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At sea with Penn State’s admiral

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17 October 2018

USS John C. Stennis  with a Ticonderoga-class cruiser.
USS John C. Stennis with a Ticonderoga-class cruiser.

When I went into Rear Admiral Ron Boxall’s spartan office aboard the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier, I saw four clocks on one wall, indicating the current time around the globe—below one set of digital numbers (14:32) read “Japan”; a second set, “Bahrain” (7:32); the third, “San Diego” (22:32). The fourth (1:32) read “Penn State.”

No wonder. Boxall has been devoted to Penn State for thirty-five years now, just as long as he has been devoted to service in the Navy. A three-sport athlete in high school in the upstate New York hamlet of Holland Patent, he came to University Park in the fall of 1980 to prepare for a naval career and to make the most of his Penn State experience while he was at it. By the time he graduated in 1984 with a major in science and his commission as a naval officer, he had taken part in intramural sports, participated in Greek life, led the Lion’s Legion cheerleading squad, sung in the Glee Club, and busied himself in who knows what other extracurriculars. It’s all documented in the yearbooks.

And he got a solid B in my English 10 class: his work on his final two assignments showed that he had, to use one of his favorite phrases, “figured it out.” (Today his grade would be B+, but in those days there was no plus-minus grading.) Now that Boxall commands Carrier Strike Group Three in the Pacific—an assignment that places him in charge of the nuclear-powered supercarrier Stennis, a small fleet of cruisers, destroyers, and other support ships, and the complete air wing at the heart of it all—he believes his Penn State education set him on his successful way. In particular, he is somehow convinced that the lessons he learned in that freshman English class thirty-five years ago gave him some essential principles of written communication that have contributed significantly to his advancement. In crediting this to one course he is surely wrong because a Penn State education is a cumulative thing, a team effort in which no single course or professor or experience stands out as uniquely crucial. But when he invited me to be a Distinguished Visitor (DV) aboard the Stennis as a way of recognizing what Penn State had meant to him, I wasn’t about to disagree. Not with an admiral.

Super Hornet abeam.
Super Hornet abeam.
I flew on board the Stennis in April, while it was on a training mission off the shore of San Diego. I was one of a dozen or so DVs who flew out to the carrier on a supply plane one afternoon, and the “arrested landing” that initiated our experience so vividly is something you can’t really describe. Suffice it to say that when the plane touches down on the carrier, its tailhook engages with a cable that brings the plane to an immediate, screeching halt— even as the plane itself is accelerating in order to be able to take off again if the hook doesn’t engage. The combination of opposing forces, the sudden arrest, the unpredictable tail-lurching, the fact that we were facing backwards in an air-deprived plane with no windows, the uncertainty and novelty of it all: it made one of us (I won’t say who) leave some of his lunch on the plane.

Then again, who would want such a landing to be routine?

Once back on the flight deck after a short welcome, we then observed practice landings and takeoffs (and scurrying flight deck crews) as planes took off or landed every minute for half an hour. We were shielded from the deafening noise by our safety equipment and half drunk from inhaling the sickening-sweet aroma of jet fuel, but it was still remarkable to be standing thirty quaking yards from precision warplanes as they landed or left, one after the next, their cables snaring tailhooks faultlessly or catapults launching them back into the skies.

The tour of the Stennis was surprisingly thorough and ambitious. I expected a fair amount of sitting around and listening, a sleepy set of briefings; but for the next five hours we scrambled up and down narrow flights of stairs (“ladders”) and through long steel passageways, on our way to one stop or another, in the process learning about the crew, the planes, the ship, and the various complicated operations that support the warplanes that are the reason for it all. The handlers explained how the ground crews orchestrate the various maneuvers necessary to clear the decks for each succeeding flight. The flight planners explained how they develop each day’s scheduled activities. Maintenance personnel showed off the biggest fix-it bay that you can ever imagine. On and on.

After a cafeteria dinner (taxpayers note: the meals cost us 50 bucks), we had an hour to debrief two pilots of the Growler, a fearsome, two-seated version of the Super Hornet that is especially fitted for electronic warfare. Recently out of college (one with a masters in music education, the other with an engineering degree), the pilots showed off their planes, jammed with wires and cables, gadgets and gizmos. They also explained the heavy, complicated features of their flight suits and oxygen gear, and recounted their hectic typical days—planning, studying, briefing, and preparing; a quick bite to eat; then the test flights and landings followed by debriefings and evaluations.

