37 Years in the Navy

A Supreme Allied Commander retires, and looks back on his time spent in three uniforms.

NATO Supreme Allied Commander, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis (left) and Kosovo Force Commander Markus Bentler of Germany at a news conference at Pristina Airport in 2010. (Hazir Reka/Reuters)

In 1929, the brilliant British poet Robert Graves wrote an extraordinary memoir of his time in the British Army during the brutal trench warfare of the First World War entitled "Goodbye to All That."

After nearly four decades as an officer in the US Navy, I possess neither the literary gift nor the searing experiences to pen such a farewell. But if I were to sketch out my final thoughts on my time in the US Navy, they would revolve around three uniforms and a beach.

Navy Officers have three principal uniforms that tend to define the events in which we are engaged. The first is "Service Dress Whites," the classic white high-collar "choker" uniform with medals that Richard Gere made famous in the final scene of the 1980s film, "An Officer and a Gentleman."

The second is the double-breasted dark blue suit with gold stripes at the sleeves, black neck-tie, and ribbons, known in the Navy as "Service Dress Blues."

And the third is the day-to-day uniform that was worn on ships at sea during the vast majority of my career by the officer corps of the Navy, the classic short-sleeved "Working Khaki."

Over the past few days, as I conclude my long voyage of service, I have worn each of those uniforms for the final time.

I put on the Service Dress White on a hot and humid morning in Washington DC, carefully pinning on the medals, ensuring I had the white gloves ready. I drove to the Iwo Jima Memorial adjacent to Arlington ceremony to participate in a very special ceremony.

My 22 year-old daughter, Julia, was to be commissioned in the US Navy. A slender runner in build, Julia earned honors at Georgetown and chose to become a Navy Nurse through the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps Program. I had been invited to be the graduation speaker for her entire NROTC corps, and so I stood in front of several dozen young Ensigns in the Navy and Second Lieutenants in the Marine Corps, and led them in the oath to the Constitution.

Julia was radiant in her whites, and looking at her and the entire class, I saw the future - of the Navy and Marine Corps, and our nation, and indeed our family. Julia is the fourth generation in her family line to take an officer's commission. I remember thinking that as the grizzled old Admiral sails beyond the horizon, the bright new Ensign arrives.

The final wearing of my Service Dress Blues came a day or so later, when I paid a final call on the President of the United States in the White House. I had come to know the President over the past four years, as a US Combatant Commander in Europe and simultaneously as the NATO Supreme Allied Commander. As always, he was gracious, focused, and kind. Spending time with him in a one-on-one final courtesy call was a significant privilege. We discussed events in Afghanistan, NATO and its future, relations with Russia, and a number of other things.

I had worn my Blues many times over the decades from Annapolis, and again, this seemed an appropriate place to wear them for the last time, showing the respect and deference to our civilian leadership that is the backbone of the US military.

That left the uniform I had worn by far the most--khakis were always the everyday uniform for my many, many years at sea. I had totaled it up, looking through log books--in the course of 37 years since Annapolis, I had spent nearly ten years underway, day-for-day, out of sight of land, on the deep ocean. When would I wear khakis for the last time?

Too soon. The following week, after flying to my home in Florida, I put on my Working Khakis for the last time to go visit a ship in at the Mayport Naval Station. I chose to visit an ARLEIGH BURKE destroyer, the USS CARNEY, a destroyer identical to the one I had commanded back in the mid-1990s. The Captain and the Executive Officer (the second in command) were bright young Commanders I had known and mentored for a decade, and they had invited me to take a tour and have lunch with their wardroom.

It was a lovely, nostalgic visit. I chatted with the wardroom, hearing their stories--the triumphs and setbacks of a ship's company preparing for a fall deployment. As I listened to them, it was my own voice I heard, echoing across the decades--striving to sound confident, but a bit unsure in the presence of this ancient mariner with four stars on his collar.

After lunch, I drove off the base, and in the rear view mirror, I saw the base's electronic sign flashing, probably for the last time, "Welcome Admiral Stavridis."

Then I went home, to a small beach front condo my wife and I had rented as we transitioned out of the Navy. It overlooked a beautiful stretch of north Florida beach, shimmering and white under the afternoon sun.

As I looked toward the horizon at sunset, I saw two Navy ships--a Cruiser and a Frigate--sailing gracefully along the coast, headed into their berths at the Mayport Naval Station. By evening, they would be tied to the pier, the lights going out throughout the ship, watches posted and the majority of the crew headed home to families and friends for the long weekend ahead. For those warships, the smooth rhythms of the Navy and the sea and the Sailors would slowly come to a halt, for them over a nice Florida weekend; but for me, they are done forever.

The good news: I am headed to a new job and a new profession, leading a graduate school of international relations in New England, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. It is a perfect job for me, and I am excited about it.

But I will miss the Navy. And the ships and their crews. And the sea.

And putting on those uniforms--Whites, Blues, and Khakis--the cloth of my nation.

So goodbye to all that indeed. I shall miss it terribly.