Last week I had the chance to spend nearly 30 minutes on the phone with Alan Eschbach, the former commanding officer of both USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) and USS San Jacinto (CG 56). It was an absolute honor to learn from his experience in command, and philosophy of life. One of the more enlightening discussions we had was on his philosophy of social alcohol use in the Navy. Alan approaches the topic, from a pragmatic and operational needs approach, rather than a values based or “preachy” approach; a discussion which caused me to re-evaluate my own alcohol use. It is a prospective that anyone in command or in a leadership position could learn from.
How did your leadership and ethical philosophy develop?
There is not a simple answer to this question because I had so many influences on my leadership/moral/ethical views. And quite honestly, I don’t how I came to emulate some and discard others. I just know that helping others and putting others first gave me more comfort than anything else in my life. I loved that feeling, and still do. Self-promotion felt shallow and transparent. In fact, promoting my book is something I find nearly impossible to do, even though I am deeply committed to, and believe in the messages in the book.
The person I am was influenced by my family and the community in which I was raised. Being raised in Southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania you learn early on in life the value of hard work, and the communal effort that’s really the foundation of life there. As a boy, I worked on farms (always without monetary compensation) so I saw first-hand the value of true teamwork and camaraderie. Who got the credit didn’t matter. We all worked towards the same goal and knew just from common sense that getting the work done depended on everyone’s contributions being equally respected, understood, and appreciated. Human decency was common to everyone there so there was never any bullying to get the job done. Quite frankly, that was vastly different from the environment I found when I joined the navy, and I’m sure that motivated me to make sure those sailors in my charge were shielded from negative styles of leadership. In essence, serving my guys quickly became my number one purpose in life.
How has writing Honor Held Dear, made you a better thinker and better man?
To be completely honest, the catalyst for writing Honor Held Dear was despair. So Honor Held Dear didn’t make me a better man, it was my pathway back to the man I was. The impact of my divorce after I retired from the Navy was personally devastating, and as I struggled to regain my footing writing was my safety net. On those nights I couldn’t sleep, I’d get on my computer and just reflect on my life; it was a means to retrace my steps and figure out how I had reached the point I had reached. At 52 years old, I wasn’t going to do anything that would make my emotional stability worse, and so writing was truly therapeutic.
Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?
As an introduction to the story, I believe our society, not just the military doesn’t really get the connection between leadership and responsible drinking. We hide behind the line that we don’t want to legislate morals by telling people how to spend their off-duty time, and so we shy away from demanding certain standards of conduct especially when it comes to drinking. Sure we’ve had campaigns like “The Right Spirit” but I know from experience that military leaders won’t set a standard for drinking that they know they themselves can’t uphold.
As the Commanding Officer of two ships I never drank even a drop while in those tours because I wanted to make sure I could respond to the needs of my crew any minute of the day. If a sailor needed my help at 0200 on a Saturday morning I wanted to be able to get in my car and go help him/her. If I was drunk or impaired in any way by alcohol I couldn’t be there for them. The decision we easy!
All I asked and expected out of my officers was that they wouldn’t be drunk during their tours, especially my department heads. I never asked them not to drink, only that they wouldn’t consume alcohol to the point of being unable to respond to the needs of their people. John, we say all the time that people are our number one priority, yet we act as if sobriety is too great of a sacrifice to be a true leader. How does that make any sense! Trust me, I’ve heard all the arguments: “if I work hard I should be able to “play” hard.” When what they are really saying is that I only care about my guys during working hours.
John, I enjoy a glass of wine or a beer, but I can easily discipline myself to limit my consumption. Aren’t discipline and a commitment to our people virtues the military espouses!
Here’s the example of alcohols connection to leadership I’ll share from the book:
“It wasn’t until my tour on John S. McCain that I began to recognize the reach and impact of irresponsible drinking. The incident that truly began to change my perspective on alcohol occurred on a Friday evening when one of our sailors was shot in the head outside of a San Diego nightclub. I had been in the navy for thirteen years at that point, and never had anyone in any of my previous commands suggested my consumption of alcohol be limited on my off-duty hours—except perhaps during a liberty brief overseas, and certainly never in connection to my responsibilities to my men.
When my Captain and I arrived at the hospital, our sailor was on life support. I remember standing behind the window to his room as his doctors evaluated his condition. At one point, I became very aware that I had had a beer or perhaps two during dinner, and I was now concerned that someone (either the doctor or the sailor’s wife) would smell the alcohol on my breath. Even though I was not drunk, that awareness limited my ability to engage fully with everyone there. I felt as if I had let the sailor down because I couldn’t fully support his family at that critical time.
Unfortunately our sailor did not recover from his wound. I remember sitting in my room at the bachelor officers quarters later that night and thinking about how alcohol had influenced every aspect of that evening. Its consumption had facilitated the shooting, and it had impaired my ability to offer my full support to his family because it kept me at arm’s length. That whole experience gave me great pause on the subject, and I began to evaluate the role, if any, I wanted alcohol to have in my life.
Over the rest of my XO tour on John S. McCain after our sailor died, I began to formulate how I would approach the topic of alcohol consumption if I ever made it into command. For me, it was clear: I shouldn’t drink at all in command or for the remainder of my career, because people depended on my ability to support them at any hour. I thought back on all those times as a junior officer when I would go on liberty (shore leave in an overseas port of call) or out on the town in homeport without any thought of what I would do if one of my chiefs called me and needed my support for one of our sailors. I felt like such a hypocrite. I had always thought I cared about my people, but I knew right then and there that my willingness to get drunk undermined that commitment.”
