LT Jim Legg is an Information Warfare Officer. He enlisted in the Navy in 1994. After completing boot camp, Jim reported to Pensacola, FL for Cryptologic Technician Administrative “A” School. He was commissioned in 2006 through the Seaman to Admiral-21st Century (STA-21) program, earning his Bachelor’s Degree in African & African-American Studies. He is currently assigned to Navy Information Operations Command Maryland, with follow-on orders to the Pentagon as OPNAV N2/N6 Staff. In his off-time, Jim enjoys writing, getting involved with sons’ school and athletics, and spending time with his family. He is married to his best friend, Kimberly, and they have three wonderful boys – James, Tanner, and Bryce.
It was 2006…I was on the bridge as a young, newly commissioned Ensign earning my Officer of the Deck (OOD) qualification. I needed a little clarification on a maneuver that the ship was to exercise, so I turned to the qualified OOD, a Lieutenant Junior Grade, who had about three years in our Navy, and said, “Do you know where I can find the reference to this, Shipmate?” Faster than I could blink my eyes, he turned to me and said, “What did you just say?” So I repeated my questions, not thinking much of it other than perhaps he just didn’t hear me because of the chatter on the bridge between the Conning Officer and Helmsman, I thought.
I was shocked at his reply. He looked at me with a stare that is still engraved in my brain today. He said, “Shipmate!? Don’t call me Shipmate; WE don’t use that word anymore.” He proceeded on to tell me that the only time that Shipmate was used in – I’ll leave the institution unnamed – was when someone did something wrong.” I’m completely baffled at this point. My first thought after he said WE was that I didn’t know who the WE to which he referred was, but in the 12 years (that I had in service at that time) I never heard such a thing.
To be a Shipmate was, is, and should always be a term of endearment – an honorable title. At Recruit Training Command, you are a Recruit. Once successfully completing RTC you are officially a member of such an esteemed group of men and women – a service member – Shipmate – in the world’s greatest Navy!
Needless to say, after explaining this to our Shipmate on the bridge, I still got the “eye roll” and “head shake.” I didn’t think much of it after that; perhaps he had a bad experience during his time while going through his commissioning source. I, frankly, wrote him off as “one of those” who would do his 4-5 years and get out. It wasn’t again until October 2007, when I read an article that a Navy-wide writing contest was announced asking Sailors across the Fleet to “redefine the word Shipmate.” What!? This has to be a spoof article, I thought. Isn’t the definition of Shipmate the same as it has always been?
The meaning of the word Shipmate was to be mariners (Sailors) on one’s own ship. It then evolved to a term of respect and professionalism when one did not know the rank or name of another Sailor. Overall, it is a sign of respect and professionalism. After seeing this contest announced, I knew I had to look into this more in depth. So, I started my own poll, asking Sailors throughout the command what they thought of being called Shipmate and/or what thoughts crossed their mind when they heard another Sailor being called a Shipmate. I was shocked to learn that approximately 70-80 percent of those Sailors I had talked to; 1) preferred not to be called Shipmate and 2) thought someone was about to get reamed when others were called out.
At that point I went from feeling baffled (in 2006) to feelings of frustration and disbelief in 2007. Shipmate has never left my vernacular, but evidentially it was a term that was steadily leaving our naval history and culture. It was no surprise to me, then, that in 2008; an article came out in the Navy Times titled, “Don’t Call Me Shipmate!” That article had confirmed the results that I got in the winter of 2007. The article stated, “And then they’ll tell you that once you hit the fleet, the term is no better than “hey, screw-up.” It’s “all because of how people use it,” Rose said.” Further into the article it was stated that, “The problem, many Sailors said, is how it’s used. While it starts out as a term of endearment in boot camp, once you’re in the fleet, it usually precedes a butt-chewing.”
So, if we were to take the combination of the three items that I referred to; 1) the writing contest to redefine the word Shipmate, 2) the Navy Times article, and 3) the poll of Sailors that I had taken and that confirms to me that the term Shipmate has, in fact, evolved from a term that is to be respected to a term used out of frustration, annoyance, and negative in nature. Leadership is always about leading from the front. With that in mind, we leaders need to once again use the term Shipmate as a neutral term – good or bad. My advice…either use Shipmate interchangeably or don’t use it at all, but don’t use it just as a means to gain someone’s attention just prior to discipline, a negative verbal or written counseling, a means of embarrassment, etc. It starts with the leaders of our great service to ensure a cherished word such as Shipmate remains in our vernacular. Let’s ask ourselves how we can bring back the meaning of the term, not how to redefine the term Shipmate.
My name is LT Jim Legg, I am many things – husband, father, son, brother and uncle – and I am also forever a proud Shipmate!