’t do that. Those who know me, I can’t stand idly by. It took about a week before I had enough circumstantial evidence to convince myself he was not kosher. After that, I moved quickly to get more. I found a young lawyer in the CPA counsel who believed me. She led me to a former staff member willing to talk. I told my fiancee, Lisa, about it. I told my Dad, warning him that this could go poorly. He told me to be careful, but to do what I felt was right. I told my Colonel at CJTF7, a British man at the end of his tour who was a very good guy, who advised me to be sure.

The DOD had just stood up a new IG office at the palace, and one of the agents was willing to talk to me. Statements were made. I observed, noted and reported. A case was built. Then, we struck. In less than an hour, the entire cabal was taken, their computers and records seized. It ended up being even worse than we had thought. A few days later, a one star Marine General summoned me to his office to tell me I was protected under the whistleblower protection act.

Yes, amongst many of the other things in my career, I was a whistle blower.

Standing up for your country isn’t always about feats of arms. It takes a different kind of bravery to put your career and reputation on the line. But that is what our democracy needs from time to time. If you see something that isn’t right, it’s our duty to correct it Our oath is to support and defend the constitution against all enemies — foreign and domestic. So please be mindful of where you are and what’s happening.

... not all of our billets are equal.

The last moment requires us to fast forward again. I returned from the war, thankfully in one piece. I married my fiancee and together we had three children. We’d bought our first house in Virginia and I was commuting to the Yard every day. And one morning, on our way to Ikea of all places, I received a very disappointing phone call.

It’s hard to talk about my career without touching on the fact that I was repeatedly passed over for Commander. It’s OK, it’s not like it’s a big secret or anything. I’m not ashamed of it. Disappointed, maybe, but not ashamed.

Being passed over once is pretty bad, but survivable. Once you’re passed over the second time, though, things start to go very poorly for you in the Navy. I don’t recommend it. Your detailing changes, doors are closed, whispers start. Why was I passed over? Hard to say, exactly, but the prevailing theory is that I didn’t do enough conventional tours in my community. Might just be because I’m a jerk, I don’t know. All those things are valid. There is no doubt I strayed very far from the standard career path. Doing so kept me from gaining some skills, many of which the CEC finds valuable, but it did hone others to a razor’s edge.

In November of 2011, oddly also on my anniversary, which seems to happen a lot for Lisa and I with the Navy, my particular set of skills were very much in need. I was called to resolve a very difficult situation, which my team and I were eventually able to do. It was a very high profile job, the details of which aren’t important, but the admiralty did have to be briefed. At the conclusion, a very grateful Fleet wanted to “correct” my being passed over, but to do so would be a fairly big investment of, shall we say, FITREP capital. It was going to take a silver bullet — and more than one. They wanted NAVFAC’s support on it. So, I met with the Chief (not our current one) to get his support for one last push at promotion.

He said “no.”

He was polite about it, forthright and honest. I did, and still do, respect him for that. But, his words will stick with me for a long time — a very long time. He said, “It’s obvious that you’re great at what you do, but what you do has no value to the CEC. I can’t support you for promotion, knowing I would have to push out someone else. Someone who’s done everything that we’ve asked.”

I thanked him, we shook hands, and that was the end of it.

I never took a billet that wasn’t on the rolls. Everything I did in my career was an actual billet in the Civil Engineer Corps. But, we have an unwritten rule, and that is not all of our billets are equal. I think we, as a community, need to revisit that assumption. If we don’t feel a billet has value for both our Navy and our officers, then we shouldn’t have it on the rolls. No one should be sent to a career ender. Or, in my cause, a combination of career enders, quite frankly as I’ve had a lot of dive tours, I mean let’s be honest. It shouldn’t be our billet that defines us, but our performance while in that position.

I don’t say this to try and cover up my failures in any way. I say it because we need diversity in our service — now more than ever. Not only diversity of culture but diversity of ideas, of experience.

There is an old saying in the military when it comes to promotion: “Ducks pick ducks.” We need to broaden out beyond mallards and appleyards and start picking some swans and gulls — maybe even a few hawks and owls, if you get my meaning. We need fresh perspectives, new ideas, and out of the box thinking if we want to continue to serve the needs of the fleet in the future.

And that’s it. That is my wisdom after 20 years. Take with it what you will. I’ve had a lot of moments in my career, many more than those four, but i think that those four, when you really boil it down, are what defined my career more than any others.

  1. Solve the actual problem. Don’t go in with an existing solution.
  2. Train the next generation. I can’t tell you how important that is.
  3. Maintain your principles. ‘Cause you’re gonna need them.
  4. And foster diversity, because the service needs it.

Before I end this speech and we move on to the end of our ceremony and have some cake, there is one last thing I’d like to say. Some of you may know this, but today is not just the day I retire from the service, but my 10th wedding anniversary as well. On this day in 2004, Lisa and I were literally right over there, possibly at this very moment, barely a mile from this spot, in the Seabee Chapel making our vows to each other in front of God and country and family.

We had no idea of the journey we were about to undertake, only that we wanted to take it together. There is No One I would rather have had by my side these last ten years, and I am so looking forward to having you by my side for the rest.

I love you now more than ever.

I am now ready to read and receive my orders.


Story written by Rob McClellan

Rob is the founder of ThirdScribe, a unique author services platform and social network. As a naval officer and diver, he spent a majority of his career doing a lot more than you would think with a lot less than you can imagine -- a skill that has proven extremely valuable in the start-up world. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Google+.


  1. Thanks for sharing with the world, Rob. I forwarded this our youngest son. 16 1/2 year, career Army E7 who has been doing an E8 job so long , his friends who have gotten out sometimes call him Master Sergeant without realizing their mistake. His dream as an eight-year-old boy was to one day a Command Sergeant Major. Now, after 4 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly dying in his Buffalo truck outside Baghdad, receiving a combat bronze star, doing what Forward Observers do, and watching too many die in Helmand Province, and then learning too many time the boards aren’t promoting any E7s with his classification (better luck next year), he would still gladly deploy again if he could just rejoin his beloved 10th Mountain. There is so much he cannot tell me now and may never want to tell me. All I need to know is that he and his family are together, back home, and for the first time in 13 years reasonably close to us. BTW: I’m watching the Blue Angels from my study window. We live just 2 miles north of the NAS Pensacola and 2 blocks from The Center for Information Dominance (better known as Corry Station). My boy bleeds Army but he forgives me for bleeding a little Navy, Marine, Air Force, and Coast Guard (they’re all here) too.

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