Lifelong friends sail the seas together

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Crowsnest - Winter 2017 / February 1, 2017

By Captain Rick Donnelly

Had you asked friends Master Seaman Donald Merlo or Leading Seaman Zachery Warwick as children what they would be when they grew up, you might have received the standard answer: police officer, firefighter, or perhaps even professional athlete.

Never would either have guessed that they would find themselves sailing on the high seas as crew members aboard a Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) warship. Even less likely would they have believed they would end up doing it together.

Throughout this past autumn, both MS Merlo and LS Warwick sailed aboard Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Brandon on a lengthy operational tour in foreign waters.

Lifelong friends and athletic rivals, it was LS Warwick who first found himself in a navy uniform.

“I joined the navy first in 2006. I was looking for a job, something different,” he says. “I had originally decided I wanted to be a Naval Combat Information Operator. My mom actually talked me out of that. She thought the best thing for me would be to learn how to cook. She said ‘mama’s not going to be able to feed you forever, so you’ve got to learn how to cook it yourself.’”

It took a while for life in the military to grow on LS Warwick, as he recalls it. “I went to basic training in the summer of 2006, and I hated it. It was tough,” he says. “The thing I liked about it was the people I met. I met people from all over the place, many of whom are still really good friends today. The bonds you create through difficult times together are really strong.”

It was LS Warwick’s passion for the bonds of service that convinced MS Merlo that a life in the navy was for him as well.

“Zach easily convinced me to join the navy after telling me about everything that was involved and the people that he met,” says MS Merlo. “I knew then that I wanted to do it. I’m sure Zach didn’t expect me to do it, and I’m certain he didn’t expect we’d be serving on the same ship 10 years later, but here we are.”

So convinced was MS Merlo that a life in the navy was the way to go, he convinced a large circle of friends to join along with him, or so he thought. His friends, a group of 10, made a pact to join the navy together. The end result, as MS Merlo remembers it, was somewhat different.

“The plan was for me and nine of my friends to go away for basic training that summer, but I was the only one who did,” says MS Merlo. “But it worked out for the best for me, it really did. It got me to where I am today. I couldn’t thank Zach more for introducing me to that type of work. The military has been good to me.”

Fast forward 10 years, and while MS Merlo and LS Warwick never lost touch, they also never had the opportunity to work together. They would see each other on the jetty occasionally, and had a number of common friends throughout the collection of ships harboured at CFB Esquimalt, the navy base near Victoria, B.C. Being able to serve together on the same ship, however, just didn’t seem to be in the cards.

That all changed in autumn 2016.

Both were selected to hold key positions aboard the same ship during an operational tour, and despite the odds, with three ships being tasked to sail on the mission (the others being HMC Ships Edmonton and Kingston, the latter based out of Halifax), fate would finally reunite the friends. They would sail together aboard HMCS Brandon.

MS Merlo had just completed training that would prepare him to take on a Chief Boatswain’s Mate position aboard a ship sometime in the future when he learned that “sometime” had just become “immediately”.

“I expected to be shadowing my previous Chief Boatswain’s Mate in a mentoring kind of scenario,” says MS Merlo. “That’s not the deck of cards I was dealt. I was dealt right into an operational mission. When they said ‘Congratulations MS Merlo, you’re going to be the Chief Boatswain’s Mate in HMCS Brandon’, my stomach dropped. I walked out, called home, and then immediately started preparing for the mission.”

The Chief Boatswain’s Mate position on a ship can best be described as the deck quarterback. They run the show, from launching Zodiac boats from the ship to co-ordinating weapons shoots. When they talk, people listen.

LS Warwick’s preparation time for the mission was also brief, as he learned just shortly before departing that he would be thrust into the top position for his profession aboard a ship.

“Shortly before this trip, my command team asked me how I felt about being the chief cook for this mission,” says LS Warwick. “I felt pretty confident in myself, both in my cooking skills and my leadership abilities. It’s been a unique challenge leading a team that includes members who have served longer or have perhaps experienced more than I have.”

With the mission now behind them, both LS Warwick and MS Merlo reflect positively on their experience together. While both are proud of what the mission accomplished, both spoke from a more personal perspective.

“It was comforting knowing that I had someone there with me who I knew would always have my back,” says LS Warwick. “I never thought we’d find ourselves in these positions when we joined the navy, but there we were, as Chief Cook and Chief Boatswain’s Mate. Now that the trip is done, I still have a hard time believing it. I keep thinking ‘did that actually happen?’ Donny was always right there for me. At the end of the day, it was a great feeling knowing I had someone there with me that I had known for years.”

As for MS Merlo, while the goal of the mission was the driving factor behind his work, at least on a personal level, it was about something more.

“He’s my best friend. We’re not just friends in uniform, we’re friends in life,” he says. “There are times during the mission where you are pushed really hard. You feel like you are on your knees. To have your best buddy there to pick you up…there aren’t really words to explain that kind of bond. He believed in me, and I believed in him. What more can you ask for in a friend?”