As a Captain the Naval Reserves, Mike Czarnik spent many months at sea over the last thirty years. In an event held at Great Lakes Naval Center in North Chicago, Illinois on January 12, 2019, he completed the second phase of a retirement ceremony that began at the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia.
The Navy’s retirement traditions focus on sending a shipmate ashore one last time. Thus attired in fully formal Navy dress uniform with a bristle of medals clinking on his chest, Captain Czarnik was celebrated for his many missions and service to country. That included 38 years of total Navy dedication including the training that began in high school and extended through four years at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
On a day where winds were blowing snow against the east windows of Whitehat training center on the Great Lakes campus, one could hear the roll of waves against the Lake Michigan shore 400 meters east. That roar of surf reflected the significance of life at sea. At one point during his speech about his career, Czarnik related how it felt to be casting off on a naval ship headed for destinations around the world. “Every ship has its own distinct hum,” he shared. “You learn to sleep with the noise, and when you stand on deck and feel the breeze, there is nothing else like it.”
Thus a Navy man explains the lure of the sea and why so many feel drawn to the life of a sailor and shipmate. Sitting still in the face of that pull of the sea is simply not an option. Certainly, those who embrace a sailor on land sense the unique character of Navy life. There’s a sacrifice inherent to the journey. Those that serve know there is no call for apology in that venture. The nobility of the Navy is tied precisely to the fact that one cannot turn around and come back at a minute’s notice. Yet woe to any man or woman unfortunate enough to fall off the back of a ship. The point is this, the risks of life at sea are real.
In the retirement speech covering his years in the Navy, Czarnik related the character but not necessarily the details of Navy missions around the world. These included missions to danger zones such as Somalia during times of regional crisis. Czarnik also saw many changes in the nature of engagement over the years, for while civil unrest raged on shore, the Marines who departed from his Navy vessel were met with the flash of cameras as journalists covering the story awaited their arrival. In some respects that presumptive presence seemed more unsettling than the nerve-wracking call of duty beyond the shoreline.
Captain on land
Czarnik’s “other life” beyond the Navy reserves is managing global teams for the telecommunications giant AT&T. As he gave his speech about Navy retirement, he glanced around the audience to compliment his voyageurs in that realm of his life’s journey as well.
But perhaps there is no more symbolically relevant occupation that Czarnik enjoys more than doing triathlons. The migration from sea to shore is literal and physical, and his multiple full Ironman distance races are testimony to his love of the sport.
Thus during his speech he also thanked his triathlon friends for their companionship as well. Czarnik’s constitution seems to be that of the Energizer Bunny as he has indeed drummed his way from Navy duties to AT&T to athletic pursuits. Sometimes he seems indomitable, such as the day he completed back-to-back running races at the Gasparilla distance event in Tampa during February 2018. First, he raced the Half Marathon distance in just under 1:45, then turned right around and ran the five-mile race with his partner Julie Dunn.
All the while, Czarnik keeps a running commentary going. The man loves a good joke and even a few bad jokes just to keep things interesting. He admitted that keeping life interesting is part of his persona, relating how he and his shipmates shared life as they traveled from port to port. “And what happens on shore, stays on shore,” he laughed. So did many of shipmates.
He also related how American Navy policies differ a bit from other naval forces around the world. It seems that the vagaries of life at sea demand tradition not just for the respect and order it accords, but to affirm the knowledge necessary to prepare and protect those who serve.
The Navy holds to these traditions because they work. Sitting in the chairs below the Whitehat training ship one can study the many ropes, pulleys and implements that Navy trainees must learn before heading out to sea. Knowing your stuff in the Navy, like many other military occupations, is indeed a life or death knowledge base. The tension on a massive rope holding a giant ship at port is dangerous indeed. That’s why Navy personnel train and train again.
Those who rise in the ranks are responsible for helping others put that training to use. In fine Navy tradition, the entire force is considered to be ‘standing watch’ both in literal and rhetorical fashion. Thus when a Captain retires, it is confirmed that those trained by that leader are there to relieve them from duty.
That is a tremendous statement about the nature of military service. There is a direct commitment to duty that must be fulfilled. Then it must replaced by those who follow.
Those who lose their lives in the process of standing watch are revered for their sacrifice and appreciated for their service. In the Port O Call building where the reception following the retirement ceremony was held, a table sits with a red rose to recall those who lost a loved one. On a plate sits a slice of lemon for the bitterness of death. A black napkin mourns those who are gone. The chair is tipped to indicate those who will not return.
Nearby, a beautiful brass bell sits ready to chime the passage of time and how the lives of sailors and officers ring on.
As Czarnik saluted his shipmates one last time a solemn sailor piped his passage out of the room. Tears flowed from strong men and there were lumps in the throat of many in attendance.
In a world where so many seem to avoid solemnity at any cost, the Navy knows its importance and celebrates the sound of the wind and the shrug of waves carrying ships on the sea. It is both a solemn and salutary profession.