An individual can take several paths to become a sailor—enlisted or commissioned—in the U.S. Navy. The simplest distinction (not without some exceptions) between officers and enlisted is that the former have college degrees and the latter do not. While there are ways for enlisted sailors to become officers, and there are enlisted sailors who have degrees, these distinctions generally hold true, and most sailors enter the Navy primarily through one of several ways.
Young men and women who want to enlist in the Navy begin their conversion from civilian to sailor by reporting to the Recruit Training Command (RTC), often referred to as boot camp. In the past, there were boot camps in such places as San Diego, California; Orlando, Florida; and Bainbridge, Maryland, but today there is only one, located in Great Lakes, Illinois, north of Chicago.
Although the length of boot camp has varied a great deal over the years, it currently lasts seven weeks (with an additional week at the beginning, called “processing week,” which is not officially part of boot camp). Recruits receive specialized training in militarization, seamanship, watchstanding, firefighting, damage control, and both personal and professional development. Physical fitness is emphasized, and recruits also spend time on the firing range and in the swimming pool learning skills and techniques that will serve them well once they join the fleet. Recruits also must successfully complete a final capstone event known as “Battle Stations.” This tests their knowledge and skills, as well as their fortitude and ability to work with others, in an arduous series of events that lasts 24 to 36 hours and includes challenges such as fighting fires, stopping flooding, and dealing with the effects of fatigue.
Once sailors have graduated from boot camp (in a special ceremony), they typically attend an A school for “accession” training, which is less intense in military terms and more specific to what they will be doing once they reach the fleet. Some A schools are located at Great Lakes, but there are others at various locations around the country. The training received is “rating” (occupation) specific, and there is much variation in length, depending on the sailor’s rating. For example, A school for quartermasters is 9 weeks long, while that of a gas turbine systems technician (mechanical) is 15 weeks.
There are several ways an individual can earn a commission as an officer in the Navy. The most comprehensive path is by way of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Students (midshipmen) are admitted to the Academy through a highly competitive selection process and spend four years at the school, where they prepare for naval service while simultaneously earning a bachelor of science degree. Upon graduation, midshipmen become commissioned officers in either the Navy (as ensigns) or the Marine Corps (as second lieutenants).
Another way for young men and women to earn a commission is through the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC). Again, the admissions process is highly competitive and results in successful applicants receiving scholarships and becoming midshipmen. But instead of going to Annapolis, they attend civilian colleges and universities that have NROTC units (Notre Dame, Penn State, and many others). On successfully earning their bachelor’s degrees, the midshipmen are commissioned (again, in either the Navy or Marine Corps).
Men and women who already have bachelor’s degrees from accredited colleges and universities and who want to become officers in the Navy may apply for admission to Officer Candidate School (OCS). Once selected, they will report to OCS Newport, Rhode Island, where they will spend 12 weeks in intensive training divided into three phases: indoctrination (as “indoctrination candidates,” where they are “militarized” through exercise, drills, inspections, and the like); academics (as “officer candidates,” where they learn naval operations, heritage, navigation, leadership, etc.); and applied leadership (as “candidate officers,” where they practice their leadership skills on those candidates still in the earlier phases). On successful completion of training at OCS, candidates are commissioned as ensigns.
Another way to enter the Navy as an officer is to be commissioned as either a staff corps officer (doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, dentists, or chaplains) or a restricted line officer (specialists in engineering duty, intelligence, cryptology, public affairs, etc.) by virtue of specialized education. These specialists first receive commissions in the Navy and then attend Officer Development School, a five-week course of instruction offered in Newport that includes training in leadership, sea power, damage control, and other topics designed to equip them with the tools they will need to be naval officers.
It is important to note that while all of these paths place heavy emphasis on training, becoming a sailor in the Navy also requires a commitment by the individual not only to learn new skills and acquire specialized knowledge, but also to mentally and physically prepare for the demands of military service and the rigors of life at sea.