I’m no Ships Captain, I don’t have any life-threatening challenges, and I I don’t even know anyone in the military. I’m just an average dad who lives and works in the suburbs, how would this book benefit me?
Honor Held Dear is the story of my life growing up in the Amish country of Pennsylvania and it shows the value of that community and the influence of hard work, and a commitment to serving others. That message is universal, not isolated to the military. In addition to being an honest, and at times funny account of a small town country kid, the book also offers a unique perspective on pornography, suicide, abusive leadership styles, and other things that can damage and destroy lives, and undermine the success of an organization. I think the book has incredible value to parents, child in their formative years, and leaders of any organization.
I saw in your Amazon Book description you did some Navy SEAL Training, sounds interesting. If that was mini-BUDS do you care to elaborate on what you learned?
I went to BUD/S after my initial sea tour. I was Class Leader of BUD/s Class 124. I was one of only roughly 23 guys from a starting class of 103 to complete Hell Week and was ranked 2nd in my class after first phase. As odd as it sounds, I went to BUD/s because I wanted to see if I could handle the training, and because my experience as a SWO was not positive. I never thought about being a SEAL.
I married the week before I started BUD/S and once I had made it through the difficult physical stages of the training I began to feel the lifestyle would not be conducive to being a husband and a father. Part way through second phase my first phase proctor (BMC Tullas) sought me out before he transferred to tell me I was the best officer he had seen in his three years at BUD/S. I also was approached by another instructor (BM1 Nell) to select orders to SEAL Team 3 because that’s where he was going and there was an officer slot available to my class, and he wanted me to be in his platoon. If you were in the top 5 of your class you got your choice of orders and so I knew I could get those orders. But as odd as it sounds, I just lost interest and thought my marriage would suffer, and I’d be unable to be the father I wanted to be one day. Although I had resigned myself to complete BUD/S, do my two years as a SEAL, and then go back to the SWO community, my detailer phoned me with an offer to go to a new construction ship. (I had phoned him roughly a month before saying I was thinking of leaving and at that time he offered me an amphib I had no interest in going to. So I never phoned him again.) Unfortunately, that was before I knew that if you weren’t happy in your professional life, nothing in your personal life could offset that. Quitting was my life’s biggest regret.
Any additional words?
John I truly believe our society, not just the military misses the mark on what’s really important in life. I also believe many people, not just leaders, distance themselves from their actions and the impact of those actions on others. I’ve found that the lens through which people view their sphere of influence is narrow when it comes to suffering because no one wants to admit that their actions or appetites cause others to suffer. Pornography is a perfect example, no matter how insignificant someone views their interest in it, somewhere down the road a human being is being exploited. Yet many men act as if the enjoyment of pornography and strip clubs is a form of male bonding, and a path to real manhood. No one wants to admit it, but it’s true. I see all the “me too” things in the news, and the sexual assault, but even then men just don’t get it.
Watch almost any sports talk show and you’ll hear comments essentially objectifying women that go unnoticed because the attitude is so pervasive. I say this in Honor Held Dear:
“The act of exploitation almost always leads to suffering. Yet the world’s sex industry—the roots of which lie in exploitation—is reported to be in excess of $98 billion annually and growing. Sex traffickers, brothel owners, participants in the insidious world of child pornography—we righteously condemn such players. But even the passive enjoyment of adult pornography fuels demand in an inherently exploitative industry, no matter our attempts to rationalize and justify our consumption.
As a leader in a predominantly male culture that historically permits and even glamorizes the sexual appetites of sailors as they extend to the consumption of adult magazines, pornography, and live adult entertainment, I could not ignore the ramifications of this mindset. Its effects on the supply chain and on the ship’s atmosphere, especially with regard to respect toward female sailors, disturbed me deeply. As the commanding officer of a ship, there were countless directives that guided my actions, and outlined my duties and responsibilities. Among those was United States Navy Regulations. Chapter eight, article 820 stipulates, “The Commanding Officers shall: use all proper means to foster high morale, and to develop and strengthen the moral and spiritual well-being of the personnel under his or her command.” I read that to mean that I, as the commanding officer, was well within my bounds to do whatever I felt was necessary to promote the moral behavior of those in my command. I was expected to know how to do that. I didn’t need clarification from my boss to know what to do.
So after I talked about the responsible use of alcohol with my officers on Arleigh Burke, I jumped straight into my view on pornography. Only on this subject, my thoughts and expectations for their behavior and conduct extended to the entire crew……
Whether we want to admit it or not, there is a clear double standard in how we (Americans) view men and women. Catcalls and jocular, lewd comments about women are seen as normal male behavior, a form of male bonding even, and women are often expected to tolerate them as such. Yet most men (and even other women) would be taken aback if a woman behaved similarly in her observation of male bodies. The implicit message is that, sexually speaking, men are the consumers, and women are there to be consumed, whether they like it or not.”
Alan Eschbach was raised in the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside, where he learned the value of hard work, and developed a profound commitment to personal integrity and servant leadership. He earned his undergraduate degree from Millersville University, and holds master’s degrees in national security and strategic studies, and business administration. Alan was selected as a distinguished graduate as part of Millersville University’s Sesquicentennial celebration, and was the recipient of the Vice Admiral Bulkeley Leadership Award from the Surface Warfare Officer’s School Command. He served on six ships, and was commanding officer of USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) and USS San Jacinto (CG 56). Since retiring from the navy in 2005, Alan has worked as a senior analyst and subject matter expert, specializing in briefing navy staffs on maritime security operations. He can be reached at: