Jo wasn’t really her name, but only a few of us knew her real first name and kept it as an insider’s joke and a secret among friends. However, Jo soon became “Mama Jo” to thousands of Sailors and their families.
Around 2007, I had returned from overseas and many Sailors were sent to work “boots on the ground.” It became apparent that the rules, regulations, procedures, and administrivia weren’t equipped to handle Sailors operating outside their normal channels. “Sailors belong on ships, and ships belong at sea!” we were told. Unfortunately, the enemy didn’t agree, and the war was in the desert. Dirt sailors took on whatever duties their nation required. Unfortunately, this meant they no longer fit neatly into the Navy system.
Families no longer had a command to which to turn when there were problems with pay, military housing or whatever. Add to that the wartime toll on marriages, and it was a mess. The Navy Times had articles and letters describing how Navy families whose sailors were serving in the sandbox had nowhere to turn and how they felt—and were—abandoned.
I happened to be in command when we had over one thousand Sailors in theater, so I was suddenly “the expert” for “Boots on Ground Sailors.” The wife of the Chief of Naval Operations saw the problems and took the issue of family problems personally (and my sincere thanks to you, Mrs. Mullen, for caring) and so I was told, “You’re our troubleshooting expert – fix it.”
I confess, throughout my career my Sailors were more important to me than the officers. The officers were my friends and colleagues, and I love them as brothers and sisters. It was my Sailors, on the other hand, who got the job done. They depended on me to shield them from the bullshit but missions that were successful were due to the Sailors, not the officers. I was committed to the Sailors and their families, but this war presented a Herculean task. There was almost no one who could help me tackle this.
Then came Jo.
Jo’s husband had been an Air Force Colonel. She was the only one in the command who was (slightly) older than me (I think). She had been a successful business consultant who shut her business down immediately after 9-11 in order to help our men and women in uniform. There is no one individual who has done more for our men and women in uniform than Jo.
Now there are some who believe that Jo hated me. I love this; if she didn’t get the cooperation she needed from a particular command, she would explain to them, “Well, I’m sorry that we haven’t been able to resolve this, because my Captain is going to be calling your commanding officer and it’s going to be ugly. I have to work with this guy every day, and I can tell you that when this is over, you and I are probably both going to both be in big $#!+. What? You have an idea? Why, yes, I think that might work!”
“Sir (always Sir, dammit), if you hear that the USS Whatever thinks you’re the world’s biggest pain in the ass… (add smile here) it’s my fault,” and I knew that some family had been taken care of.
Jo always threatened to buy a parrot and teach it all the things she said to her kids so when she died the parrot would be passed on and continue to repeat (in her voice) her favorite sayings. She never bought a parrot.
I did. I’ve had parrots before, but Jo provided the tipping point.
There are families who have survived storms, wildfires and tornadoes, thanks to Jo. Together we set up systems to meet returning Sailors as Thurgood Marshall in Baltimore, Norfolk International, and Naval Air Station Norfolk. Not everyone appreciated the importance of this, and it was an uphill battle, but Jo was there.
Sailors who worked with her know she was the first one in and the last to leave. When others arrived, there was coffee already started, and her desk always had a jar of candies. I preferred peanut butter cups, which mysteriously appeared in the freezer of the mini-fridge at my end of the building.
Some people are known for great discoveries and inventions. Others leave great wealth. The best way to describe Jo is with a prayer often attributed (albeit incorrectly) to St. Francis of Assisi; the author doesn’t matter – what matters is that Jo made it happen.
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Jo, when we meet again in the next life, we’ll pick up where we left off, except we’ll know our men and women are cared for, and I’ll finally get to meet your husband. In the meantime, know how much everyone appreciates the footprints you left behind.
Fair winds, following seas and peace, Jo.
Oh, and by the way, Mr. President, if for some reason you might be reading this blog and you’re looking for a hero to acknowledge – Jo Carter.