By Cmdr. Justin Harts
Commanding officer, USS Benfold (DDG 65)
A few days ago, I was asked to contribute to the Navy Live blog to describe what it was like commanding a U.S. warship during a rare port visit to China and to share my thoughts with people about life in the Navy. This is my first blog so here it goes…
USS Benfold is an amazing warship filled with advanced combat systems, yet none of those matters without our greatest asset in the United States Navy: The American Sailor. Beyond their ability to skillfully operate complex warships and weapons systems, their greatest contribution to national defense is as ambassadors for the American people overseas. I am proud to serve in the Navy, and count myself incredibly lucky to have been provided the opportunity to get to work with some of the most dedicated folks in the world. We have the honor of defending the country and preserving the peace – most of the time this means setting the conditions necessary to ensure we never have to use the weapons we train with every day. As far back as the 1790s, our Navy has operated forward to protect the interests of the United States abroad. This heritage bred a culture where every Sailor became an ambassador, and that tradition is alive and well today.
Since the guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold left China on August 12, I’ve had a little time to put the visit in perspective. You may find it strange that after 22 years in uniform, all of that time operationally in the Pacific; this was my first time in visiting the People’s Republic of China. A quick search of Navy.mil showed that our port visit was going to be the fourth U.S. Navy warship visit to Qingdao in the last 10 years. To the crew and me, this was a very big deal.
At first glance, a U.S. warship is a formidable machine filled with some awesome technology and weaponry. Visitors tend to focus on statistics like – how fast does the ship go, how much does it weigh, how far do the missiles go? The physical ship though is just one piece of the equation and is not whole without the soul imparted by the hundreds of young Americans who bring all those pieces together. Simply put, the ship is just a bunch of steel, wires, and mechanical boxes without the 300 Sailors that bring her to life.
For my part, my role in this ecosystem is pretty easy. I’m like the head coach of a professional sports team. I don’t have to be an expert at every position. I just provide direction, encouragement, priorities and set the cadence. Then, I trust the superstars to play their positions. Most of the time, I hold on for dear life, trying to keep up with this all-star team. Sometimes my job is to rein them in; most of the time it’s to simply let them go, tweaking the margins to keep the ship pointed in the right direction to meet the mission at hand.
In this case, Benfold’s mission was to conduct a port visit Qingdao, but unlike most port visits, this one was filled with official visits, receptions, admirals and the U.S. ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. The goal of our mission was to build relationships, increase goodwill and foster cooperation between our two nations. I am proud to say that 300 of America’s finest Sailors accomplished much of this.
As I said, my job is pretty easy. Leadership isn’t so much about delivering an Oscar-winning performance in some Hollywood movie. It’s about fostering trust and focusing 300 perspectives and good ideas in one direction. Luckily, I don’t have to look far to see leaders throughout the ship, and they aren’t just in the wardroom or the Chief’s Mess, but across all our junior ranks. For example, I was tasked with providing the U.S. ambassador to China with an overview of the ship’s mission. Easy day, I simply set up a meeting between the ambassador and Sailors from Benfold’s Coalition of Sailors Against Destructive Decisions, Junior Enlisted Association, Gay, Lesbian and Supportive Sailors, and First Class Petty Officer’s Association. Then I left. The Sailors told the ship’s story and explained the ship’s mission in their own terms with a street credibility I will never possess.
Ashore in Qingdao, Sailors from Benfold were invited to participate in several sporting events pitted against players from the People’s Liberation Army/Navy (PLA (N)) as a means of fostering goodwill. I watched as our American Sailors reorganized the rules of engagement during a basketball game, mixing the teams so that there were players from both countries on each team. One of the American Sailors said that mixing up the teams made it more about “all of us” than about “us versus them”. Diplomacy is in their blood. At the end of a similar soccer match, players from both countries joked around and traded photos of each other, hats, belt buckles, Zippos, or anything with logos as mementos.
There is something special about a warship port visit. It sends the right message. A formidable weapon at sea that becomes a venue to build relationships when tied to the pier during port visits like this one. 300 American service members were turned loose in China for four days and I’m proud to say they were perfect guests. In addition to sports, more than 200 attended receptions, toured each other’s ships, and participated in an outreach project at an orphanage. They made friends and proved the point that Sailors are Sailors regardless of their country.
So what did I learn? The world is not that big. Countries are not that far apart. Even if the populations of those countries are very large, there are really just a handful of people serving in their navies who serve in the same way we do. Our experience proved this. We watched our PLA (N) counterparts exhibit the same frustrations and excitement that we experienced during the planning and execution of a search and rescue event that we both participated in at the end of our visit. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson recently said, “These are important times for our two navies and for maritime forces throughout the region. As we seek to learn from each other, there is no substitute for these types of face-to-face meetings.” I cannot agree more.
At the end of the visit, we knew that American Sailors and Chinese sailors are as close as any other sailors on the high seas, and that the relationships we built at the junior Sailor level were critical to peace and stability throughout the region. In the end, Benfold played its part of the whole, acting as both a symbol of our nation and as ambassador to faraway lands helping build the bonds between countries.