In the July 2009 issue of Proceedings , retired Rear Admiral William Holland wrote about the pervasiveness of this habit in the Pentagon. The admiral was mostly correct, but he misjudged the problem by saying "this diminution of rank does not seem to carry down into the enlisted ranks." Not only does it happen in the enlisted ranks, we allow our leaders to do it to us in a particularly significant area: our senior enlisted promotion system.
The Navy annually convenes the E-7, E-8, and E-9 Selection Boards. Messages announcing these boards typically include references to the selection of "Master Chief and Senior Chief Petty Officers," followed by references to the "E-8/E-9 selection boards" (see NAVADMIN 214/08 for an example). Are these boards selecting senior enlisted leaders or people to serve in some pay grade ? The distinction may seem like splitting hairs, but considering the negative connotations of grade over rank, it is unacceptable, and inaccurate.
Most Sailors selected for promotion are frocked, meaning they serve in their new rank without additional pay or benefits for some period of time. This can last nearly a year, during which newly promoted Sailors are not advanced in grade, but wear the rank and carry the associated title. Clearly, a Sailor selected for advancement to E-8 is, in reality, selected to serve as a Senior Chief Petty Officer. Pay grade is nothing more than a means for determining the monetary value of that service.
Navy Chiefs place great importance on the obvious implication of references to grade rather than rank, but this distinction is important regardless of service, and we should all avoid references to military professionals by income. True professionals earned their rank, and continue to earn their title through sustained superior performance. Referring to a military member by anything other than rank is disrespectful. Some earn that disrespect, but those instances are few and far between, and should be used sparingly.
To paraphrase Admiral Holland, can you imagine the response if someone referred to the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps as an E-10 ? Besides the non-existence of the E-10 grade, it's unprofessional and improper. The same goes for the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy who, as the Navy's top Chief, should demand that all selection boards reflect the true nature of their purpose - to select military leaders for service in the next higher rank, not grade.