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Marine discovers secret skill: A fine knack for piloting ships

Aug. 31, 2013 - 01:22PM   |  
The 'drive' to learn: Marine qualifies to pilot Na
Staff Sgt. Michael W. Burkhart, an amphibious assault vehicle section leader with 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, alters the dock landing ship Germantown's course July 15. Burkhart is training to be a master helmsman. (Sgt. Jonathan Wright / Marine Corps)
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By day, he's a section leader for amphibious assault vehicles, the Marines' 26-foot-long sea-and-land personnel carriers. In his free time, he's learning to steer a much bigger boat.

By day, he's a section leader for amphibious assault vehicles, the Marines' 26-foot-long sea-and-land personnel carriers. In his free time, he's learning to steer a much bigger boat.

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By day, he’s a section leader for amphibious assault vehicles, the Marines’ 26-foot-long sea-and-land personnel carriers. In his free time, he’s learning to steer a much bigger boat.

While deployed with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, Staff Sgt. Michael Burkhart quietly became the first known Marine to have earned his helmsman certification: a Navy skill that qualifies him to navigate the dock landing ship Germantown, his home for the past two months, as it moves through waters in the Asia-Pacific region.

Burkhart, a 30-year-old Oklahoma native, said his acquisition of the unique skill began with curiosity, fueled by the monotony of ship life. He made his way up to the Germantown’s bridge — its command center — during some down time.

“I’m kind of an outgoing person,” he said. “I was talking to a few of the [Navy] lieutenants. I wanted to get a better understanding of how the Navy and the Marine Corps work together and what it takes to help us operate.”

When he asked what it would take to learn how to steer the ship instead of just watching, the sailors he was chatting with asked around. It wasn’t a problem, and plenty of helmsmen were happy to pass along what they knew.

Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class Michael Matthews said the unusual nature of the request spurred sailors’ eagerness to show Burkhart the ropes.

“We’ve never heard of a Marine wanting to learn the helm, so we were pretty enthusiastic about it,” he said.

The duties of a helmsman, typically a position assigned to a fairly junior enlisted sailor, involve intensive attention to detail and careful memorization of the basic orders.

On a helsman’s watch, the sailor receives orders from a supervising officer and must repeat the orders back, word for word, and make the prescribed course alterations. Steering can involve a practiced touch and requires a solid knowledge of the compass and a good head for numbers.

Learning the basics of navigation for an hour or two every day, Burkhart said he found a knack for the job right away.

“A lot of it has to do with numbers; I’m really good with numbers,” Burkhart said. “I feel like I’ve grasped everything really well.”

The grueling attention to detail didn’t bother him either.

“For me, it’s not a big change; it’s the whole Marine mentality,” Burkhart said. “Everything we do is really precise.”

The sailors who trained Burkhart said he isn’t imagining things.

“He is a natural at this,” said Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class Daniel Johnson, a qualified helmsman who has been working on getting his master helmsman certification over the past six months. “Out of all the people I have trained and seen trained, he was one of the fastest to pick it up. He was able to pick up all the knowledge base and the ability to drive in about a week. Fastest I’ve ever seen.”

It can take a month or more for sailors to learn everything they need to know to get their helmsman certification, Johnson said.

Burkhart, who received his qualified helmsman certification Aug. 23, has already set his eyes on a new prize: a master helmsman cert, which will qualify him to steer billion-dollar ships through difficult-to-navigate areas and guide them in and out of port.

While the number of Marines who become helmsmen isn’t something the Navy or Marine Corps would keep track of, the sailors supervising Burkhart were confident that he was unique.

“I’ve never seen that happen,” said Ensign Andrea Stoke, a communications officer with the operations department of the Germantown. In her two ship deployments, she said, no Marine had approached her to learn more about ship operation.

Professionally, becoming a helmsman isn’t something that has a clear payoff for Burkhart. He’s not interested in leaving his specialty as an AAV section leader, although he might explore the opportunities his helmsman qualification affords in civilian maritime activities and perhaps pursue work at a shipyard when he retires, Burkhart said he took on the challenge for its own sake. Well, there was one other small reason.

As a single dad, Burkhart said the hardest part of being deployed on ship was being away from his 4-year-old daughter. The time he took to learn a new skill, he said, helped to keep his mind off missing her.

“That’s one of the reasons I decided to do this.”

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