By: LTJG Kaitlin O’Donnell
It has been a rough week.
Last weekend, I flew back to the East Coast to attend my grandfather’s funeral. It was a very tough time for my family, but I was so thankful to be able to make it back and spend the weekend celebrating his life with everyone. My grandfather had such a tremendous impact on my entire family, especially my twelve cousins and I. He always encouraged us to follow our dreams, study hard, spend time with family, have fun, and have a strong faith. After years spent together at Sunday dinners, vacations on Cape Cod and the annual O’Donnell Family Christmas, I only knew him as Grampy.
While celebrating his life this past weekend I had the honor of meeting the tremendous people that he had worked with for the past fifty years as a physicist and program manager for the United States Navy. For the first time, I saw a different side of Grampy. I always knew that he didn’t want to retire, and but I never truly understood why until this weekend. After talking with dozens of his colleagues from Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division, I understood why.
It was because of the people.
My grandfather truly got to know the people he worked with everyday and made every effort to mentor them and get to know them on a personal level. He loved his job because of the people, and they loved him because he cared.
Just before my flight back to San Diego on Monday night I got news that I had lost a shipmate in an accident over the weekend. Of course, I was very impacted by the news. News that you never want to get. While I was on the plane I had time to reflect on the events of the weekend, and something really resonated with me: We are more than just nametags. We are more than just our ratings, more than our ranks, more than our work.
We are people.
Each person that I work with everyday is someone special. They all have a background, a family, and a past. We all joined the Navy for different reasons and we all have a family at home, but now we are together serving as a “family” on BENFOLD. The weekend, while sad, made me appreciate that I need take the time to get to know the people I serve with as part of my ‘work family.’
In the Navy, our job revolves around the mission. There is no doubt that as Sailors we come to work to get the job done everyday and we do whatever it takes to get there. With the long hours we spend on the ship every day, not to mention the months spent away from family on deployment, we lean on each other for support and friendship.
I spent the majority of my last deployment standing watch in our Combat Information Center. With six hours of watch everyday with the same team, I got to know them on a personal level. Although we came from all over the country with different backgrounds and our ages ranged over twenty years, I couldn’t imagine getting through deployment without my watch team.
I would have never guessed that I would have bonded so strongly with the group, but when we took time to get to know each other we truly became a family. My watchteam knew what team I routed for (obviously, the Patriots), how I took my coffee, why I can’t eat before I go on a run, and when I just needed my space. Building the relationship we did on deployment made us that much more excited to go to watch together and allowed us to work together as a team when the mission called.
But sometimes we get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the ship. We get stressed out with upcoming inspections, certifications and maintenance. To be honest, I am the first person to get completely stressed and focused on the next training opportunity or be caught up preparing programs for an upcoming inspection. And although this is all extremely important for the mission, I realize I need to take time to get to know the people around me.
Life isn’t just about the next promotion you get or the next major evolution you reach, but the people you meet along the way. So, when you’re sitting in the next meeting or waiting to get a chit routed, take some time and get to know someone. Ask the sailor next to you how their weekend was or where they are from or what their kids are up to. Get to know them from a different perspective. Because at the end of the day, they are someone’s son, they are someone’s wife, they are someone’s father, mother, sister, brother, grandfather, grandmother, friend.
At work people see me as the Training Officer. They actually might turn the other way when they see me coming because I am usually trying to get them to attend some mandatory training event or asking why they haven’t turned in their program reviews for the week.
But they would probably be surprised to see me when I go home to Maryland. At home, I am the oldest of three children. My brother and I are always competing and my sister and I are always sharing clothes. My mom and I go for runs together and I ask my dad for advice. My grandmother still makes the best crabcakes in the world and I am usually found on the floor coloring or playing dolls with my little cousins. I am a daughter, granddaughter, sister, cousin, friend, and Navy officer.
This week I realized that everyone I work with has a story. Everyone has a family and everyone deserves you to get to know them.
I challenge you to recognize the people you work with. Get to know them and see them in a personal way. You don’t have to be friends; you just have to have empathy.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, empathy is “ the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having feelings, thoughts and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
Further, using empathy to understand people and how they act on the job can help us trigger insights that we might not have otherwise seen. And that alone can be a breeding ground for innovation. Companies far and wide apply empathetic research to design new products for the end user, but who’s to say we can’t use this in the Navy to perform our mission better?
By learning about each other, we might just have more than the Navy in common. And I’ll bet, that by getting to know the people around you it will make you that much more excited to come to work everyday.
So, the next time you get frustrated with a shipmate, take a step back and see them from a different perspective. Remember they are someone’s brother, sister, son, daughter, father, mother. Just because they do something differently doesn’t mean it’s not right. When we get to know the people we work with we can better understand what motivates them, what frustrates them, and where they get their perspective. The best part about the Navy is that we are a mixing bowl of people from all different backgrounds and experiences and each one of us brings a different perspective to the table.
The Navy may be about powerful warships, fighter planes, fast attack submarines and missile launches but in the end we are just defending our country. We, the people, are protecting the people. We all, from our own families, protecting families, and now part of another family – USS BENFOLD.
I guess what I’m trying to say is: Life is short. Take advantage of the time. Appreciate your surroundings. Get to know the people you work with. Give everyone a chance. Consider the other perspective.
LTJG Kaitlin O’Donnell is the Training Officer onboard USS BENFOLD (DDG 65). She’s a Marine Engineering graduate of Massachusetts Maritime Academy class of 2010.
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