People faced with adversity develop character along the way, but often the character they had to begin with is what makes the difference. Developing this indomitable spirit does not happen magically, nor does it occur from being mollycoddled. Leaders must ensure every training evolution becomes a character-building experience, and it must begin as soon as civilians seek to become Sailors. Instead, we are the victims of our leaders' desire to make experiences comfortable and become a Top 50 employer when, in actuality, the military is more a way of life than employment—and it's not for everyone.
Navy recruit training, or boot camp, has steadily gotten easier over time. The stress card—which allowed recruits to stop training when they felt overly taxed—is gone, but the training has become a joke. When asked about their feelings toward this important phase of their careers, a group of newly minted Sailors hesitated, chuckled, and in near-unison used those two words to describe their experience—a joke. Although one admitted being brought to tears after Battle Stations, the culminating event of recruit training, all agreed that their character was not built, and they did not grow personally, during their initial Navy experience. More disturbingly, a young Sailor interviewed a couple years earlier said he was "less of a man for having attended Navy boot camp."
The dedicated professionals at Recruit Training Command do incredible work in a challenging environment, but these men and women of character may not be effectively passing on that critical trait using the curriculum approved by Navy leadership.
Building character should be a goal of any training exercise, leadership courses in particular. Instead, current leadership training does not challenge Sailors' physical, mental, or moral character. This tendency has, in many ways, carried over to Chief Petty Officer Initiation. Even the name has been changed to the more politically acceptable Transition.
Serious improvements have been made to the initiation curriculum, objectives have been clarified, and potentially harmful aspects have been eliminated. It remains an excellent example of character-building training, but each year the process gets a little easier, initiates a little more nonchalant, and expectations concomitantly lower. Not to mention the time available for the training has been steadily reduced. It has become too easy just to tolerate the process, provide half-efforts, and cruise to the pinning ceremony. Chiefs' Initiation, and any other training with a leadership or combat aspect, needs to be tough, intimidating, and should build character.
The sentiment of a dear friend and respected educator who has a keen sense of character can be summarized thusly: By increasing the rigor of training, Sailors will become stronger and have the character to face other life events requiring mental fortitude, particularly those individuals who possess little character on entering the service. They will not cower in the background but will become strong, empowered professionals standing on the front lines of the fight.
Life throws us many obstacles. With the benefit of time, most become but a skinned knee, not nearly as traumatic as first believed. It's time we build obstacles, develop Sailors' character, and teach them to overcome these challenges. And when they complain along the way, tell them to rub a little dirt in it—it builds character.