Getting Back to Basics

By Lieutenant Martha S. Dunne, U.S. Navy

Many young men and women who join the military today lack the essential strong foundation of ethics and values. Unfortunately, those who historically have been responsible for the moral development of America's youth have all but disappeared for Generation X. Broken homes, single parents, and crowded schools have replaced teachers, ministers, and two-parent families. Teenagers no longer are encouraged to serve their country because their parents served, because they are less likely to have a parent who enlisted or received a commission. Beavis and Butt-head have replaced Mom and Dad as teachers of lessons on authority and respect—or the resistance to both. A person who enlists with a strong sense of commitment, integrity, and a solid work ethic is the exception, not the norm.

At the same time, many people are leaving the military because it is not as rigorous or demanding as they expected. The Navy no longer offers a challenge, and that sentiment is felt by all ranks. Recruits who enter boot camp discover that it is easier than expected. Aviators who were enticed to join by the glamorous image soon are disillusioned by the mundane missions. Those in the surface navy wonder if the deployments to the Persian Gulf will ever allow them to serve as anything more than a glorified police force at sea.

The military also has failed to give its people incentives to remain in uniform until retirement age. Sailors and Marines no longer are looked at as the building blocks of a fighting force, but rather as expendable items in a large organization. The amount of retirement pay that personnel are entitled to for a full 20 years of service has decreased steadily. For some officers, the benefits of exchanging the uniform for a two-piece suit after serving their initial commitment outweigh the disadvantages. According to Admiral Daniel Murphy, the head of surface warfare, it soon may be necessary for bonuses to be paid to those in his community, like those paid to aviators and submariners, to keep experienced sailors in the Navy.

However, the most significant reasons for low retention rates may be the lack of satisfaction that individuals have with their roles in the Navy and a loss of confidence in senior decision-makers. In many circumstances, those who are in a position of command (or higher) no longer can make decisions based upon right or wrong without considering how the media and the civilian world will perceive the outcome. In a recent Navy Times article, 36% of enlisted and 50% of officers surveyed indicated that they no longer had faith in their leaders. As a result, a growing number of officers and enlisted personnel view the naval service as a short-term job, not a lifelong profession.

Fixing the Future

At first glance, it seems as if the Navy is having difficulty enticing quality civilians to join and convincing quality sailors to remain. On closer examination, the dilemma lies not in the people but the manner in which the service is leading them. The solution is not as difficult as it may seem. Building a better Navy depends on developing and strengthening the principles that have always been an integral part of the military. In addition, leadership techniques must be updated for a changing military.

Be selective in recruiting . The military certainly is not a profession that is right for everyone, but judging by the people it accepts, it is an organization willing to take anyone. In the words of one disgruntled senior chief, "The Navy has become a federal jobs program, rather than an elite group of warriors." While advertisements present images of teamwork, toughness, and exclusivity, the standards by which recruits are selected suggest otherwise. High school seniors can enlist by scoring a minimum of 31% on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) examination, while those who have been gainfully employed in the civilian workforce are required to score at least 50%. If civilian corporations never would consider hiring an applicant who demonstrates so little potential, the question remains: Why does the military? The naval service cannot afford to accept individuals whose best effort will allow them to be correct less than half of the time. If the true strength of any warfighting organization lies in the abilities of its people, higher standards must be set; selecting personnel who merely meet the minimums is not acceptable.

Furthermore, a candidate should be evaluated as a complete person and not merely screened for his or her intellectual potential. A sailor who has the knowledge and know-how to operate a Tomahawk console is worthless if he or she has little tolerance for hard work, following orders, or behaving like a professional. It is equally important that future recruits be interviewed, screened, and questioned for their motives for joining, their tolerance for military standards, and their willingness to be tough in challenging situations.

Go back to the basics in basic training . In this era of a kinder, gentler Navy, boot camp has undergone many changes—many for the worse. A growing sentiment among seasoned personnel is that those first 16 weeks of training are failing to produce quality sailors. One recruit summed it up in a recent Time article, "Boot Camp Goes Soft": "I expected basic training to be tough, like the movies. This is more like summer camp."

While important lessons such as self-respect and fairness have grabbed the spotlight, the fundamental lessons that define the military—such as toughness, taking a strain, and teamwork—have taken the backseat. The classic response, "no excuse, sir," is now a term of the past.

