It's Not Just a Job
These five words sum up why most young men and women join the naval service. They also represent the Navy's best chance for keeping its junior officers.
The junior officer corps contains some of the most talented, best-educated, hardest-working, patriotic twenty-somethings in the United States. They possess the drive and skills that civilian employers desire, and they could have taken good jobs straight out of college. So why did they join the Navy? Because it's not just a job: It is an opportunity to work in a challenging environment, travel the world, and serve one's country. It provides a sense of purpose, camaraderie, and adventure that nothing in the civilian world could match—at least it used to.
To many junior officers the Navy has become just a job, and not a very good one. The service is run like a company, not a war-fighting machine. The aspects of a naval career that drew them in either are gone or on the way out. What remains is an enormous bureaucratic machine that doesn't take care of its people, has no big picture purpose or mission, and is trying to function with shrinking monetary, political, and popular support. But the retention problem does not stem entirely from the declining budgets and the end of the Cold War. It also comes from the lack of support of civilian leaders for the Navy and its people, and even more important, from the unwillingness of Navy leaders to fight for their service. As budgets, benefits, and billets erode, junior officers look to their leaders and what they don't see is them taking a stand against the dismantling of an effective naval force. What they do see are admirals acceding to the demands of civilian leaders without clearly articulating the consequences—consequences that the junior officers and the sailors they lead must deal with on a daily basis.
Training and Mission Readiness
The decline in budgets has hit the hardest in training and readiness. These are the easiest areas to gloss over when making reports to the civilian leaders who ultimately determine when to send service members into harm's way. Conversely, they are the areas where junior officers can see up close how much support—or lack of support—they are being provided to perform their combat missions. Civilian leaders seem to look only at the numbers of available ships, planes, and submarines when assessing the combat capabilities of the Navy, but it is training, maintenance, and spare parts availability that truly define such capability. Today's junior officer in a squadron or on a ship sees firsthand the hollow force that we are becoming. Training is at a minimum, parts availability is atrocious, and personnel shortages abound. Preparing for deployment now means robbing equipment and people from similar ships or squadrons, and the lack of training and resources gives junior officers less confidence in their ability to fight, survive, and win in combat.
Training for combat is the most challenging and rewarding thing a junior officer can do. If we can bring back a well-supported training program with challenging missions and realistic assessments of combat readiness, it will do more to increase retention than any financial incentive. More sea duty might not seem like such a bad thing if we truly are training to fight. The first step is for commands to report their levels of readiness honestly and to address any unrealistic reporting criteria. The next step is to state what is needed to achieve and maintain combat readiness. Then Navy leaders need to report to their civilian bosses exactly what missions the Navy is ready to undertake. They should refuse to deploy units that are not fully manned and combat ready.
Quality of Life/Erosion of Benefits
When the focus of the Navy moves away from training to fight, the focus of the junior officer shifts as well. Trouble with medical and dental care, dealing with an insane amount of paperwork, and other day-to-day hassles are not that big a deal when you are doing a challenging job with a sense of purpose. But if we take away the good parts of serving in the Navy, those bad parts will rise to the surface. If junior officers are not happy with their jobs and lives in the Navy they will leave. There are plenty of other bureaucracies to work for, and most offer better pay, don't deploy, and have a 401(k) and retirement plan.
Better pay, retirement benefits, health care, housing, and the like will require the approval of Congress. Junior officers understand this and realize that in these budget-conscious times it will be hard to wring out the money to pay for them. But what they need is to see our leaders in uniform waging a visible battle to improve these aspects of military life, all of which have taken a dramatic downturn since today's junior officers were commissioned. As with combat readiness, our leaders need to state the consequences of letting these benefits erode and keep open lines of communication with junior officers, to let them know where each issue stands and what the next step in the fight will be.
Poor Choice of Orders/Duty Stations
This area always has been bad, but in today's climate it makes much more difference in retention. The Navy does itself a great disservice in the way it details its junior officers. Most have little or no say in the process, and getting a billet one wants is a crapshoot. Ask any detailer what is the most important factor in getting orders you want and the answer will be "timing." The process is particularly bad for those coming out of initial warfare training. Many junior officers sour on the idea a career in an organization that will assign them billets with no consideration of their personal goals, family situations, or preferences.
With the current shortage of commissioned officers, the availability of shore duty billets is decreasing. Junior officers recognize that a career in the Navy will mean more sea duty than ever before. Sure, they knew that they would be going to sea when they joined, but not for consecutive sea tours.
Giving junior officers more of a voice in the detailing process will go a long way toward keeping more of them in uniform. A good first step would be for the Bureau of Personnel to mandate that the desires of an individual are more important than detailing that individual to a "career-enhancing" assignment. If you send a junior officer to a career-enhancing job instead of to a job he actually wants, that officer probably won't stay in the Navy long enough to realize those career-enhancing benefits. The "needs of the Navy" always will be the top priority, but with the current retention problems and the limited number of officers in year groups 1991-1996, the main need may be to keep an unprecedented number of junior officers in the service past their initial obligations.
To keep junior officers from jumping ship, the Navy needs to maximize the appealing aspects of commissioned service and minimize the negative ones. Its leaders in Washington must make these efforts visibly, promptly, and in earnest. Changes that can be made without civilian approval should be enacted immediately. When they fight for an issue, they need to articulate their goals and plan of action to their junior officers—and let them know what they can do to help. Most important, they must let junior officers know when their efforts fail, why they failed, and what the next course of action will be. Making the effort is just as important as winning the battle.
Today's junior officer still can be convinced to make a career out of the Navy, but efforts must begin now. Junior officer aviators will have an average of 10-11 years of commissioned service before they are eligible to get out. A little more money after a decade of poor treatment (real or perceived) won't be enough to keep anyone in.
Instead, the Navy needs to put the focus back on training to fight wars and taking care of its people. If we start working to bring back the adventure today, and keep the press on, a career in the Navy may become something that a junior officer desires, instead of dreads.
Lieutenant Carretta is assigned to SeaConRon 33, Unit 25471.