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By Tom Demerly.

Cmdr. Brian W. Sebenaler, commanding officer of Naval Special Warfare Basic Training Command (BTC) speaks to members and guests during an establishment ceremony for the command held at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. BTC reports to the Naval Special Warfare Center and is charged with the basic training of all naval special warfare forces, including both Navy SEAL and special warfare combatant-craft crewman (SWCC) basic training programs, which include the BUD/S course and SEAL qualification training for SEAL candidates, and basic crewmen training and crewmen qualification training for SWCC candidates. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin S. Beauchamp/Released)

Cmdr. Brian W. Sebenaler, commanding officer of Naval Special Warfare Basic Training Command (BTC) speaks at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin S. Beauchamp)

52 years ago today President John F. Kennedy signed into law the formation of a new special operations unit called the U.S. Navy SEa, Air and Land” or “SE.A.L Teams”; the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Teams, the Navy SEALs.

No military unit is more misunderstood, misrepresented or misquoted. The Naval Special Warfare Teams are also justifiably celebrated as one of the most vigorous, capable and successful combat units in the entire U.S. arsenal.

Over the past 30 years I’ve been occasionally privileged to work and socialize with members of the Naval Special Warfare community. I’ve never failed to be impressed by their internal standards, training and capabilities. And by their humility.

The history books tell you the Naval Special Warfare Teams were born from the Underwater Demolition Teams, the “Frogmen”. Since then their mission and capabilities have expanded to include intelligence gathering, direct action, rescue, security, reconnaissance, technical and operational development and a host of other missions so diverse it has presented major challenges to these units.

(left) Athletes participate in the Navy SEAL Fitness Challenge in Dearborn, Michigan. (right) Naval Special Warfare Operator Mitch Hall wins the annual SuperSEAL triathlon in Coronado, California. (Photos by Tom Demerly).

(left) Athletes participate in the Navy SEAL Fitness Challenge in Dearborn, Michigan. (right) Naval Special Warfare Operator Mitch Hall wins the annual SuperSEAL triathlon in Coronado, California. (Photos by Tom Demerly).

Another great challenge facing the Naval Special Warfare community is the media’s love affair with them. Officially and unofficially the Navy has fed into this, with everything from support of Hollywood film projects to unsanctioned technical support of computer games and thousands of books.  In 2008 and 2009 Naval Special Warfare promoted a national fitness competition called the “Navy SEAL Fitness Challenge”. Naval Special Warfare has supported an annual triathlon called “SuperSEAL” and “Superfrog”.  Naval Special Warfare also sponsored the Ironman World Championship along with several triathletes who are active members of The Teams.  Next week a new Hollywood movie, “Lone Survivor”, joins over 40 popular movies featuring Naval Special Warfare operators as diverse as “G.I. Jane”, “Transformers” and “Act of Valor” that featured cast members from the Naval Special Warfare teams.

In the past decade there has been tremendous growth in the Naval Special Warfare community.  The last time I visited the Phil Bucklew Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California during 2007 there was a construction project underway to house new Basic Underwater Demolition School students and expanded administration activities.

Naval Special Warfare has also seen its share of controversy.  In 2010 a west coast Naval Special Warfare operator and instructor was arrested for trafficking weapons smuggled from Afghanistan and sentenced to over 17 years in prison.  In 2013 Esquire magazine ran a feature story alleged to be an interview with a Naval Special Warfare Operator who claimed to have killed Osama bin Laden during a U.S. raid on Pakistan. The interview was sharply critical of treatment of Naval Special Warfare veterans.

What I’ve learned from the Naval Special Warfare Teams and their members is that they are human. While they are exceptionally dedicated, incredibly well trained and maintain an impressive level of proficiency in a vast array of skill sets they still suffer the fallibilities of the common man. They have difficulty in personal relationships like the rest of us and struggle with divorce and emotional challenges.

(left) At the Phil H. Bucklew Naval Special Warfare Center for SuperSEAL triathlon. (center) On board an 11-meter RIB off Coronado Island. (right) With Naval Special Warfare Development Group original member and author Chuck Pfarrer

(left) At the Phil H. Bucklew Naval Special Warfare Center for SuperSEAL triathlon. (center) On board an 11-meter RIB off Coronado Island. (right) With Naval Special Warfare Development Group original member and author Chuck Pfarrer.

One of many things that makes them exceptional is they do all this set against the backdrop of a necessity to maintain operational security and rarely disclose their true challenges among non-military relationships. This makes their tremendous burden even greater.