Then it was off to observe a night battle drill from the nearly pitch-black navigation bridge half a dozen stories above the deck. If Admiral Boxall oversees the entire strike group, then the Stennis itself is ruled by its own commanding officer, Captain Michael Wettlaufer, himself a veteran of hundreds of carrier landings. For two hours, as plane after plane took off and landed in the moonlight, the two leaders explained every intricacy of the training exercise as it unfolded before our eyes. The ship constantly shifted direction to give the pilots a different set of wind and speed conditions to adjust to, and some of us observers (not me) climbed outside onto the narrow catwalk to observe and listen to the developing spectacle. The first night flight of a female pilot was interesting to our group (she landed perfectly), and only three pilots (males) missed their cables on their first passes. It’s called a “bolter” when you miss, but those pilots all expertly relaunched amid a hail of sparks and returned for a second successful try. (One pilot eventually did have to make a dry-land touchdown at the base for safety reasons. Not good—but an opportunity to learn.)

Things began to wind down about 10:30 p.m. It had been a long day, but a half-dozen of us were still game when Admiral Boxall invited us for a rare, unscheduled look at his personal cabin in the flag mess. Adjacent to it is the flag cabin, with his office and the four clocks, and with an information center next door to that (the task force command and control room) that is staffed twenty-four hours a day and filled with the most sophisticated communications system that you can imagine.

Even more impressively, the admiral gave us an impromptu and informal lesson on leadership and answered our questions candidly. When do you feel like your ship is really prepared for deployment? How do you build teamwork? What’s the future utility of aircraft carriers, or will drones be taking over everything? Who are our rivals on the seas, and how well are we maintaining our lead? Maybe it was because I was standing there, the English professor, but Boxall’s consistent emphasis seemed to return to communications—to getting everyone on the same page, to the difficulty and importance of getting command decisions enacted accurately and unambiguously as they are passed down the chain of command.

USS John C. Stennis and escorts.
USS John C. Stennis and escorts.
In any event, it’s quite a dance that Admiral Boxall oversees in Strike Group Three. Or think of it instead as a symphony: there’s a maestro in charge of selecting the music, organizing the players, and leading the entire performance—except that this is a symphony that performs every day of the year, around the clock; and except that not hundreds but thousands of people, amid many ships and planes, are playing one or another coordinated part in the show. Given the difficulty of keeping complicated airships flying flawlessly and given the intricacy of the equipment, it’s a wonder of the world: an engineering marvel, yes, but a marvel of human performance and cooperation as well.


But in his answers to our questions Admiral Boxall was also frank and eloquent about another of his personal emphases: the need to get everyone on board the ship to think independently even within the rigid command structure. He explained some of the tactics he uses to encourage his officers to think clearly and quickly, independently and resourcefully so that when something unexpected comes up, they can respond effectively. And he was just as eloquent, if understated, about acknowledging the challenges being faced by all 4,500 sailors on board—challenges associated with a constant turnover of young sailors (half leave the Navy after their initial enlistment), the challenges of pulling off complicated duties flawlessly and quickly (when the variables are multiple); the personal challenges associated with being a sailor under the age of twenty and yet working long hours seven days a week (the pace on Sunday is only slightly more relaxed) in cramped, frill-free quarters—all amid the awesome, awful isolation of being on a floating island far from the sight of land and from any contact with loved ones. The diversity of the crew is stunning: besides Americans from every background and region and ethnicity, there are young men and women from some 47 different nations on board, earning the right to eventual American citizenship by the sweat of their brows. (One eighth of the crew, incidentally, is female.)

Boxall himself is familiar with the personal hardships. His wife, Wendy, will be raising their two sons on her own, back in the Washington, DC, area while he lives in Stennis’ homeport of Bremerton, Washington, until this latest tour is over. And she’s had to do it many times before. He couldn’t stop bragging to me about Wendy and his boys, or worrying about them; and he marveled that sons could be so interestingly different. It sounds to me like Bailey (17) is good-natured and cerebral, inquisitive and articulate and interested in cars, while Connor (14) is a natural athlete, the soccer kid, who, for the moment anyway, is pretty disciplined, but can be a little headstrong. Will they figure things out okay? And could they end up at Penn State, he wondered hopefully. Wendy and the boys had just been to San Diego for a short visit (Wendy and Ron were married three decades ago on the Coronado Island base), but the admiral knew that it wouldn’t make Wendy’s job any easier, and it was filling him with regret to be sending them away and missing his teenage sons’ athletic events and homework assignments, driving lessons and car talk, and the other quotidian joys and sorrows of domestic life. The message was conveyed in matter-of-fact terms. No whining allowed. Boxall over the years has seen most of the world—the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans; the Baltic, Mediterranean, Caribbean, and Arabian seas; five continents and dozens of countries—but it has rarely been while on vacation. Still, “I’m the luckiest guy you’ll ever meet,” he said, to have had the experiences and responsibilities he’s had. “I never would have thought my Penn State experiences would have led me here.”

