Navy Briefing of the Week – OCS

My Friday feature is back! Navy life from the girlfriend’s point of view 🙂 Please forgive me for the abscence of this feature the past two weeks. I try to do actual research and fact checking for these posts, and my time home in Wisconsin just didn’t allow for that kind of diligence. But I’m back with a big ‘un this week!

Becoming a naval officer is not as simple as getting sucked into a marathon of America’s Next Top Model on Oxygen. Despite the common perception that the U.S. military is desperate for bodies, the Navy places relatively high standards on men and women applying to be commissioned as naval officers. There are three routes to a Navy commission – graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, participating in ROTC during college (Reserve Officer Training Corps), or attending Officer Candidate School (OCS) once you’ve received a degree.

NavyGuy became an officer through the third option – OCS. After being accepted into the Navy program for training flight officers (different from pilots, but we’ll get to that some other time), he headed down to Naval Air Station Pensacola* (the base in P’cola) for twelve weeks of training. At the end of those twelve weeks, provided he passed all the inspections, completed rigorous physical training exercises, and didn’t – you know – die, he’d be commissioned into the U.S. Navy as an officer.

NavyGuy’s training took an extra month. When he checked into OCS, they informed him he had 2% too much body fat, which I attribute to my well-intentioned road trip food snack food… mmmm… Scotcheroos. That meant he was assigned to a holding group, known as “H-class,” before he could start with the real training. During that time he worked out like a crazy person and was able to start his official training a few weeks later. (Point in fact – if you’d ever like to seriously lose weight, forget The Biggest Loser. Just join the Navy. In the 15 weeks NavyGuy was training he lost a grand total of 50 pounds. My mother is still jealous.)

(Evening “PT” physical training… can you find NavyGuy in the group?)

OCS is kind of like Survivor. (Yes, I know I’m invoking many a TV show, but it’s the only way I understand most of this stuff.) The officer candidates are put through mental and phsyical stress to train their minds and bodies to thrive in chaotic situations. I used to think that the aim was to “break” candidates, and turn them into mindless drones or sheep who would just follow orders. Not true. OCS is intended to build the leaders of the Navy; people who will use their training and experience to make decisions and guide enlisted men and women.

To prepare officers though, they go through incredibly stressful and exhausting experiences. Aside from the physical demands (running, fitness tests, innumerable push-ups in pits of sand, etc.), candidates are expected to endure strict routines and procedures for everything from how they eat to what they wear. Clothing, lockers, and beds must pass uber anal-retentive inspections (to instill attention to detail) and meals are taken following crazy requirements. For example, candidates are only allowed to eat using a spoon; NavyGuy managed to eat both steak and fried chicken with a dull spoon. Candidates are not allowed to talk at all during meals, must sit at attention the whole time, and have to hold their cups a certain way. All of these inane rules boggled me at first, but everything is designed to help potential officers learn to deal with stress. Suffering through meals doesn’t seem nearly as stressful compared to taking enemy fire or trying to deal with an accident on a nuclear submarine… both of which are the types of scenarios for which OCS is trying to prepare candidates.

Other hardships? You’re cut off from emotional support. NavyGuy was allowed to call me once a week, for a short time on Sunday morning (I used to joke that he was my prison boyfriend). Candidates are only allowed liberty (time off base) sporadically, and only if certain criteria have been met (ex. the first time I tried to visit NavyGuy on a weekend, his class was denied liberty on Friday night because one person in his class hadn’t passed an inspection… I was a little perturbed).

(Inspection time.)

It’s draining for the candidate obviously, but to be honest, it’s also draining for loved ones. I worried about him constantly. I feared he’d come back changed, a different man. Maybe a man I no longer felt connected to. OCS is an incredibly intense experience, and not all couples last through it. NavyGuy and I were one of the lucky ones. He came back to me not so much changed, but having grown, which all of us should be doing throughout our lives (well, his waistline changed, but a few more pans of Scotcheroos righted that difference).

At the end of OSC, there are several ceremonies and rituals (the topic of a future post). All of the candidate’s hard work pays off with a commission in the United States Navy. And then the real work begins… 😉

P.S. Most of you are actually probably familiar with OCS and just don’t know it. If you’ve seen the 1980s movie An Officer and a Gentleman with Richard Gere and Debra Winger, you’ve seen a glimpse of Hollywood’s version of OCS. Gere’s character is an officer candidate at a fictional base; the film is a great romance, but there’s no way the candidates get that much time off in real life. However, they do look that good in their dress whites 🙂

*OCS is no longer held at NAS Pensacola. Beginning in 2007, OCS moved to Newport, Rhode Island, its original home.

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