Naval Special Warfare is a community worthy of effusive praise and recognition. They have shouldered a mighty share of the burden of the Vietnam Conflict, numerous “peace time” actions, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Global War on Terror and other conflicts while maintaining a level of inter-unit quality almost unmatched in the world.  On their 52nd birthday it’s worth acknowledging their contribution.

Authors Note: If you are a fan of books about the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Teams you may find my review for MILTECHREV.com of Greg E. Mathieson Sr. and David Gatley’s impressive new book, Naval Special Warfare here of interest. It is the definitive work on Naval Special Warfare available to the public:

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By Tom Demerly.

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I walked into my friend Mark’s house around 6:30 PM one evening. He lives about a block away. I was returning, in a small way, one of the many big favors he has done for me since I moved back to Michigan. What I saw was shocking. To me at least.

Mark and his wife were seated at a small, round table with a tablecloth. They each had plates, and cups. They were eating food with knives, forks and spoons. It was like the set of a 1950’s movie: a husband and wife having dinner around 6:30 PM, a new baby sound asleep in another room. It was positively… normal.

It struck me pretty hard: This is what that fleeting, ephemeral thing called “normal” looks like.

Like many people I didn’t have  a “normal” family when I was a kid. I had a dad with mental problems, a single mom, and two sisters long gone for those reasons. My childhood was not bad. I didn’t have everything I wanted, I did have everything I needed. But my childhood was different from what I saw at Mark’s house that night.

My family was fractured. Fractured by distance, disapproval, loneliness, lack of communication, forgiveness and trust. In other words, we’re like most families. We have our problems. We have more skeletons than a medical school.  One sister got married in Africa; I’ve got a niece in who lives in Japan. The only way we could keep our distance any better would involve NASA.

Two things that happened in the last decade caused me to revisit the value of family: I almost died and so did my 91-year old mom. As I type this she lays in Beaumont Hospital after two heart surgeries in three days.

When I moved back to Michigan my friends urged me to moderate the fractures in my family. It took time, but I did. It was frightening and humbling. It has also been rewarding and invigorating.

Peace efforts within a family are a lot like negotiating between warring factions in a third world country. Since I have a little exposure to the later, I used what I learned there.

Firstly, you approach it with ownership of your own mistakes and a lot of humility. Secondly, you do a lot of listening. You do what author Stephen Covey said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Thirdly, you bring some pretty thick skin.

A critical mindset is that you have to leave the past where it belongs- behind you.  You talk a lot about how things could be. Should be. You replace blame with empathy; you replace the lesser past with the idea of a greater future. And you focus on the half of the glass that is full. And mostly, you forgive. Living in the previous world of family arguments, disconnects, betrayals, broken promises and let-downs cannot result in a constructive dialog. It doesn’t foster healing.

Not everyone will get it at first. Families are made of complex personalities and complex pasts. But the behaviors of listening, understanding and forgiving are as contagious as the ones that drive families apart.

Ultimately we decide which behaviors we want in our family by which ones we choose to live in our present. When we make that decision and live it, we get along better.

By Tom Demerly.

Photo Credit: Collin Rodefer via Viral Nova.

Photo Credit: Collin Rodefer via Viral Nova.

The year I was born, 1961, journalist John Howard Griffin disguised himself as an African-American man riding buses through the segregated south. He chronicled the racism, discrimination and bigotry he experienced in the masterwork, Black Like Me.

Fast-forward 51 years and our country has made significant progress in all areas of equality.

Mostly.

I’m a 52-year old Caucasian male. Several months ago I left a good full time job as a writer in California to assist in a business a friend opened. Before the new business became fully operational my plan was to get another full time job in retail management, writing or other field I’ve had success in. I have a college education, a good work history and a strong resume in two different industries.

I filled out over 100 online applications that asked my name and other basic information. The questions included, as an “option”, my age. Most also asked me if I would answer optional questions about race and ethnic origin. I always did. I figured the more complete my application, the better my chances.

I got one interview. They weren’t interested.

In reviewing my experience, qualifications and accomplishments and also counting the demographic of the staff in a few of the businesses I was applying for I realized something. I am now a member of a new undesirable demographic, the white, middle-aged male.

My experience does not compare to the brutal racism and discrimination of African-Americans in the Deep South during the 1960’s. It does not. I have never been refused service in a restaurant, relegated to poor seating on public transportation or threatened with lynching.

Quite the opposite in fact. Because I am a well-spoken white middle-aged man everyone assumes I am well off. I get good seats in restaurants; great service and young people treat me with respect. They assume when they see me that I own a car, a house, have a good job. They pre-judge that. I have none of those things.

