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Nuking It

Navy lieutenant finds out what life is like in the nuclear field

by Terrina Weatherspoon, Defense Media Activity
22 October 2014 Don't Nuke It. The phrase is often used by Sailors as a way to say stop over thinking things in the way a nuclear officer might. Don't dissect everything down to its nuts and bolts. Just stop thinking. But that's the thing; Sailors who are part of the nuclear Navy can't stop. They have no choice but to nuke it. Lt. Robert Jaindl, the RP01 division officer onboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72), wasn't always an over thinker. He spent more than a decade as an Electronics Technician in the conventional Navy before he began nuking it.

"I graduated high school a year early," said Jaindl. "I did not have a plan. I expected to start community college in the fall, or at least that was my default answer when people asked. My grandfather, who is a huge inspiration in my life, questioned if I considered the service. He was in the Navy from '51 to '53 and I always enjoyed his stories. That was the first time in my life, at 17, that I considered joining. I thought about it as hard as reasonably possible in five minutes time, and then I decided talking to a recruiter was going to be my next move. I wanted to do something important and valuable with my life, and it took me less than 24 hours to figure out what it was."

Born in Allentown, Penn., but claiming South Carolina, Jaindl told the recruiter he wanted to do something with computers. The recruiter recommended Advanced Electronics and Computer Field.

"I never once worked on a computer," said Jaindl. "I worked on radars. Same difference, right?"

And so began his career as an enlisted Sailor. For 10 plus years onboard USS Doyle (FFG 39), in and out of schools and shore duty commands, Jaindl served. But he wanted more. He wanted to be an officer.

"The real reason I became an officer is because I thought I could do the job well," said Jaindl. "Education was my top priority when I decided to get out or earn a commission. I bettered myself in the process of applying in countless ways. The idea of learning a community, fighting a warship and mastering a craft was very appealing. Higher education was appealing. The challenge of leading people and understand(ing) what challenges they face was appealing. Everything I considered about the job gave me the feeling I was well suited for it."

So he applied and was accepted for the Seaman to Admiral Program (STA-21); and in May of 2010 he was commissioned.

"I remember being junior enlisted and thinking how great the officers had it up there in their golden palaces eating with their silver spoons," said Jaindl. "The general opinion was they didn't work as hard as enlisted. Then I became an officer. Adjusting to the expectations without being given guidance, the constant and endless stack of correspondence, the responsibility of others and their actions, the accountability of everything under your order... it didn't take long to realize just how hard an officer really works. I embraced the challenge and still love the job."

But Jaindl didn't just become an officer, he became a nuclear officer.

"I was accepted to STA-21 as a Core Option," said Jaindl. "That means I could choose whatever community was open at selection. I weighed my options carefully and it pretty much boiled down to Pilot or Nuke. Those two couldn't be more contrasting, but after considering pros and cons for months, I couldn't turn down all the opportunities the nuclear community afforded me."

And just like his job in the computer field, it was the same difference right? The Navy is the Navy right?

"It's (Nuke school) almost like entering a time warp, said Jaindl. "You show up to school for the first day and the next year is a blur. It's also different for everyone. Some people put in more than 30 hours a week in addition to the 40 they're already doing. We focus on production instead of operating, but that doesn't absolve you of learning the operational side of the house. At this point you couldn't convince me I didn't start a new career. Going to my first ship as an Ensign, I realized how little I knew about my community. I could talk about everything, but that doesn't mean I could talk in detail about anything. My qualifications resembled standing at the bottom of a mountain looking up. And becoming a Nuke presented even more challenges.

Jaindl said the biggest challenge between the conventional Navy and the nuclear Navy was the shift in focus. Procedural compliance and operations within the nuclear Navy are much more rigorous than the conventional Navy.

"The nuclear Navy is all about how you get from A to B instead of focusing on B," said Jaindl. "You have procedures and protocols and there is absolutely no deviation from them. Another glaring difference is the expectations placed on you. You are expected to get into the books, learn the systems, and study. You are tested on your knowledge of the entire plant monthly. Instead of focusing on simply your job as in the conventional Navy, the nuclear Navy focuses on the propulsion plant as a whole. You have to learn the equipment you own as well as the equipment everyone else owns. Level of Knowledge interviews are conducted weekly and so are observed evolutions. Blue shirts are tested by their Chiefs and Division Officers; Junior Officers are tested by their seniors, and everyone is tested by Reactor Training. But that is another appealing thing about the community; I will forever be a student of nuclear power. I will always be learning."

Jaindl is also rewriting his definition of a typical nuke.

"Coming from a different background, I had some general impression of nukes," said Jaindl. "Don't get me wrong. There are A LOT of people in the nuclear Navy who would fulfill and exceed your expectations as a "typical Nuke." But there are a lot of people from all walks of life. You'd be surprised to hear the Reactor Department crushed all other departments in basketball and many other sports onboard Lincoln."

Jaindl plans to do 23 years and retire from the Navy. He has absolutely no regrets and can look back with great fondness on the road of rewards that got him here.

"You don't think of how many definitions of rewarding there are until you really think about it, said Jaindl. " For obvious reasons, getting selected for Seaman-to-Admiral was very rewarding. I earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering at USC and received training at Nuclear Power Training Command. Those are both the highlight of my academic career with promises of a Masters while I'm on my next shore duty. Operationally rewarding, doing a deployment in Fifth Fleet was the tip of the iceberg. Sailors train hard during extensive work-ups to prepare for deployment and many times those preparations are precautionary. When I made my last deployment on Bulkeley, we had real world operations that required the training, practice, and effort we committed. It was eye-opening doing Counter Piracy operations in the Gulf of Oman and throughout the Internationally Recognized Transit Corridor. I wouldn't trade those experiences for the world. Personally, I had a daughter in 2004. As a proud father, I couldn't imagine a better reward in any form. She is my life and my second heartbeat. For her, I am grateful every day. Lastly, at the end of the day, a Sailor is a Sailor. My first ship deployed to the Caribbean, South America, and the Mediterranean. We essentially went port hopping on those deployments and seeing all those unique places was also very rewarding."

He gets lost thinking about it all, and his thoughts are definitely worth nuking.

Click HERE for more information on STA-21.