No Higher Honor (3 page)

Paul Rinn and the

aul Rinn, as he liked to say, was not a tough guy, but he could play the part. Born in 1946 and raised in the Bronx, Rinn grew up on the top floor of a five-story walkup near East 200th Street and Webster Avenue. Located about four miles north of Yankee Stadium, it could be a rough neighborhood. He bore the scars of a street youth in New York, including a .22-caliber bullet hole in his leg from an impromptu altercation. One summer, he got a union card and worked the New York docks, taking the 5:30
train to the longshoremen's hall downtown. There was plenty of work for a six-foot-tall rookie. Many nights he came home weary, dreading the five-flight climb to bed.

But the Rinn family valued education—his mother was a grade school teacher, his father a law school graduate who helped manage the city's real estate—so Paul traveled several miles uptown each morning to Mount St. Michael Academy, a Catholic high school for boys. Founded by the Marist Brothers teaching order, the high school had a grassy twenty-two-acre campus that offered a bit of respite from the city's pressures. More important, it offered a fine education. When Rinn graduated in 1964, he enrolled at the order's Marist College, about sixty miles up the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie.

He found an academic mentor in Thomas Casey, a philosophy professor who pushed his students to set lofty and humanitarian goals. Casey drew Rinn into scholarship and pushed him to grapple with ideas. The professor counted on the Bronx kid to enliven the classroom discussion, and the student esteemed his teacher's insights—at least until his senior year, when he took Casey's course on early American pragmatism. It was a difficult class. A uniquely American strain of philosophy that emerged in the late 1800s, pragmatism encouraged its adherents
to seek moral and ethical truths scientifically, by advancing hypotheses through action and testing them through experience. What could not be tested, what could not be controlled, should be ignored.

Rinn found this ridiculously abstruse. It just didn't seem to apply to the concrete things in life, like his varsity rowing team, which was making a serious run for the small-school national championship. Rinn and his teammates spent hours on the Hudson River each day, endlessly honing the simple techniques of the sweep oar.

Nor did he see how pragmatism applied to the U.S. Navy officer's commission he expected to take upon graduation. Rinn had fallen in love with the sea service through his older brother, a naval officer. Paul had visited Greg's ship in New York Harbor and became entranced with his brother's shipmates and their tales. World travelers, sworn to defend the country, they were different from anyone he'd known in high school or college. “The SWOs [surface warfare officers] were the coolest guys I ever met,” Rinn said. “They were fearless and had a hell of a good time.”

And pragmatism certainly didn't seem to apply to the deepening conflict in Southeast Asia, which would one day introduce him to combat.

One late spring day, Rinn launched into a classroom tirade against pragmatism and the hypocritical classmates who pretended to see some relevance to their own lives. After class the student apologized to his professor but refused to concede his point: “None of this stuff you're teaching is ever going to matter.” He would eat those words.

Rinn's naval career began well. He took his commission in 1968 through the Reserve Officer Candidate program and spent seventeen months running the combat information center of the aging destroyer USS
(DD 837). His performance earned him a spot promotion to lieutenant and the assignment of ship's operations officer.
Suitably impressed, the navy's personnel office picked Rinn for a far tougher job. The assignment would change the young officer and the way he looked at leadership.

In 1972 the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam was well under way; within a year all conventional combat units would be gone. But war still raged across Indochina, and thousands of Americans remained behind as advisers. The navy taught Lieutenant Rinn to speak Thai and Cambodian and then sent him far up the Mekong River, past Vietnam's delta and into
the thousand-mile valley that divided Laos and Thailand. As a military trainer and counterinsurgency adviser, Rinn found himself working and fighting beside a grab bag of American and local forces: U.S. Marines and brown-water sailors, SEAL commandos, Cambodian troops, Laotian irregulars, and Royal Thai Navy sailors. He helped build bases along a four-hundred-mile stretch of the Mekong—one near the Thai city of Nong Khai, another by the ancient Lao capital of Vientiane—and used them to launch river patrols and assaults against Cambodia's Khmer Rouge and other groups.

One day Rinn led a small group of Americans and Thais up the river to the base at Bon Pisai. The reconnaissance mission soon turned difficult; fighting on the river erupted swiftly and at close quarters as Rinn and his men pressed on toward their objective. That night, they lit a fire and brooded on the long trip back to home base.
Everyone in Cambodia probably knows where we are
, Rinn thought.
Our chances of getting out of here alive are slim to none

His men were shaken as well, so Rinn said what he could to buck them up. He started along the lines of
You can't worry about what you can't control
, and as his men began to perk up, he realized his words had a familiar ring. Elements of pragmatist philosophy, long dissolved into some nether region of his brain, began to crystallize. To Rinn's utter surprise, the ideas he had dismissed in a Hudson Valley classroom were surfacing along the Mekong River.
If you worry about what you can't control, you lose focus. You make bad decisions

“I found myself talking to my men, explaining to them a pragmatic viewpoint of what had happened to us and why we needed to pick ourselves up and go on and do what we needed to do,” he said later. “Why we had to go on and make things better if we could.”

When his group finally made it back to their base, Rinn penned a note to his former professor.
I'm writing this letter 5,000 miles from nowhere
, he began.
A couple years ago, I told you that nothing you had told me in that class applied. I'm writing to tell you that I was wrong . . . What you taught will help us keep our sanity in the future and go on with our lives.

This was the lesson Paul Rinn took from Southeast Asia: you had to let go of the things you could do nothing about and focus with all your
intensity on the things you could change. Combat stretched you beyond anything you ever thought possible; if you weren't already prepared, it was too late. He asked himself, then and later,
What prevented the enemy from killing me? How can I keep them from killing my guys?
For Rinn, these became the central questions of military command.

