ABOARD THE LITTORAL COMBAT SHIP MILWAUKEE, NORTH ATLANTIC — If you see a chief swabbing the deck or are tugging in the ship's mooring lines alongside your division officer, chances are you're on a littoral combat ship.
While some of these elements can be found on board smaller ships like coastal patrol ships and minesweepers, the do-it-yourself ethos of LCS sailors stands in stark contrast to the rigid hierarchy in the surface Navy, where enlisted bus officer's dirty dishes and clean up their staterooms.
Consider the multiple roles of Electronics Technician 1st Class (SW) David Miller. His primary job is keeping communications networks, data links and electronic navigation systems running. He's a line handler during boat launches and recoveries, which can occur a few times a day. And he's the "hot suit man" on the helicopter crash and salvage team — a job that requires him to dress in a flashy suit built to withstand the inferno of a helo's wreckage.
“We're different," said Cmdr. Ken Bridgewater, the commanding officer of crew 104. "We're different in that we leverage technology. But in order to successfully do that, you have to have the proper training so when you show up on day one, you are a value added to the crew. We don't really have a lot of time for on-the-job training, you have to show up ready to go."
Just how different LCS' crew operates became apparent during a five-day journey from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Norfolk, Virginia, all part of crew 104's trip to sail the ship from shipbuilder Marinette Marine based in Wisconsin to Mayport, Florida, where they'll hand it off to crew 108. Milwaukee is the third of the Freedom-class littoral combat ships.
Across the fleet, sailors do more than just their rate — such as firefighting, seamanship and first aid. But on LCS, the ultra-lean manning creates a kind of super-sailor, where crewmembers take on jobs out of their rate and above their pay grade.
Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Renee Hotchkiss, who is aboard with Milwaukee’s oncoming crew 108, acts as her crew's "Doc" during sick calls and as a safety observer during hazardous evolutions. She also stands watch on the bridge and is working towardbecoming a qualified junior officer of the deck.
Her assistant, the "baby doc" who is typically a junior hospital corpsman, is instead a fire controlman fist class who can treat wounds and set-up intravenous drips — while still keeping the rolling airframe missile system working.
Standard evolutions frequently are all-hands affairs. Deliveries of food, mail and parts by helicopter may require half of a 330-person cruiser crew. For the Milwaukee's crew of 57, it takes every soul to hump ammo to the magazine and boxes of lettuce to the refrigeration decks.
"On LCS, every evolution is an all-hands evolution," said Lt. j.g. William Foster, the first lieutenant in charge of deck division. "For something like an [underway replenishment], it takes the entire crew. Flight quarters, same thing, it takes the whole crew."
Watch positions are also consolidated for the pint-sized crew. Senior Chief Damage Controlman(SW) Tommy Thompson is crew 104’s “top snipe" and the damage control assistant, a post held on other ships by a second-tour division officer. He stands engineering officer of the watch from a remote console on the bridge and controls the the propulsion plant, the auxiliary equipment (such as the fresh water systems), the electrical plant, and damage control systems — usually the job of three or four watches on other ships.
On most other ships, Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class (SW) James Fitzpatrick would have an entire division of seamen and boatswain's mates to handle the lines, drop the anchor and chip and paint running rust. On the Milwaukee, he has three boatswain's mates.
He relies on a motley crew of gunner's mates, electronics technicians and fire controlmen to complete the jobs.
Miller, the ET1, is typical of LCS sailors. He's served in the Navy for 14 years; the average age of crew 104 sailors is 33. And he's had experience on another LCS deployment.
"The deployment was really fast-paced," Miller said. "Wake up in the morning, first thing you are doing is flight quarters. You're at flight quarters all day, then you come down to the mess decks to try and get some food.
“Then maybe Link 16 is down. I go troubleshoot in my hot-main-suit in radar. Then I’ll probably have the night watch. Then you try and get some sleep. But then you might have UNREP so I’m up there as line handlers and because we're such a small crew, everybody is a part of it. It’s a lot.”
The break-neck pace of life on a deployed LCS is the most challenging part of serving on the newest surface combatant, said Information Systems Technician 2nd Class Stephanie Aldrete.
"We're always busy,” Aldrete said. “It's just thing after thing after thing. You get used to doing one thing and you switch to something else."
For many though, the hard days are about more than just getting the job done — it's a mission to show the fleet that the LCS model works.
"It's hard not to be excited about it," said Gas Turbine System Technician (Mechanical) 1st Class Johnathan Hovinga. "Every day it's about proving that this can work, that you can do it with fewer people. That's where the Navy is going."
The skipper said the non-stop pace has to be taken into account when setting schedules to avoid grinding down the crew.
"It's all about delegating, giving department heads and division officers the authority to [manage] sleep," Bridgewater said. "It's about looking at the plan of the day, see what's coming, see what's happening tomorrow.
“We do that a lot at the operational level. When the operations officer is putting together the plan of the week, we've got to make sure we put some space in there to give the crew time to recover.”
‘Everybody knows everybody’
When you ask LCS sailors what they like about LCS, almost all of them mention forming close bonds.
“The best part about it is the camaraderie,” Miller said. “Everybody knows everybody. It's not uncommon to see the [command master chief], the CO or XO, stopping somebody in the [passageway] and having a personal conversation with them. That's definitely the best part about it.”
Aldrete agreed, saying that the bonds she’s formed with the crew makes up, in some ways, for the frenetic pace set by minimal manning.
“It is a challenge because it’s a small crew, but you know everybody,” she said. “You’re comfortable around them, you trust everyone to teach you what they know.”
The crew’s slim numbers and maturity has yielded a somewhat amazing statistic: Since Bridgewater took over as crew 104’s executive officer in 2013, there hasn’t been a single captain’s mast case.
“You don’t have those miniature cliques where sailors can go off and start getting into things that can get them in trouble,” Bridgewater said.
Part of that bond comes from shared experiences. Many sailors pointed to seeing chiefs and officers haul lines, sweep brooms and bus their own dishes as something that brings the crew closer together. On LCS, even the commanding officer has to clear his own dishes.
"Everybody has a job to do and everybody's got to pull their own weight," Bridgewater said. "It's the least I can do as CO to spray my own tray off and throw it in the dishwasher — I have no problem with that whatsoever.
"On all ships, manpower is a very limited, finite resource that you have to take care off, it's just amplified on LCS. We don't have any extra people to do [food-service attendant] duty and take care of some of that stuff.”
For sailors, the sight of higher-ups doing the dirty work makes a big impression.
“It’s surprising to see a chief or officer, you know, you’ll see them around the ship with a foxtail and dustpan, cleaning up,” said Culinary Specialist 2nd Class (SW) Jerald Lagae. “I think it makes us feel more like a family. I wouldn’t say it makes us all equal, but it does make us more tight-knit to know that they are doing the same things we are. They aren’t too high to clean up after themselves.
“You know, it’s the little things.”