Rodney Denson had planned to join the Marine Corps. He enlisted straight out of high school and shipped immediately to Basic Training. But when a minor knee injury sidelined him, he had to leave the Service and spend a year recovering. After he bounced back, he was quick to enlist again — this time, in the Navy.
Rodney went in undesignated, which means he had not yet been assigned a career. He did everything from night watches to miscellaneous repairs as he learned more about Navy life and available jobs. Ultimately, he began on-the-job training as a storekeeper — a role that goes well beyond cashiering.
“You provide technical assistance, you do inventory, you do a lot of financials to make sure you balanced the ship’s budget after our reports… basically you provide all supply functions to the ship.”
At the heart of the supply department, storekeepers order, stock and issue every piece of gear a Sailor uses, ensuring the crew has the supplies they need before a ship leaves port and while it is underway. Rodney began working in a warehouse but soon found himself on the USS Shasta, where he was stationed for the next two years. Then, at his commanding officer’s order, he spent six months aboard the USS Sacramento on temporary duty. It was hard work jumping into a new role, but during the deployment, Rodney achieved a big milestone: He crossed the equator for the first time.
“When your ship crosses the equator [or] international date line, you have to go through a huge initiation. It is part of the Navy tradition… in the beginning, you are a ‘pollywog.’ That’s your name. And the ‘shellbacks’ have to initiate you.”
Becoming one of the “shellbacks” wasn’t the only promotion Rodney received around this time. He earned his third-class rank and, with it, new responsibilities. Over the next few years he was deployed, twice, on the USS Shasta and USS Shreveport. Then he did a tour at the Harbor Operations Department in Mayport, Fla.
“Normally, you have… seven to 10 storekeepers [on a ship]. But in this command it was independent duty… I made sure that all the crafts had fuel, and then I did one big huge plant and property inventory every year.”
Comfortable in his role and eager to advance to the next rank, Rodney decided to give himself a competitive advantage. On the advice of one of his chiefs, he began training as a craft master, learning to operate the various vessels that came into his port. His new qualification soon came in handy.
“All the ships that came up and down the East Coast had to do anti-terrorism training [in Maple, Fla.] ... my team simulated like we were terrorists and we were warding off attacks by small boats. And we had to do extensive training daily on that to make sure that we gave the ships the best simulation possible.”
With his new skills, Rodney didn’t stay in one place for long. He was sent for a six-month deployment in Stuttgart, Germany, filling in for a fellow storekeeper. He had barely returned home when his commanding officer deployed him again — this time to Afghanistan. This pattern continued for a few years, as Rodney alternated between domestic assignments and overseas deployments, traveling to Bahrain and then throughout South America as part of a Special Operations team.
“My role again was logistics. I had to make sure that all the cell phone contracts were paid, the housing contracts were paid, the transportation contracts were paid. Everything that you could think [of] for covert operations that needs to be paid through supply, I did it.”
Rodney again embraced the experience and tried to learn everything he could. Daily Spanish lessons improved his ability to communicate with local suppliers. After 16 months he was ready to come home and receive his next assignment. But shortly after returning to Miami, Rodney was injured in a serious car accident, again changing his fate. No longer able to work with Special Operations, he found himself in a Navy Expeditionary Logistic Support Unit, outfitting other deploying servicemembers.
“Seventeen people work for me. I pretty much know which commands are coming that need to be trained or what we are actually doing to support the mission forward… there are so many different type of roles here that you have to do.”
Rodney isn’t ready to sit still yet, however. He recently volunteered to deploy on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and hopes to make chief before retiring after 20 years of service.
“It has been almost 17 years now, and beautiful things come to an end. So I just want to ride it in style, and they used to call the [USS] Enterprise the ‘carrier with class.’ So I just want to go out on a carrier with class.”
With a career as full as Rodney’s, it is hard to imagine him doing it any other way.