Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series of articles where cuttermen discuss why they go to sea.
Name: Petty Officer 1st Class Benjamin (Ben) Davis
Rating: Storekeeper (SK)
Hometown: Sacramento, Calif.
Personal: Daughter: Emma, 9
Joined Coast Guard: November 2007 Boot Camp Company: U-178
Sea time to date: 5 years, 3 months
Previous units: Cutter Midgett, (378' WHEC 726), homeported in Seattle, Wash.; Training Center Petaluma, Calif.; Air Station Kodiak, Alaska; Patrol Forces Southwest Asia in Manama, Bahrain; Sector San Francisco, Calif.; Cutter Campbell (270' WMEC 909) then homeported in Kittery, Maine; Sector Field Office Galveston, Texas; Cutter Active (210' WMEC 618) homeported in Port Angeles, Wash.
Current assignment: SK A School instructor at Training Center Petaluma, Calif.
Why did you join the Coast Guard?
I used to cut my neighbor’s lawn when I was a young teenager. He had a garage full of toys and any 14-year-old boy would have seen this guy and be like, “yo, this is the coolest guy in the world.” When I asked, “Dude, what do you do?!” I learned he was an avionics electrical technician 1st class in the Coast Guard. He had me interested.
Then I talked with family. My mom is the youngest of 17 kids and all my uncles served in the military. Each of them tried to get me to join their branch except for one uncle, the most successful and respected uncle, who was in the Air Force. He recommended the Coast Guard.
So, I was 14 or 15 and thought, “Well, this guy has the coolest life ever as a 28-year-old AET1 and my uncle who is independently wealthy is telling me I should join the Coast Guard. I'm gonna listen to these two people.”
Did you want underway out of boot camp?
I did ask to go underway after boot camp, but I asked to go to a much smaller boat. In hindsight, though, that 378' was the best thing that could have happen to me. The people I met and the experiences that I had on it set me up for so many things. Especially getting underway on a big boat early in my career and getting that DC PQS (damage control performance qualification standard) while I was young and hungry. Now it's just dormant knowledge that sits in my brain.
How would you compare your non-rate tour on the 378', one of the oldest ships, to your more recent underway time on the on the Coast Guard Cutter Active?
It’s really hard to compare them because I was such a junior member on the Midgett and I didn’t have any idea of what to expect. I think being a non-rate on 378' was way better than being an E6 on a 210'. I had no responsibilities. I was an 18-year-old young man. I was out there living my best life going to all these crazy port calls and I didn’t know any better. I’ve always been a hard worker. So when I got aboard, I worked hard and I always volunteered for stuff. That earned me respect of the crew.
We only went south, and we got drug interdictions every patrol. Every patrol I've ever been on, we always got drug busts. I’m a good luck charm.
But yeah, that 378' tour, best tour of my career. I was lucky that I was able to recognize how great that it was when I was there. A lot of people will look back on stuff and realize it was fun. But I knew it was amazing while in the moment.
What’s so fun about sea duty?
During a three-month patrol on the 270', one of my buddies jokingly asked why we don’t ever just go out for drinks? “You never take me out anymore!” So we started having cocktail hour. When we were all off watch, we would go to the messdeck and like, just mix a drink with whatever fruit juices were out. And then we would have cocktail hour on the fantail for sunset. We’d have 20-30 of us out there.
It was so simple, but it was just those little things that the crew would do to solidify and improve our bond together. Maybe you’d see someone out there that you hadn’t seen for a week because you’d been on opposite schedules.
It was just a stupid little thing that just meant so much.
People fail to realize that not only can you control yourself, you can honestly sometimes control the attitude of the people around you. If you just make that little bit of extra effort, or you do that one little thing, it can really matter. It's all those little things.
What’s your biggest lesson learned from being underway?
Being underway provides so much perspective on what’s important. You have interactions and experiences with each other that you just wouldn’t on land because you are forced to spend two to three months living together.
I'm not gonna sit here and pretend every aspect of being underway is cool. But what is the opposite? You're back home. You just go home and you sit on your phone and watch Netflix all night.
Or you're on patrol and you and like eight friends are in the lounge, hanging out, talking trash, making up stories, playing.