Treating recruits with kid gloves will not prepare them for the harsh realities of the fleet, or more important, for the stresses and demands of war. A seaman recruit who is not exposed to discipline in boot camp will be surprised if he commits an offense at his first command and is subjected to bread and water for three days. Similarly, a sailor who offers excuse after excuse for failing to get the job done will not be prepared for the reprimand from her division officer or chief. While it is important for recruits to be taught the basics of being a good person, the military needs to keep in mind that recruits will fail as warriors if they are not taught to behave like warriors.

Be firm on standards and discipline . In the past several years, the terms "punishment" and "military discipline" have come to be regarded negatively, and those in positions of authority have been criticized for being unfair or too tough when it comes to taking disciplinary action. In recent years, commanding officers have come under fire for being inequitable, particularly in cases involving race or gender. Chiefs or division officers who raise their voices when correcting subordinates are frowned upon. In some cases, limitations have been placed on the types of punishment that can be awarded, as pressure has forced leaders to be more concerned with being politically correct than with making the correct decisions. In others, teams of publicists, lawyers, and media coverage replace the chain of command. It is no surprise that the military has lost has the latitude to make discipline work effectively.

Extra military instruction has been watered down, with limits placed on the time and amount of work that is performed. Punishment that is handed down at Captain's Mast is no longer as severe as in the past. A sailor who is arrested for driving under the influence (DUI) is more likely to attend a drug and alcohol class, serve restricted time, and lose base driving privileges than to be discharged. As a result, some are no longer afraid to break the rules—not because they aren't aware of the differences between right and wrong, but because they realize that there is a limit to the amount and type of punishment that they will receive. A petty officer who is late for a watch will not be concerned if he is late the following week if he knows that the worst that can result is a verbal reprimand and extra duty. The penalties for failing to follow rules or regulations no longer are deterrents; they are now mere inconveniences for offenders.

To be effective leaders in an age when traditional tools for correction and punishment no longer can be used, those in a position to influence subordinates need to be vocal about their intolerance of such subjects such as fraternization, drinking, and disregard for duty, instead of taking for granted that people will understand the policies posted on the wall. Furthermore, leaders must get creative with the punishment that they administer in order to send a message about what will and will not be tolerated. Recently, a commanding officer of an aircraft carrier decided that he would waive the sentence of restriction and a reduction in pay if the two sailors found guilty of fraternization would pick up the phone and tell their respective spouses that they had been having an affair. Clearly, his decision indirectly let the rest of the ship know that consequences would be severe if they were caught either fraternizing or committing adultery. A sailor might think twice about mustering late if a shipmate who failed to muster was forced to make a speech at general military training on the importance of duty and their negligence of it. Likewise, those who drink heavily might change their minds about getting behind the wheel if the first sailor arrested for a DUI had his mast in front of the entire command. While some may view these actions as humiliating or degrading, they may force those who have disregarded rules to be responsible for their actions.

Refine and define the image . Not surprisingly, it also has become increasingly difficult for sailors to define and identify the qualities of the ideal warrior. While being tough, outspoken, and fearless always have been qualities every sailor and officer should demonstrate, the opportunities to do so have been few and far between. Without a defined enemy, there has been little chance for individuals to prove themselves on the battlefield or on the open seas. Although many traditions and rites of passage have provided alternate venues to prove those qualities, those, too, have disappeared quickly. After much controversy, "blood wings" no longer can be pinned after the completion of jump school, and crossing-the-line ceremonies now require forms of consent to be signed by all participants. In these post-Tailhook years, all-officer meetings have moved from the local watering hole to squadron wardrooms. Although the trash-talking, bar-hopping, womanizing sailor has been eradicated as the ideal, the Navy has failed to develop and promote an adequate replacement.

The Navy must make a greater effort to emphasize the qualities of a leader and warrior in a time when that image is so difficult to visualize. Aside from basic training and commissioning sources, the opportunity for Navy personnel to be educated formally on the subject is scarce; weeklong leadership classes dispersed throughout one's career hardly are enough training. If learning to be a leader and warrior is a lifelong process, then teaching and developing people to have the qualities of a leader and warrior must be a continuous process, not necessarily limited to a classroom environment. In a profession in which leadership is a major factor in getting the job done, the subject should receive the same attention that is placed on safety stand-downs, general military training, and advancement examinations.