He continued to get the kind of assignments that marked a rising young officer. As weapons officer aboard the frigate USS
(FF 1072), Rinn shot half a dozen practice missiles; as an exchange officer in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he ran operations for the 1st Canadian Destroyer Squadron. He earned admission as a lieutenant commander to the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and graduated with distinction in 1981. He completed a pair of tours as second in command: first as executive officer of the frigate USS
(FF 1079), then as chief staff officer of Destroyer Squadron 36.

In 1983 the navy certified Rinn for command at sea, the most singular authority granted by the U.S. military. He was thirty-six years old, junior for a warship captain—possibly the first skipper from the class of 1968. But Rinn had watched his own superiors carefully for fifteen years, learning from their strengths and weaknesses, building his own leadership style. Now he would get to exercise it in the fullest way the navy offered.

Service officials soon picked a ship for him: a
-class guided missile frigate, designated FFG 58 and named Samuel B. Roberts after a heroic Navy coxswain. Rinn could scarcely believe his good fortune. He believed in the power of heritage to guide a crew, and a captain could scarcely ask for better exemplars than the World War II hero and the two previous ships that bore his name. But as yet the frigate existed only on the paper of the navy's master shipbuilding plan, though the construction order had already been dealt to a Maine shipyard. Instead of merely taking command of a ship and its crew, Rinn would help assemble them both.

the sailors who would man the
began to gather in barracks at Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia, the sprawling home of the Atlantic Fleet. The group—formally, the
Samuel B. Roberts
Precommissioning Detachment—included about 150 crew members, three-quarters of the frigate's full complement. Fewer than half had ever been
to sea, but all had survived boot camp, and some had received training in their shipboard job specialties. Still, this was just a start. All told, they would spend tens of thousands of hours in classrooms and simulators before they even boarded their ship.

The job of U.S. Navy sailor had long required more than a doughty attitude and a roll in the walk. A modern warship is among the world's most complex artifacts. It carries weapons, radars, generators, and a thousand other components, all interdependent and packed into a slim hull built for battle. Its crew must maintain, fix, and wield their gear in peace and war. The
sailors had come to Norfolk, nearly a thousand miles south of their nascent ship, to learn how to operate it as a team.

They began with courses on damage control (DC). This was the craft of minimizing the effect of injury on a ship's ability to fight. A fervent approach to damage control is the necessary corollary to the independent and martial nature of a warship. At sea there is no one to help when enemy shells rain down and oily seawater rises in the engine room. And there is no time to hesitate or fumble; the first few minutes after taking a hit can determine the fate of a ship. To survive naval combat, the skills of damage control must become as familiar, as ingrained as drawing breath. So the
sailors absorbed lectures on flooding and how to stop it and then drove across the base to practice in simulators that drove them batty with leaky pipes, punctured bulkheads, and split seams. Fire-fighting came next: lessons in the morning were followed by afternoons of hell in the two-story fire trainer called USS Buttercup.

After DC school, it was time for more technical training. The members of the
detachment scattered across the United States. Gas turbine systems technicians learned about their frigate's propulsion plant in Great Lakes, Illinois, and then traveled to Philadelphia to stand watches in a mock engine room. Sonar technicians boned up on the care and feeding of the SQS-56, whose hull-mounted microphones would help them find enemy submarines. Fire controlmen learned to wield the Mk 92 system, which used the frigate's radar to guide its missiles and naval gun. The ship's officers had their own study programs. Engineers, for example, spent fourteen weeks at Great Lakes, flew to Newport for three weeks' study of gas turbines, and then headed to Philadelphia for a month of drills.

Rinn himself spent much of 1985 in classrooms and ersatz ships. The navy had a lengthy curriculum for first-time frigate skippers. It started with numbing amounts of
-related mechanical detail delivered in a fourteen-week course at an Idaho training facility, moved on to Newport with courses on frigate propulsion, and then to Virginia and California for combat systems and tactics. The course wrapped up with six weeks back in Rhode Island, where prospective commanding officers discussed everything from corrosion control to the etiquette of visiting a foreign port.

During a break, Rinn flew to Norfolk. The first meeting he called was with his chief petty officers. He intended to set the tone for his command, and he wanted to start with the chiefs. On the organizational chart, a chief works for a junior officer and transmits orders to more junior petty officers and seamen. But U.S. Navy chiefs have a stature that paper does not convey: they are the seen-it-all experts, the iron-fisted overlords of their sailors, the self-appointed repositories of naval heritage. The officers may give the orders, but the chiefs run the ship.

So Rinn called his chiefs to him and began to talk.

Number one, I am not just some guy who came out of the woods in Washington, DC. I served in Southeast Asia. I served off Lebanon. I've been in the Gulf of Sidra. I know what it is like to go into combat. I know what it is like to face the enemy. I know what it's like to think you're going to die, and I know what it's like to kill other people.

I know what it takes to make a ship the best, and quite frankly, there aren't any second-place awards in combat. I don't intend this ship to be a second-place ship. I want this ship to be the best ship there ever was. I want this ship to be a ship that everybody talks about, and more importantly, that everybody's proud to serve on.

But the key is that I want every sailor who ever served on the ship to think this is the best thing he could ever possibly have done with his life for those three years. And if they don't feel that way, then I will feel that I have failed. Not you—
will have failed.

I want this to be a professional platform where nothing but professionalism is accepted. I expect that the chain of command will work, and I expect all of you to be in the chain of command.
So you'll be empowered to lead, to teach. I expect you to lead your men and to teach the officers. And if I find that you are not doing that, I will be in your face immediately.

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