What I do have is a new appreciation for the type of silent, antiseptic discrimination afforded by online job applications and data-sorting algorithms. They compare key words and “optional” responses to a predetermined desirable profile of the best hire. Regardless of my experience, results, qualifications or talent my key words may not match their key words. So, in a competitive job search something in my key words on an automated job application is kicking my applications out.

Something. I wonder what that is…

I now have the slightest notion of what being discriminated against may be like. I don’t pretend to understand the full gravity of discrimination in our historical context. But, I couldn’t help but reflect on the Nelson Mandela quote, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

If we claim to have made progress against discrimination in the United States then any mechanism that facilitates it based on age, race, national origin or ethnicity is wrong. That an online job application can even query this data as an “option” is wrong.

If we’re going to rest on the laurels of reduced racism and improved equality it means we favor no one, exclude no one, either in person or through an antiseptic, automated system. I don’t think we’re there yet. That means we need to improve our standards of equality in all areas, including job searches and candidate screening.

Until we do, we’re simply trading one version of discrimination for another.

By Tom Demerly.

tomhome20

I am, finally, home.

After four laps of the globe, trips to every continent, living on three continents, six countries and five states and not even remembering everywhere I’ve been, I’m back to the place I started from, my favorite place on earth; Dearborn, Michigan in the United States. It is and always has been home. And this has been a very long trip.

I will tell you stories about beautiful beaches and exotic places, about high mountains and vast deserts, war torn countries and hopeful sunrises. Success and failure. I will bore you to tears with esoteric facts and improbable stories, all true, mind you, if modified by time and memory. But I will never tell you there is a place better than Dearborn. So I am home.

Dearborn is the hometown of Henry Ford, the place where Ford Motor Company is headquartered and a suburb of the beleaguered and rebounding City of Detroit. We have one of the largest Arab-American populations in the world outside of the Middle East. Through the dark and light of our history we’ve been known for industry, recession and racism, Orville Hubbard and Greenfield Village. We have a campus of the University of Michigan and one of the best community colleges in the country named after Henry Ford. We also design and build cars here so good that when the entire U.S. auto industry needed a government bailout, we didn’t take it. Ford stock was about a dollar a share then. Today it is sixteen times that. And climbing.

So I’m home.

I learned something about home during the time I was away. Home is made of the history you’ve lived, the people you love and who love you. It is built of the precise map of your hometown built into your head so you never need Google Maps or a GPS in your car. You know every street, alley, sidewalk, and every shortcut.

But mostly, home is friends. Friends who share your history of triumph and failure, promise and forgiveness. Home is the girl you walked to school with in 7th grade and then take on a date 37 years later. And she still looks the same to you.  Home is the place where friends give you their old furniture and know your cats’ names.

Home is where you made your mistakes, took your licks, learned your game and gone on to things you thought were bigger and better only to discover there is a world of people searching for the same thing. But never really finding it. Because it is back home.

Home is also where you discover you really aren’t all that and that you have to take all these big lessons, experiences and adventures and cram them back into a little box and get back to work. Because you are only as good as the outcome of your next game. And whatever you may or may not have accomplished out there in the big world, home doesn’t care much. Home only cares that you carry on doing the things that make made this place… home.

I am so happy to be home.

By Tom Demerly.

pearlharbor-flash

06:14, Hawaii-Aleutian Time Zone (UTC-10:00), 7 December, 1941; 221 miles north of Oahu in the Pacific Ocean.

Navigating through the dark, Pacific morning under strict radio silence the Japanese aircraft carriers Zuikaku, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku and task force flagship flagship Akagi came about into the wind on mild seas. Deck crews stood ready at the wheel chocks of idling attack aircraft with exhaust flame flickering from their cowlings. Dawn would break in minutes.  Communications officers on the high decks changed signal flags to indicate the attack was underway.

Chocks were pulled and throttles advanced as 50 Nakajima Kate dive bombers began their short take off rolls from the carrier decks. They were laden with massive 1,760-pound armor-piercing bombs. Another 40 Kates carrying top-secret long-finned, shallow water torpedoes thundered forward on the flight deck, drowning out the cries of “Bonzai! Bonzai!” from the deck crew.

Secret Operation Z was under way. The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor remains one of the most successful combat operations in history. Achieved with total surprise after maintaining strict security a massive naval armada of over 60 total Japanese vessels crossed 3000+ miles to stage near simultaneous attacks on multiple targets with miraculous precision and minor losses. The American naval capability was compromised to such a degree that it would take months to mount a tangible offensive in the Pacific. That more Americans did not die at Pearl Harbor is likely a function of the attack coming early on a Sunday morning.

