Naval Iron(y)

Naval Iron(y)

When I enlisted in the Navy in the summer of 1986, I really didn’t know much about what I wanted to do.  I thought maybe avionics would be interesting (my father, after all, had been a fire control technician in the Air Force for 20 years), but I would have to wait months for the A-School to have an opening and spend my time as a boatswain’s mate in the meantime.  No thanks.  So, I signed up as an Operations Specialist – operating radar and tactical data systems.

But months after arriving on board my first command, the U.S.S. Haleakala (AE-25), I learned of a chance to do a collateral duty as ship’s photographer.  When growing up, I had this little Kodak Instamatic X-15 camera that I took everywhere; even saved it from drowning when I fell in the creek back home on a summer adventure. I thought that learning how to be a photographer would be fun.  So, I volunteered to take on the role as Ship’s Photographer and immediately went to the base exchange to buy my first single lens reflex (SLR) camera: a Minolta X-700.  I really didn’t know anything about setting exposures and taking pictures.  Fortunately, the Navy sent me to a naval base in Yokosuka, Japan, to attend Intelligence Photography School.  In a few weeks, I learned exposure control, the basics of composition, and how to develop my own black and white film – Kodak Tech Pan 2415 film. It was also around that time I took on another complimentary collateral duty – the role of Enlisted Intelligence Assistant, which elevated my Secret clearance to Top Secret.  I would become an integral part of the intelligence gathering capacity of our ship when we encountered Soviet craft.

But my role as a photographer on the Haleakala went beyond leading the “Snoopy Team” to photograph and document encounters with Soviet aircraft and ships; it became a way of life that consumed me during my times off watch or when in port and we had “knocked off ship’s work.”  I was called upon to photograph re-enlistment ceremonies, fire drills, visiting Admirals, and whatever else was needed.  I beamed with pride to see my first photo published in the Apra Harbor Naval Station (Guam) newspaper: a shot of a Soviet AGI we had encountered out at sea.  I even photographed my first wedding, a traditional Navy wedding on the signal bridge of the ship, officiated by the ship’s Commanding Officer.

When I transferred to my second command, a Spruance Class destroyer named the U.S.S. David R. Ray (DD-971), I continued to serve as Ship’s Photographer, but in a much expanded capacity.  The David R. Ray had just completed a long drydock period to convert her forward box launchers to a new vertical launch system (VLS) to accommodate her new contingent of Tomahawk missiles.  A lengthy sea trial period followed, where we tested the Tomahawk land attack missiles (TLAMs) and Tomahawk anti-ship missiles (TASMs).  We also tested a new Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) launching system.  And all along, part of my job was to document the testing.  It was amazing what I was capable of doing with a manual focus lens and no motor drive – just the manual crank to advance my film.  I was also tasked with taking the new post-drydock official photo of the ship – from the open door of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter.  And again, ceremonies, visitors, ports of call; all came part of my growing development as a photographer, as a photojournalist.

My passion for photography had grown so much, it lead me to the inevitable conclusion: I needed to cross-rate from Operations Specialist to Photographer’s Mate. And the timing was perfect.  It was coming time for me to re-enlist, the natural time to make the change from one rating to another. If I had stayed on as an Operations Specialist, I would have collected a re-enlistment bonus of $17,500, would have made E-6 within a year, and would only have to re-enlist for four years.  In contrast, my re-enlistment to become a Photographer’s Mate would have been a mandatory six years, I would essentially have to start all over as an E-5 (and thus greatly extend my advancement to E-6), and there would be no re-enlistment bonus.  It was an easy decision; I wanted to be a photographer full-time. But there was one catch.  Cross-rate switches from a low CREO (Career Re-Enlistment Objective) group to a high CREO group was automatic.  But crossing from a high one to a low one – that is, from Operations Specialist to Photographer’s Mate – would have required special consideration.  My Executive Officer, who despised Operations personnel, refused to submit the paperwork: “It’s a waste of the Navy’s time,” he said.  This he said to a sailor who had been selected as Junior Sailor of the Year on his first command, was awarded Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist status as a Petty Officer Third Class (unheard of in 1988), and had been awarded the Navy Achievement Medal.  “A waste of the Navy’s time.”  With that, I left the Navy, took my GI Bill, and went to college.

While I did not major in photography when I attended college after leaving the Navy, I took some classes and continued to develop as a photographer.  After college, I worked for a national portrait company as well as a local sports photography company.  I delved into nature photography as a result of working for two summers as a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota.  And then, in Law School, I was shooting freelance for the University of Minnesota campus paper as well as being the lead photographer and photo editor for the Law School newspaper.  And then, in 1999, I moved to Alaska – more than a decade after I had volunteered to serve as Ship’s Photographer on the Haleakala.

And over the decade that followed, my photography exploded. I started my own photography business and provided photo services for many clients, from local businesses to the internationally famous Tony Robbins.  I captured portraits and preserved the wonder of weddings.  I photographed hundreds of sporting events, from every high school sport played in Anchorage, to the Iditarod and the Great Alaska Shootout, to serving as the team photographer to Alaska’s first professional football team, the Alaska Wild.

My photography work took me from the southeast of the state in Juneau to the farthest reaches north of the oil fields of the North Slope.  And along the way, I was never denied access.  I was able to acquire the necessary media credentials to photograph in the restricted areas for the Iditarod and the Great Alaska Shootout, to access military installations such as Fort Richardson and Elemendorf Air Force Base.  I was even granted access to the most restricted region of the entire state of Alaska – the oilfields of the North Slope inside the British Petroleum security zone.  I even had the pleasure of serving the Navy again, capturing crew portraits of the U.S.S. Peleliu (LHA-5) as she transited from San Diego to Pearl Harbor.

But I haven’t just had a diverse photographic career with an impressive client list, I am slowly building a strong list of publications, awards and artist residencies.

So, when the Office of the Major of Anchorage sent out an invitation for the media to attend a briefing and receive media credentials for the arrival and commissioning of the U.S.S. Anchorage (LPD-23), I jumped at the opportunity. I attended the briefing, took copious notes, collected a media briefing packet, and looked forward to having the access to document the first Navy vessel ever commissioned in my new home state.  It seemed a perfect merging of my photographic origins and where my photography has taken me – to Alaska – with great credit to the opportunity that the Navy provided me so many years ago.

And then, the Navy dropped another bowling ball on my head.  I received an email later that day from a Navy PAO (Public Affairs Officer) telling me that unless I was employed by credentialed media (like a newspaper), I would not be granted media access to the ship.  I wrote her back, told her I was a professional photographer represented by Alaska Stock – Alaska’s premiere photo stock agency – and that I was a Navy veteran who had served as a ship’s photographer.  She wrote me back, thanked me for my service, and told me I could try my luck with the other 285,000 people living in Anchorage for a shot at 4,000 tickets to have access to the commissioning ceremony.  All of the tickets were gone the first day they were available, given out at a time I was unable to even attempt to get any.

When I read the Anchorage Daily Newsaccount of the commissioning ceremony, I read of the proud Navy veterans who live in Anchorage and were able to attend the ceremony.  Well, here is one proud Navy veteran who owes his career as a photographer to the Navy, and I was specifically told to stay away.  How’s that for irony – and twice in my life that the Navy has not only denied me opportunity, but denied itself the opportunity to reap the fruits of its own investment in me.  And, quite frankly, from the published photos I have seen of the Anchorage and the commissioning ceremony, the Navy would have been wise to let me come on board.

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