Ron Boxall at the officeI barely know Admiral Boxall. He reconnected with me a couple of years ago, out of the blue, after decades of silence, probably because I’m the only one of his old professors still on the job. But what I’ve seen so far makes me admire him greatly. Educated in the 1960s, I’ve always been skeptical about the militarization of American culture and critical of the various political misapplications of military force that have been evident since the Vietnam era. And I’ve been blessed in my Penn State career to have met a U. S. president, a couple of Nobel Prize winners, and many superior scholars, artists, and scientists, as well as impressive business and academic leaders. Yet here’s my impression: Admiral Boxall may be the most capable, far-sighted, and sophisticated person I have yet encountered. Superbly prepared by virtue of his experiences and his training—besides his Penn State education, he earned a master of science degree in information systems from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, as well as a master of arts in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island—he has engaged with leaders from dozens of nations. Even-tempered, understated, and quietly observant, he asks more unsolicited questions than he offers unsolicited answers, and his manner inspires confidence.

At times I felt that I was talking with a measured and open fellow professor, and when some of us carefully raised tough ethical or political or cultural questions, his answers showed that he knew what we were talking about and that he had been wrestling with the issues himself, wrestling and wrestling again. Able to perform without much sleep, as trim as he was as a high school wide receiver, he even looks like an admiral. With us he was unfailingly unpretentious, informal and approachable; he puts others at ease, even the enlisted crew members that we surprised on our strolls; and his tolerance and understanding of human weakness ground his demand for perfection. I am aware that this description verges on the hagiographic, and I’ve certainly seen only his best side—I loved being singled out for TLC whenever he invited me for a special look at something or when he made sure my safety equipment fitted correctly, right in front of everyone—but there you have it: If he’s in charge of things, we’re in good hands. At bottom Admiral Boxall struck me as being as pragmatic as Huckleberry Finn: A searching curiosity makes him want to know, most of all, what works best. My gift to him was the biography of another great pragmatist, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmond Morris, and I’m pretty sure he’ll love it.

I didn’t sleep much myself that night on the Stennis—an aircraft carrier is loud; when nature calls, you have to wander around looking for the toilet down the hall (and over the passageway to the left, then right); two fire alarms went off (faulty wiring in a Coke machine); the darn ship kept swaying in the open ocean; I had lots of thoughts on my mind; and wake-up call was at 6. The admiral had invited me to his quarters for breakfast, hoping I’d maybe have an idea or two equal to whatever he learned in my class in 1980, but since I was way, way out of my element, what could I offer? Especially without sleep and with an unsettled stomach and my plantar fasciitis acting up? Thankfully one of the other DVs has a couple of years on me or I would have been the oldest person on the ship.

No matter. Up and at ‘em at 6. Quick shower. Pack up. Bacon and eggs with the admiral (once I got unlost trying to find my way to his place). A stop at the store to buy souvenirs. A chat with the ship’s chief cook. A briefing with the ship’s young firefighters, just to let you know what could happen. Another briefing with the weapons manufacturers— did you know that ever since the USS Forrestal disaster of 1967, most bombs and missiles are cooked up right on board from components on hand, for safety’s sake? Pretty much everything on board is separated according to rank; officers and enlisteds have separate quarters, separate dining facilities, and separate showers and restrooms; even certain areas of the ship are closed to enlisted personnel. A hierarchical model makes sense, I guess, in a military environment where orders must be followed, where tight spaces high above the deck mean that you can’t have people getting in each other’s way at crucial times, and where advances in rank and responsibility bring better pay and better quarters.

