Forging a team: Sailors of the USS Oscar Austin go through the ‘crucible’

New sailors on USS Oscar Austin drill on firefighting as part of the destroyer's unusual "crucible" orientation. (US Navy photo/TNS)

When Chief Petty Officer Andrew Blalock reported to the USS Oscar Austin, where he was to be the leading chief petty officer for the engineering department, he could tell right away there was something different about his third ship.

After a five-week orientation capped by the ship’s unusual “crucible” — scenarios on firefighting, first aid, active shooters and navigating the tight passageways and small compartment doors of a destroyer, even through dark and blinding smoke — he knew what it was.

Everyone on the Austin goes through the crucible — Blalock went through with a commissioned officer, along with Petty Officer 3rd class Leslie S. Stephens, reporting to his first ship and another sailor fresh out of boot camp.

“On a destroyer, we all have different technical skills, and I know I’ll probably see everyone at some point … you know who they are. It’s knowing we’re all in this together,” he said.

“Your first ship, it can be intimidating,” Stephens said. “You learn a lot of this in boot camp, but I ended up feeling a lot more confident.”

And a lot more confident in his shipmates, he said.

Doing that earns the Austin’s crew-member patch. It features the star of Congressional Medal of Honor of the ship’s namesake, Marine Corps Private First Class Oscar Austin. Though seriously injured by shrapnel from a grenade when he shielded a fellow Marine, Austin was hit by a spray of bullets when he tried again to shield his comrade during a North Vietnamese attack on their observation post near Danang in 1969. Austin died, his fellow Marine survived, eventually to become an officer.

The idea of the crucible is to focus on the basics that all sailors need to know, as well as some of the special challenges that come with life on one of the Navy’s workhorse destroyers, said Command Master Chief Clayton Alek-Finkelman. His senior enlisted sailor leadership team refined the idea shortly after he reported to the Austin two years ago.

At the time, the destroyer was in the shipyard for repairs after a devastating electrical fire, and Alek-Finkelman wanted to make sure sailors didn’t lose their edge.

“They say every sailor is a firefighter. After 9/11, we’re all anti-terrorist fighters. These days, we need to know what to do about an active shooter,” he said. “Every sailor needs to know how to defend the ship.”

But unlike bigger ships, destroyers don’t have separate security departments. Nor do they have the kind of sick bay facilities that an aircraft carrier, amphibious assault ship or cruiser boast. One element of the crucible is a medical emergency scenario. The Austin’s crucible also features multi-hour scenarios on firefighting, on repelling a terror attack and on what to do in an emergency.

“You’ve got to know your way in the dark, or when you can’t see because of the smoke; where to find the EEBD (emergency escape breathing device) and getting to safety with that 10 minutes of air. And then, how to save the ship,” Alek-Finkelman said.

“Step 1 is to survive. Then, step 2 is to keep the ship afloat.”

A few weeks back, two new sailors called on their just-rehearsed first aid lessons when a contractor working on the ship fell, suffering a severe head injury.

They had him stabilized, called for help, and had the injured worker headed to the hospital in minutes, said Petty Officer 1st Class Travis Mosley, an Austin hospital corpsman.

The scenarios end up as learning experiences for all participants, as well as the senior sailors who design them, said Petty Officer 1st Class Gerald R Riebe, who coordinates the crucible’s anti-terrorism training. That includes participants with years of experience or those like Stephens, a cryptologic technician who’s trained in some of the newest specialized skills the Navy demands.

“Sometimes, you know to let a shipmate with a particular skill set take the lead, sometimes, you have to lead because of where you are and what you see,” said Alek-Finkelman.

“We need leaders at all levels.”

For the Austin’s captain, Cmdr. Matt Krull, the payoff is the bonding and teamwork that results.

And when one sailor sees another with that patch, “It means no matter where you’re going to be or who you’re with, you know they’ve been through it, and that you can draw on their strength and you together can do what needs doing,” he said.

That’s really the point of the crucible, Alek-Finkelman said as he thinks about the changes he’s seen over the course of his career. That includes tours in the small craft of river and harbor patrols in the Middle East and time as a special warfare sailor on a Special Boat Team and all the things he’s learned as the senior enlisted sailor on the Austin.

“Our adversaries have the ships, they can bring the guns. We have the tough sailors,” he said. “It’s sailors who give us our edge.”


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