Are you guilty of fraternization or have you ever been guilty of fraternization and avoided being caught? Questioned in public, most Sailors will answer in the negative. Among friends, however, many of these same Sailors will admit having fraternized and will justify their actions using the “blind spots.” The two most notable blind spots of fraternization are the disregard for shifts of power between officers and chiefs and the misbelief that transitioning from enlisted to officer transpires seamlessly. The clout of a chief petty officer should not be overlooked, nor should the unrealistic expectation that Sailors transitioning from enlisted to commissioned service will leave their friendships behind.
For years I have observed Sailors walk the tightrope of fraternization. Some chose to maintain discipline, while others went with their hearts or temptation. Even with lessons learned from numerous Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) fraternization cases to inform it, the fraternization policy is still plagued by the blind spots of its design.
The Navy’s fraternization policy focuses on prohibiting unduly familiar relationships between officers and enlisted Sailors. This means a chief can date a seaman unless the two individuals are assigned to the same command. The same is not true for an officer, but there are blind spots that enable exploitation.
Officers make decisions in the Navy, and chiefs make recommendations that inform those decisions. Therefore, the fraternization policy’s assumption about who yields the greater power over a junior Sailor’s career in 2018 is misguided. Chiefs are the link between officers and the enlisted ranks. Junior officers rely on chiefs to show them the way, and junior Sailors look to chiefs for motivation and career development.
Chiefs provide guidance and serve as advocates for junior Sailors, and they are as powerful as officers—if not more than—in driving the direction of a Sailor’s career because of their deckplate presence and influence. Chiefs write evaluations, recommend/write awards, and fulfill a host of duties touching the livelihood of Sailors. A chief can affect a Sailor with or without an officer’s endorsement. A good word from a chief to a senior officer, even at a different command, can result in an inside track to a career-enhancing job for a Sailor.
A chief’s influence across the enlisted ranks brings into question the wisdom of permitting chiefs to date junior Sailors, regardless of their duty station or command. A seaman promotes to petty officer (PO), and POs are selected to chief by boards of other chiefs.
The power of the chief’s mess was confronted in a 2013 fraternization case. A friendship between a chief and a PO—begun when they had the same rank and pay grade—intensified after the chief’s arrival at a new duty station. The relationship did not become known until after the PO attained “Instructor of the Year” at the same command.1 This was an issue because chiefs choose the Instructor of the Year. However, knowing the reach of a chief, did the chief’s whereabouts actually matter?
I recently transferred from a ship in which a master chief’s spouse (stationed at another command) was selected for chief, and I question whether the master chief asked other chiefs on the selection board for a favor. Was the spouse selected as a result of merit or association?
The reach of a chief is unrestricted, and the blind spots of fraternization aid in camouflaging unwritten rules.
In theory, officers’ ability to maintain control centers on the respect afforded them by the Sailors they lead. A clear divide in status preserves this hierarchy, but this once-logical division is fading. The Navy has six enlisted-to-officer commissioning programs, blurring the lines more each year.
The fraternization policy is intended to prohibit enlisted Sailors and officers from engaging in unduly familiar relationships. However, an enlisted Sailor’s best friends do not disappear once that Sailor is commissioned. An average of 450 enlisted Sailors are commissioned through the limited duty officer program each year, and the belief that these Sailors will terminate the close bonds built through years of tears and shared fears is unrealistic. Officers and enlisted Sailors are real people with real flaws, and when faced with the realities of fraternization, they may find themselves being subjective (looking for blind spots) instead of objective (accepting the policy).
An abundance of officer-enlisted relationships are carried out in secrecy because of the anxiety of “knowing and willfully” violating the fraternization policy.2 Interactions such as fishing, social gatherings, dinners, and intimacy between officers and enlisted Sailors are illegal and unduly familiar, but they occur because of fraternization blind spots and the Navy’s dismissal of a Sailor’s allegiance to friendship. With so many officers coming from the enlisted ranks, overlap is an inevitable outcome.
Enlisted Sailors in serious relationships must marry before one is commissioned to avoid being in violation of the fraternization policy. If the fraternization policy is meant to prevent unprofessional relationships between officers and enlisted Sailors, why does it permit enlisted Sailors to marry other enlisted Sailors knowing a commission is forthcoming? The policy states unduly familiar relationships between officers and enlisted Sailors may bring discredit on the Navy, yet officers and enlisted Sailors are allowed to be together if they can orchestrate their relationship in this roundabout manner. Section 6d of the policy describes the conduct married officers and enlisted Sailors must maintain in a public setting; nevertheless, the policy appears intentionally disingenuous.3
The present fraternization policy should be reevaluated. It is full of blind spots that are contradictory to the policy’s intent. For example, the policy states, “CPOs provide leadership not just within their direct chain of command, but for the entire unit.”4 It should state, “CPOs provide leadership not just within their direct chain of command, but for the entire Navy.” Inaccurate statements like this mask the blind spots and make it hard to interpret what is professionally right or morally wrong.
The policy should be deemed impracticable and canceled or:
• Amended to lift the restriction on officer-enlisted unduly familiar relationships when not at the same command
• Amended to restrict chief and junior Sailor unprofessional relationships beyond the same command
This assessment of the policy is not meant to endorse fraternization but to highlight blind spots that require amendment. Times have changed, and the Navy must transform with them, or risk continued evolution through blind spots.
2. W.T. Cox, “Consensual Sex Crimes in the Armed Forces: A Primer for the Uniformed,” Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy 14 (18 June 2007).
3. Chief of Naval Operations, “OPNAV Instruction 5370.2D: Navy Fraternization Policy” (6 January 2016).
4. Ibid., 4.
Master Chief Mayes’ has made six deployments on board the USS Mount Vernon (LSD-39), USS Paul Hamilton (DDG-60), and three carriers as part of the Navy’s first three-carrier hull swap. He graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in the management of computer information systems and has an MBA. He is pursuing a doctorate in organization and management with a specialization in leadership.