Days earlier on November 26 the secret task force had left the covert naval installation at Etorofu Island and sailed over 2100 miles to its “initial point”. On December 2nd they were assembled stealthily under cover of bad weather to begin their final attack run toward the aircraft launch area north of Oahu. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, back on mainland Japan, issued a coded radio message via morse, “新高を登る!” or “Climb Mount Niitaka!”. This signaled the attack was to proceed as planned.

A new U.S. Army SCR-270 mobile radar array mounted high up Opana Point on Oahu detected the Japanese attack force 70 miles away but believed they were friendly aircraft. At 07:40 local the Japanese attack force spotted the Hawaiian coast at Kakuku Point. They had navigated partially by following the radio transmissions of music from the island.

Flight Officer 1st Class Shinpei Sano launches from the flight deck of the Akagi in an A6M2 model 21 Zero after sunrise in the second attack wave. Sano died in the Battle of Midway in June, 1942.

Flight Officer 1st Class Shinpei Sano launches from the flight deck of the Akagi in an A6M2 model 21 Zero after sunrise in the second attack wave on Pearl Harbor. Sano died in the Battle of Midway in June, 1942.

The attack began with total surprise and withering precision. Air superiority over Pearl Harbor was quickly established by lightweight, highly maneuverable Japanese A6M2 Zero fighters, the equivalent of today’s F-16. The Americans were unable to mount an effective air defense. As a result, air-attack commander Mitsuo Fuchida transmitted a famous morse radio message in the clear, “トラ,トラ,トラ…” or “To-ra, to-ra, to-ra!”.

Fuchida’s torpedo and dive bombers destroyed their targets with impunity as the Americans attempted to mount a defense with anti-aircraft guns. Two ships, the USS Nevada and USS Aylwin were able to start their boilers and run for the channel toward open ocean. Only the Aylwin, staffed by four new junior officersmade it to sea. The Nevada ran aground intentionally in Pearl Harbor after its commander was seriously wounded.

My mother, Velma Demerly, was in Lafayette, Indiana on December 7th, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. She is 92 now. The video above is a brief interview of her recollections of hearing the news that day. Her response typified the American misunderstanding of the gravity of the attack and the U.S. isolationism at the time.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was an incredible tactical and strategic success for the Japanese. It put the Americans on the back foot at the beginning of WWII. There were 2,402 Americans killed in the attack. By comparison 2,977 people in the U.S. died in the 9/11 terror attacks.

The social effects of the Pearl Harbor attack touched every American for decades. The Pearl Harbor attack lead to the first and only operational use of nuclear weapons five years later when the U.S. launched nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those attacks combined with a protracted and bloody island hopping, sea battle and air campaign across the Pacific finally brought WWII in the Pacific to an end five years later on August 15, 1945.

Remembering the Pearl Harbor attack is critical to our current political and military doctrine. The Pearl Harbor attack along with the 9/11 terror attacks stand as examples of why the U.S. must maintain strategic defensive capabilities and constant surveillance miles from our borders. It has been 72 years ago today since the first bomb fell on Pearl Harbor. The lessons learned from that tragic attack remain as relevant now as today’s headlines. Unless we remember we are condemned to repeat the past.

By Tom Demerly.

christmasshopping

Here we go; Holiday Shopping Season. Black Friday, Cyber Monday. This is the 25-day period when retailers earn their net profit for the year and consumers do most of their buying.

Before the gun goes off this Thursday at midnight (and even before) let’s take a brief look at what customers should demand in the post-recession economy.

There are more retailers and fewer customers than any time since the early 1980’s according to industry expert Mark Ellwood, author of Bargain Fever; How to Shop in a Discounted World. That means you have more choices and retailers have to get it right.  The margin for error- literally and figuratively- is razor thin. A well-run retailer is doing well to earn 1% net profit on gross sales after all expenses at the end of the year. Also, this year, the holiday shopping season is unusually short, only 25 days, because of Thanksgiving’s proximity to Christmas on the calendar.

Stores, both online and brick and mortar, have two major tools to earn sales: Great customer service and lowest price. A wide spectrum exists between these extremes and some especially skilled retailers manage to combine the two. Whether you aspire to the Tiffany’s personal shopping experience or a Walmart elbow-throwing, door-busting footrace to the big screen aisle these are the minimum standards you should expect as a customer:

1.    You should be treated as a Lady or Gentlemen.

You’re giving away hard-earned money at the end of the worst recession in history. You’re not a number, not a commodity. You’re not easily replaceable. Life long retailer and founder of the quirky, niche specialty retailer Harry’s Army Surplus in Dearborn, Michigan, Irv Zeltzer, said it best, “Every dollar has 100 cents”.  To earn that precious 100 cents retailers should treat you with respect and reverence. Retailers should value you.

