By Command Master Chief Russ Smith, U.S. Navy and Senior Chief Intelligence Specialist Pat Bly, U.S. Navy (Retired)
The Navy announced in NAVADMIN 218/16, on 29 September, 2016, that it will modernize all rating titles for sailors with the establishment of a new classification system. This news came as a surprise to most in the Navy and an affront to those who identify themselves as Gunner’s Mates, Aviation Ordancemen, Boatswain’s Mates, Intelligence Specialists, Operations Specialists, or any of the more than 80 ratings in the Navy. As sailors heard the news, they went through several emotions, not unlike the “stages of grief.” At first glance it would be easy to be angry with this wholesale shift in direction—several ratings, such as Yeoman and Quartermaster pre-date the U.S. Navy and provide real, sentimental bonds, across generations of sailors.
Tradition is something the Navy prides itself on, and we lean on centuries of practice to highlight that the Navy is more than just a job—it is a calling, a serious undertaking vital to the survival of our nation and the freedoms we enjoy. To bind sailors to our history, the most important step is to help them understand and identify with their role in it, as well as the roots they have going back to the age of sail. A glance at the Navy Live blog comments showed a number of angry old salts sounding off about the loss of those identities. There will now be no “tribes” on board ships, or at least no sailors will wear their affiliations on their uniform sleeves or have them in their ranks and titles. No BMs, CTs, OSs, FCs. . . For more than 200 years Navy sailors have identified themselves and each other by their rating moniker—a tradition now lost.
This is essentially how the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps operate... there are no rating insignias to confuse things. Is this progress, or simply shedding part of our history and culture to conform to someone else’s model? As we redefine our traditions, do we really know our history? For example, the Hospital Corpsman rating has one of the most significant emotional ties to their history as the only enlisted corps in the Navy and a unique brand of service in both the Navy and Marine Corps. After the Navy’s rating change, a Hospital Corpsman First Class (HM1) argued passionately that his rating was as “old as the Navy and it would be a travesty to see it changed or removed.” He was surprised, however, to learn that while Loblolly Boy (a forerunner of HM) dates back to 01 June 1798, Corpsmen have had several name changes since then. The current Hospital Corpsman, which evolved from the Pharmacist’s Mate rating, only dates back to 1948. Hull Technicians were once Plumbers and Fitters, later Damage Controlmen and Pipefitters. Damage Controlmen were once Carpenter’s Mates, later Shipfitters, Chemical Warfaremen, and even Painters. Given those past changes and adaptations, are we really undoing 241 years of history, or are we continuing a tradition of change and institutional evolution that is good and necessary to meet the needs of the Navy and the society we serve?
The HM1 was confused when shown how recent his rating had come into existence, and further enlightened when he learned that from 1947 to 1948 we went from more than 400 ratings down to about 100. Sailors only began wearing their ratings on their left sleeves in 1949—another break in tradition. We should not be surprised that sailors are hesitant at best to let go of the traditions we have purposely taught them to “make their own” and in which they have a unique and abiding sense of pride. What we also should recognize is that it is the duty of the Chief Petty Officer—the keepers of our history and tradition—to own this educational process. We are the key change agents who can put history and tradition into perspective as we move forward. We should use the whole of our history, not selected parts of it, to help our junior sailors understand how these changes do not take away from the “sailor first” perspective, but instead provide many new opportunities that could not be realized under the old construct. Detailing transparency and flexibility, skill translation into the civilian world, and other benefits will resonate at the deckplates once they are clearly communicated.
If we are doing it right in the Navy—giving sailors a job that goes beyond a paycheck, one with real, sentimental attachment—they should struggle with these changes. We teach and use tradition, and when we re-invent our traditions, it takes context and relation to help sailors absorb and accept them. If it were easy for sailors to toss their rating and identity aside, then they probably were not as emotionally invested in the Navy as we hoped. Overall we think this change is positive and our sailors will come around, but it may take some time to work through the denial and anger, to push through the bargaining, wade through the depression, and come out the other side to acceptance. It is the job of the Chiefs’ Mess to help the Navy through those stages of this significant but needed change.
Master Chief (SW/AW/IW) Smith is the Command Master Chief and Senior Enlisted Advisor at the U.S. Naval Academy. He started his career in 1988 as an undesignated Airman, later a Weapons Technician (WT), and cross-rated to Intelligence Specialist (IS) in 1993. He served as Command Master Chief on USS Momsen (DDG-92), the Office of Naval Intelligence, and the OPNAV Staff before coming to the Academy in 2013.