Being underway has been the greatest experience. I can't wait to get to another boat. The camaraderie cannot be beat. The amount of people-time you get, the experiences and opportunities, the things you get to see, the things you get to do, the places you get to go to that the Coast Guard’s paying for you to be at…it’s like being a kid in a candy store. It's amazing.
Was there a moment we when you realized “this is where I'm supposed to be”?
Almost as soon as I reported to the Midgett, I found out my grandfather had lung cancer that spread to his stomach. Just before we got underway for my first patrol, the Chiefs’ Mess paid to fly me down and I got to see him one last time. And then on our transit from Seattle to San Diego, he passed away. And yeah, I broke down and cried on that boat. I was on the mess deck in front of everybody and like, nobody made fun of me. No one gave me a hard time about it. And I was brand new—I’d been on the boat for like maybe a month.
The support that I got from the crew to help me get through that was insane. I’ll never forget sitting down and my BM3, who was not nice to anybody. He sat down with me and like, just didn’t try to rush me back to work or anything. He just sat with me.
There’s a lot going on in the SK rating these days. How do you motivate your SK A-school graduates, your students, and prepare them for the field?
I would actually say it’s far easier to motivate the students than it is to motivate the people who are already in the field. I’ve been in for 16 years and been using FPD (Financial Procurement Desktop) my whole career, whereas these students don’t know what FPD is.
The whole situation is a learning curve for them, whereas for me and the rest of the staff are sitting here looking at this new system and comparing it to FPD. It’s almost like when you get a new car and compare it to your old car. There’re so many things about your old car you love. Some of them are terrible things, like the way it rattles when you turn it on. That new car is not making any noises while I drive down the highway and I don’t like that. Whereas the new SKs don’t necessarily know any better or have anything to compare it to.
As far as motivation, I tell them, “If you get in the system and you become an expert, you can make a big impact on the Coast Guard and your unit. You can put yourself in a really good position.” Also, in the Coast Guard right now, there’re a lot of opportunities for advancement. I feel like that’s one of the easiest ways to motivate people. Like Jerry Maguire, “show me the money.” I can say, “You know the pay difference between an E4 and E5 is this.” If one of those two things don’t motivate you, I don’t know what will.
You have some students who get their afloat orders as an SK3 and are not as excited as you would be to go afloat. How do you address that?
I have learned from my students that I don’t need to talk them through it the day they get their orders.
I need to give them a couple days and, if I’m gonna talk to them about it, I need to say, “Hey, it’s okay to be mad. It’s okay to not wanna go there. Take some time. We’ll talk about this in a couple days.”
I give them time to come to that acceptance phase, then start talking about what do they want, what are their expectations, what are their goals?
And I tell them, “Look, I had this dude that was such a high performer. He wanted to leave the ship early to go to a demanding assignment. When his request went up the chain-of-command, nobody hesitated to give him a ‘yes’ because he showed up and he showed out.”
What sea stories are you going tell your daughter later in life?
I remember the first time doing flight ops as a tie down. Running out under those blades and actually putting the hooks on. And I remember how seriously people were taking it. And to me, I’m like, yo, I’m young. I’m athletic. This is so much fun. Being out here is incredible.
I remember thinking, “dude, I just helped to land the helicopter and I secured it to a boat in the middle of the ocean we’re 500 miles away from anything. Like, it’s us and the sea turtles!” I remember thinking how insane it was that they let some random 18-year-old kid out here tie down this multi-million-dollar helicopter asset. This is so cool. They’re just letting me do this.
And then fast forward to when I was on the Active, I went from being a tie down to now being the helicopter control officer on the boat. And I have the same thoughts in my head. Like, yeah, this is wild.
They’re letting me be in charge of landing this helo, and I’m giving these signals and stuff. This is insane. I can’t believe they’re letting me do this.
So then I thought, “What else can I do out here? You know? What other crazy things can I do out here that I would never get to do anywhere else?” For me the whole underway experience is like, what other insane things can I do?! I’m not even trying to pad my resume, I’m just here doing things that I think are insane and I can’t believe people are letting me do!