But I did have one chance to meet some enlisteds. During our lunch hour, I barely touched my food because I wanted to settle my stomach, but was fortunate to sit down next to a couple of young MPs. They gave me a candid perspective on how people live and cope on the Stennis. How do you deal with being away from home for the first extended period? How do you handle living in barracks with a couple of dozen others? What do you do for fun? How do you rest in such loud, cramped, crowded spaces? Where’s the sense of personal privacy, personal property? What are the favorite card games? Does anyone get into trouble—and what kind? How do you cope when you are away from loved ones and when seven out of eight people on board are male? When one of the MPs, a 24-year-old graduate of Fresno State, reported that “toilet paper is like gold here,” it summed up everything somehow. When I brought the conditions up to Admiral Boxall, using the pointed term “sweatshop,” he didn’t exactly disagree.

“It’s a training mission, remember, and we have to be ready to perform under difficult wartime conditions, if it ever comes to that,” he said. “Life is a little more normal when the crew returns to shore. Just about everyone does a heck of a job under the circumstances, don’t they?”

“The Stennis is like a city,” one officer told us, offering a happier interpretation of life aboard ship. I could see what he meant. Besides a power plant, the ship has an airport, a hospital, dentists, a post of office, stores, playgrounds (of a sort), even those police and lawyers and a jail. The Stennis subculture even features its own language, full of a million acronyms and specialized terms. (My favorite was the word “voluntold,” which denotes what enlisted personnel do when they are “invited” to volunteer for some extra duty.)

Ron Boxall at the Lion ShrineRon Boxall at Old Main

Then again, have you ever been to a city that is built around all kinds of weaponry and armaments? Or a city with no children and no living persons over fifty-five? For that matter, there are no living things of any kind on board the Stennis except for people—no pets running around, no flowers or plants or trees. Antiseptic. There are no bars or nice restaurants on board. I witnessed not a drop of alcohol or a single cigarette butt—smoking is relegated to remote safe spaces—though I heard a rumor that a cigar at sunset can be a nice diversion. And this city has neither museums nor cemeteries for there’s not much past or future here: Everything seems to exist in the present. There’s probably something like a church on board, but I didn’t see it. Everything is 100% functional and frill-free on a ship: Except for a photo or two of loved ones, you won’t find much beauty-for-its-own-sake or creature comforts anywhere, no carpeting or anything very soft, just pipes overhead and steel below, knee knockers every forty feet, and everything two-thirds its normal, comfortable size. The place is a floating, self-contained island, isolated as can be, sufficient to itself but sterile as the moon. The greatest gift of the tour, for me, was the opportunity to get a small feel for what my son-in-law, a Marine yer stationed now in the Persian Gulf, is experiencing—and for what he is accomplishing without much fanfare. The U.S. Navy isn’t about fanfare: You don’t hear much bragging, you don’t hear much complaining; you do get continuous action, constant challenges to do better and do more, and a sense of single-minded, high-minded mission.

So the Stennis really isn’t a city, then; as I’ve already said, “It’s a Wonder of the World,” and I thought that to myself as we catapulted off for San Diego, aboard another supply plane. It does have something of a school, though. In fact, come to think of it, I shouldn’t have felt so alien on board the Stennis, because the ship is essentially a floating university. Like a university, it has thousands of ambitious 18-to-22-year-olds trying to find their way under the guidance of a corps of experienced hands and trying to deal with dorm food and their fellow young men and women. Like a university, a carrier on a training mission offers round-the-clock teaching: formal “courses” that introduce novices to new practices, concepts, and techniques; we DVs had just sat in on Leadership 201, after all. Like a university, it constantly evaluates learners, encourages their progress, and disqualifies those who can’t keep up.

And in that way, Stennis University offers us Penn Staters a challenge. We are very good at what we do, but we can still step up our game. We can’t be satis ed until we too are challenging each student to their fullest potential, until we too provide every student with 24/7/365 opportunities to learn and develop. After all, one could turn into the next Ron Boxall.

By Jack Selzer

Editor’s note: This article was written several years ago, when Jack Selzer had the opportunity to fly aboard the USS John C. Stennis. Since then, Admiral Boxall has been promoted to his second star and is the director of surface warfare for the Navy, in the Pentagon. He remains connected to Penn State, as a flag officer mentor for the Navy ROTC program. The family is back together again in Northern Virginia, and Connor has Penn State #1 on his college application list. Jack Selzer is just now retiring as Paterno Family Liberal Arts Professor, after forty years on the faculty. He and Ron continue to enjoy each other’s rekindled friendship.