There should be a greater effort to provide role models for all personnel. At the Naval Academy, the Forrestal lecture series was established to provide an opportunity for midshipmen to listen to and learn from a variety of world and naval leaders. While some speakers, such as General Colin Powell, have provided insight into leadership at a national level, others, such as Vietnam prisoner-of-war Captain Charles Plumb, have redefined what it means to be a true hero. A similar lecture series could make the difference for the fleet, during a time in which many sailors are at a loss to determine whom to look up to and how to behave.

Take physical training seriously . Physical training (PT) always has been an integral part of the military. In basic training, it is used not only to keep recruits in shape but also to develop qualities that are desired and required of every sailor. Group activities, including platoon runs, are used to build teamwork and esprit de corps. Individual challenges, such as the obstacle course, produce confidence.

Unfortunately, once boot camp is complete, the importance of working out together or keeping in shape no longer is a priority. The only platoon run seen on most naval bases usually is made up of individuals who are on the remedial PRT program. Captain's Cup events are accepted as sufficient exercise for many commands. Despite the Chief of Naval Operations' policy for mandatory PT three times a week, many still openly pride themselves on being members of the "three-mile-a-year" club.

In contrast, it is no surprise that the Marine Corps and the Navy SEALs maintain their elite status because of the emphasis they place on physical fitness. Both attract large numbers of applicants not because of the demanding physical program, but because the importance of being in shape contributes directly to the image of exclusivity and teamwork. It may be necessary to make group physical activity a priority at lower levels to build camaraderie and reinforce long-forgotten values. Command runs or ship sport days may provide not only positive support to those who are not physically fit but may help to unite people in a command in which many things are done individually.

Invest more time in our most junior sailors and officers . In any organization—corporate, athletic, or otherwise—success for the future often depends on developing the potential of junior personnel. In addition to developing values and a strong work ethic, it is crucial to show them what is at the top, to motivate them to get there. The process of developing future leaders is no different for the Navy. Unfortunately, junior personnel often are neglected, left to clamber up the ranks through their own initiative.

For some sailors, the Navy is a way to escape from a small town or a disappointing home life. For some officers, seeking a commission was a means to pay for a college education. In either case, many do not look at their future beyond their initial commitment. Retention is a concern for all hands, and an aggressive approach must be made to prove to both groups that the military is not merely a way out, but a positive career choice.

Those who are responsible for the lives of the junior sailors or officers must not only remind their subordinates that they are a valuable asset to the team but must provide them a vision of their future. In their first six months in the fleet, it is easy for those assigned to the base galley or to the first lieutenant to feel unappreciated, doing things that they clearly did not join the Navy to do. Instead, taking young sailors who are scrubbing latrines to the O-10 level to watch night landings or showing them the bridge or combat information center may make all the difference in the world for their attitude and willingness to work. Similarly, many young ensigns and lieutenants get caught up in the race for qualifications and fitness reports, forgetting that there is life beyond their present rank. Commanding officers or department heads taking personal interest in the careers of junior officers may help them to see themselves as future admirals rather than CEOs.

In many respects, the military is in a period of change and turmoil. It is clear that the Navy and Marine Corps are being forced to do more with less; therefore, people are expected to perform more tasks and assume greater responsibilities. It is also obvious that the military may have lowered its standards based upon the quality of people that are now being sworn in to support and defend our Constitution. However, the recruiting and retention problems are not caused by the people; they exist because we have failed to invest the time and effort to mold and shape our people into the caliber we expect them to be. We need to concentrate on finding solutions, instead of repeatedly dwelling on the same problems,

The Navy must reflect a changing world. While this may require us to change the techniques by which we teach our requirements and standards, this is by no means an excuse for us to change or lower these standards. As we downsize, we have concentrated on building a smaller force but have neglected to build a well-rounded force. We cannot afford to be shortsighted or allow our personnel to think of their naval experience as a short-term passage in life. We must pay more attention to getting back to the basics of leadership if we are to transform our people into our strongest assets. All other issues become secondary if the military no longer is teaching and reinforcing fundamental military principles.

Lieutenant Dunne is with Helicopter Antisubmarine Squadron Light 43 at NAS North Island. She previously won First Honorable Mention in the Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Contest in 1995 and Second Honorable Mention in 1994 and 1996.


Lieutenant Dunne is stationed at Naval Special Warfare Group ONE at NAB Coronado, California, as the assistant operations officer. A 1992 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, she completed a masters in global leadership at the University of San Diego in 2000.

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