They’re In The Army Now: Sailors Fighting As Soldiers

The Navy has expanded its traditional role by augmenting the Army and Marine Corps with sailors who fill infantry positions alongside soldiers. With 27 years in service, Master Chief Pat Flavin takes on the new job of command master chief of Naval Central Command in Iraq.

He spoke recently with Tribune correspondent MyLinh Shattan about the Navy’s increased responsibilities in Iraq.

What’s your assignment? I have oversight of several thousand sailors that are stationed in Iraq to fight the global war on terror. I go out and about to ensure their needs are being met and they understand what they’re doing here. I also reach back to their commands stateside to ensure that they’re all right and being taken care of, and that they’re doing a fine job.

Where are you? Baghdad, the Al Faw Palace. I’ve been here 3 1/2 months now on a one-year tour. It’s my first time to Iraq.

How is the Navy’s role changing in Iraq? The greatest issue for the Navy is to help out our sister services as needed. Since it’s a ground war, we’re willing to change our mission role. The majority of our sailors, other than our ground-type sailors, like Seabees and SEALs, have become individual augmentees, and they augment the Army or the Marine Corps. That frees up soldiers so they don’t have to do a third or fourth rotation over here. The sailors fall under the unit they’re assigned to, whether it’s the 101st Airborne or and an administrative job at the Al Faw Palace.The greatest challenge that I end up having to deal with is a cultural difference between Army and Navy. You can put it any way you want, but this is an Army show. This isn’t what the Navy trained for. I explain these cultural clashes to the sailors – how the Army does it and how we do it. Ninety percent of the soldiers get it, and there’s 10 percent that don’t.

How many sailors are in traditional vs. infantry roles? There are probably about half traditional roles; other half are augmentees. Maybe there are a few more individual augmentees. In the past, during WWII, we used sailors as infantry, but not perhaps to the extent today.

What’s the best part of your deployment? Without a shadow of a doubt, the way that the sailors have stepped up to take on nontraditional roles. I’ve never been more proud to be in the Navy. I see sailors in areas that they never trained for; we give them a little combat training and they use their leadership to deal with the different missions. Like people who track submarines are now out there in a combat role. You would never know that their skill set was to track submarines. It’s just incredible how they adapted and overcame.

Tell us about your home and family. My home is Corpus Christi, Texas, where my family lives. I have five kids. The oldest is a 19-year-old in the Navy, and my daughter should be going in [the Navy] in the next six months or so.

Have you seen much of the insurgency? Only issues I’ve encountered is being mortared or rocketed a few times in different FOBs [forward operating bases]. I have traveled in convoys but not had any contact in my travels. I’ve seen stuff on the ground as I’ve been flying over, but nothing compared to what some of these soldiers have seen. And, by the way, I feel very fortunate about that. [He laughs.]

What’s the reaction from Iraqi people? I haven’t had much interaction with the Iraqi people. Other than one time – I took a bunch of medical books out to a women’s medical school where they were teaching women to become doctors. That interaction was extremely positive. The doctor was just beside herself that she got these books. It was kind of a fluke. I was going that way and we had these publications and books. The [school] was very happy about that.

Can the Iraqis achieve a democratic government? You know it’s been touchy here lately. I know they’re getting a lot of support from us. The soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen are supporting the country however they can. If they continue to keep the momentum going, I think it can work.

What’s the timeline for withdrawal? We don’t go by a timeline; we go by accomplishment and milestones. And once we hit certain milestones is when we know we can move on to the next objective. If that takes years or months, we won’t move on until we hit those milestones. In today’s environment with the Internet and news, [people] know what’s going on. When the time comes is when we’ll go, not a minute before.

How’s the morale of the troops? Only issue I’ve had with morale is that a sailor would like to be doing more. Never heard them say flat-out, “This is bad.” Most sailors’ expectation of coming to Iraq is different when they get here. Maybe they’ve watched too many movies. And it’s not like the movies. Once their expectations aren’t met, it’s a little bit of an issue getting them to come back around. [They] work long hours, don’t take days off. And they do a lot of the same stuff over and over again.

I tell you one thing, the food is great. MWR [Morale, Welfare & Recreation services] is unbelievable; they will bend over backwards. They have computer access, weight rooms, entertainment, USO shows all the time. It’s not that the people in the States have forgotten. Care packages are coming all the time.

Housing is like a trailer park with concrete walls. They live four to a room. Sailors say it’s not bad – better than living on a ship – a lot more room. They have morale calls (15 to 20 minutes to call home) and Internet access.

What is it you’d like the American people to know? The caliber of people that we have in the military today is so high, so professional. I get out there and see them go out on a mission and no matter what it is, they stay focused. I talk to them and I am inspired by their level of bravery and commitment in this war. I’m very proud to serve alongside them.

Has anything taken you by surprise? It’s kind of a surreal world here. In a [forward operating base], walking around from the gym, the mess hall, the USO is playing rock or country music. Then, you’ll look down the street and there’s a convoy getting ready to go out. And then you walk another block and there’s a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Burger King, and then you hear an explosion in the background. It’s just surreal.

Aug 27, 2006

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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