2.    You Deserve to be Waited On.

Remember when clerks waited on you? Good service means there are employees or well-designed online resources to find out information and help you with buying decisions. This is a key feature since it adds value and savings to a purchase by reducing costly errors and returns. Your time is tangibly valuable. A sales associate or web resource that helps you make a faster, wiser purchase saves you time, and time is money.  Smart retailers also know good customer service reduces returns and adds to sales and profits.

3.    You Deserve Honesty and Openness in Pricing.

There are a lot of pricing shenanigans this time of year, triple and quadruple mark-downs, fine print, weird return policies, coupons, membership buying. Straightforward pricing is a key tool to understanding the value of a purchase. Beware of convoluted pricing schemes. Remember, the time it takes you to figure out if a deal is any good just cost you something more valuable than money; it cost you your time.

4.    You Deserve Good Service After the Sale.

Retailers should do “back end” planning for their post-holiday returns and customer service. The staff should know the policies and be empowered to make decisions. Lines shouldn’t be long and waits to make returns should be short. Retailers have a great opportunity to retain customers and earn new ones with great service after the sale. They need to get this right. It will bring in customers during the other 345 days of the year.

Customers fall into a trap of using price as the measurement of quality in a retail transaction. Good value is about more than markdowns and low prices. If you are focused on what you deserve as a customer before you line up on Friday morning you’ll have a better shopping experience this season.

By Tom Demerly.

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Amazon.com has lead the online customer service race with their patented “One Click” buying system for web purchases. It is fast, convenient and respectful.

The single largest retail mistake is failing to make the customer experience the top priority. Every operational decision should emanate from customer service and convenience.

Modern retailers have fallen into four traps of subordinating customer service:

  1. The sales staff is very poor.
  2. The checkout process is too long.
  3. They offer repeated, hollow apologies.
  4. They try to collect too much information without a reward.

First: Retail is at the bottom of the job ladder in all but a handful of niche markets. The pay is bad, the hours are long and the work is not inspiring.  If retailers spent more time training staff personally, not through an automated curriculum, staff quality would improve and a basic human need for the employee would be fulfilled; the need for interaction as a valued person. The most demoralizing part of being an employee is feeling like a poorly maintained cog in a machine. Everything from automated job applications to slide show training sends a clear message to employees; they’re a commodity. Personal and recurrent customer service training communicates and maintains not only the standards of customer service but also the nuances like tone, posture and other forms of subtle conduct. Retailers need to invest time in personally mentoring their sales staff. Then sales staff will mentor customers into being loyal.

Second: In a race to collect data and maintain inventory retailers have adopted checkout systems that take too long. I wrote about this here. The checkout experience has become painful. It should be quick and respectful. Two key mistakes are poorly handled defects in the transaction and making the customer wait. Customers: It’s not your fault if a bar code scans incorrectly. If even five percent of customers walked out when a bar code or checkout error occurred the retail industry would change. Vote with your dollars. If checkout is cumbersome or protracted, don’t reward that with the sale. Shop elsewhere.

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The basics of retail excellence haven’t changed in a century: Courtesy, quick check-out, owning mistakes and compensating the customer for them and respecting the customer’s privacy and time.

Third: Sincerely apologizing for a customer service error is step one, but the pay-off is fixing it. Repeatedly apologizing makes the retailer look less competent. The best way for a retailer to say, “I’m sorry” is to quickly solve the problem. If an item is incorrectly priced the retailer should deeply discount the item on the spot to compensate for the mistake and as an incentive to return. The apology has to be tangible.  Five hollow “I’m sorry”s from a minimum wage Walmartian mean nothing.

“The best way for a retailer to say, “I’m sorry” is to quickly solve the problem.”

Finally: Retailers collect too much data. This is especially true of online retailers and service providers like cell phone companies. While collecting customer data is important in diffusing frustration from a bad experience (when the first three topics in this article are ignored) retailers miss two key steps in customer data collection: 1. Customers should be compensated for their data. 2. Customers should receive an acknowledgement that their data made a difference. It is frustrating to throw your personal information and opinions into a black hole and never know what happened to them.

This list is short but each of these items forms the foundation of building a loyal customer base. That is the key to profitability.

People shop at Walmart because they have to. People shop at Target because they like to. If you were a retailer, which customer would you rather have? If you’re a customer, which experience would you rather reinforce?