Senior Chief Intelligence Specialist (SW/AW) Bly served multiple tours afloat and ashore, including Naval Special Warfare Group Two at NAB Little Creek and Special Warfare Task Group-6th Fleet in the Mediterranean in 1996. He was the Leading Chief Petty Officer for OZ Division on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) and the USS George Washington (CVN-73) before retiring from the Navy in 1997.
By Force Master Chief Jon Port, U.S. Navy (Retired)
NAVADMIN 218/16 brings not just a name change but a cultural shift in the Navy. Moreover this NAVADMIN is the latest in a series of changes where Navy leadership has broken faith with our enlisted sailors. The response has been overwhelmingly negative. Setting aside the emotional arguments, the main issue here is the manner in which the NAVADMIN was released and the explanation for its necessity. The impetus for the change was an initiative to transition to gender-neutral names for all ratings under the pretext of avoiding offending those likely not offended in the first place. The result, however, was not what the working groups involved and the CPO Mess at large were expecting.
The new Navy Occupational Specialty (NOS) codes will supposedly correspond to civilian sector job specialties more efficiently, a primary selling point of the policy change. However, Naval Enlisted Classification Codes (NECs), Army and Marine Military Occupational Specialties (MOSs), and Air Force Specialty Codes (AFSCs) already translate to any number of state and federal job banks, whereas NOS will need to be translated. This is not a no-cost initiative—just consider the information technology (IT)-related changes associated with the shift. And the IT infrastructure overhaul costs will not be limited to the Navy alone; multiple federal and state job banks and civilian job search sites will have to modify their translators to accommodate the new NOS. In addition, adopting “Billet Based Distribution,” the method in which officers have been assigned for years, also requires extensive IT infrastructure changes. The move calls for changing the method in which over 200,000 enlisted members are detailed to align with the 50,000+ officers’ assignment process. In the end, this change does not benefit enlisted members. It does not alleviate rip-for-fill orders for sailors between deploying vessels; nor does it improve training or warfighting efforts.
This latest initiative compels sailors to adopt the culture of a Marine or a soldier. The culture of the Marine Corps is that first and foremost you are a Marine, and your chosen MOS comes second. Army soldiers have a similar culture. In the Navy, however, this mindset has NEVER been our culture. For 241 years we have been sailors collectively in the most general of terms, but we have been defined by our trades or specialties going back to Carpenter's Mates and Masters at Arms on the original six frigates. Moreover, for the better part of the last 100 years, we have recruited sailors based upon individual communities and ratings.
The Navy's press releases may describe NAVADMIN 218/16 as “talent management.” Making a change this significant, however, is not as simple as releasing a NAVADMIN on a Friday afternoon. Senior Navy leadership should have known that the social engineering efforts introduced through this NAVADMIN would be met with shock, dismay, anger, and disgust. Sailors will remember “talent management” began with Perform to Serve (PTS), which many sailors referred to as “pray to stay” or “prepare to separate.” When PTS became overwhelmed by higher than expected retention rates because of the poor civilian economy, the Navy sought to balance the books through two enlisted retention boards (ERBs), which were controversial because, for the first time in our history, we were breaking sailors’ contracts. The boards did not separate only poorly performing sailors. In some cases, sailors with impeccable records were separated from severely overmanned ratings. Seabees and the aviation communities are still experiencing the impact from the ERBs. The Navy continued social engineering initiatives with additional NAVADMINs and policies designed to lead societal change. The elimination of ratings is merely the latest bait-and-switch move.
At its core, abolishing ratings is another example of politically directed top-down social engineering that does not strengthen, equip, train, or benefit sailors in any way. Instead of social engineering, sailors would prefer pay increases, additional training time, more predictable maintenance availability, and clear rules of engagement. They would like increased advancement opportunities and well-defined ladders for career growth. Culture change must come naturally over time, not by NAVADMIN. True equality comes when all sailors, regardless of gender, faith, or sexual orientation are treated and evaluated equally according to the same standards, not by eliminating our ratings. Sailors understand this; the Navy’s leadership apparently does not.
Force Master Chief Port is a combat veteran with 30 years of service. He served as Force Master Chief, Navy Personnel Command/Bureau of Naval Personnel, from 2010-2013, and Force Master Chief, Naval Education and Training, from 2013-2016.