Serving in the U.S. Navy has changed my life. As a service member who recently reaffiliated with active duty from the reserves, after serving eight years on active duty prior, I have learned many lessons. One is that you always leave things better than you found them. The Navy does an unbelievable job molding and developing us not only as people, but also as leaders. Even when we operate at our best we always look for ways to improve.
There are many issues, however, that plague Navy reserve forces, such as training, usability, and stigmas perpetuated by the active component. When all these concerns are brought to the surface we are left with one of the biggest deficiencies: an unwillingness to step up to volunteer for mobilizations and being ready to execute the mission.
The average reservist goes to boot camp, and the response from their active-duty counterparts usually is, “Oh you’re a weekend warrior.” Already, the stigma begins to build. Following boot camp, they go to their schools for training. So the Navy has highly motivated sailors full of pride, who just completed boot camp and “A” school, who are ready to do great things, and everyone is going to the fleet—except the brand new reservists. These sailors probably will go to their respective Navy Operational Support Centers (NOSCs) for an average of ten days and then they return to civilian life.
Now, Seaman Part Time must find a unit on his own if he was not assigned one. Think back to the first time you were up for orders and had the chance to choose; I bet you had anywhere from three to five years in service. Even with that amount of time it was still unchartered waters. Now, imagine doing that with less than six months’ time in service. It is up to a reservist to manage almost 100 percent of every move in his or her career. This is tough even for active-duty sailors with support.
Say Seaman Part Time finds a unit, gets remotivated, and shows up to his unit for a death-by-PowerPoint training. No big deal—we all have to do it. But then, if that command even has weekend support, he reports to the work center motivated to learn his job. Seaman Part Time introduces himself and gets the response, “Oh you’re a reservist,” and probably is told to “just hang out until you muster again.” After 12 similar weekends, the Navy now has an undertrained and unmotivated sailor, just showing up because he is contractually obligated.
Seaman Part Time shows up for his “two weeks a year” and expected not only to learn a job, but also to get qualifications and enough experience to advance. The first week is spent introducing the reservists to everyone in the chain. Most of the time the chain is excited for the new body, but the excitement fades once they learn the sailor is a reservist, followed with, “Oh you’re a reservist . . . well welcome on board.”
Some would say that if you study the material you should be able to advance. This is true, but advancement is about becoming a subject matter expert. If I read a book about writing books and write a report, does that mean I am a subject matter expert for all junior authors to reference? No, it means I can read, retain, and report; not put it into practice.
Somehow Seaman Part Time becomes Petty Officer Third (PO3) Class Part Time and can finally go on a mobilization. As PO3 Part Time is going through the lengthy mobilization process, he realizes he is not fully equipped to support the mission. He spends the first month becoming known in the command and the better part of six months getting trained and qualified. A mobilization is going to encompass, on average, 12 months, and about three weeks of that is pre- and post-mobilization. After training and qualifications, that leaves only about five months on mission support, which is good, but had the Navy done its job and trained PO3 Part Time prior to his mobilization, it could have doubled his mission support time.
After mobilization is complete, it is time to go home. PO3 is now PO2 and has a spouse at home. PO2 Part Time has to attend a warrior transition workshop, then the Expeditionary Combat Readiness Center (ECRC), and possibly a goals, plans, and success class to help with the transition back home and into the reserves. All PO2 Part Time wants is to get home, see his spouse, and get back to his life. That is the process for active-duty sailors—no classes, no workshops, just go home and see your family.
A solution is to do away with drill weekends and stop assigning reservists to an NOSC for drills. Instead the Navy should assign all sailors to operational commands and hold quarterly trainings for six days. Then, instead of two weeks of annual training, sailors choose two quarters and do an extra week for each of those quarters. This change would allow both the commands and the sailors to have better continuity for recognition, training, qualifications, and usability if a command finds itself with a gapped billet and needs someone who can hit the ground running. This also allows the stigma of being a reservist to change, giving the service member a sense of unity and pride in the mission.
This change does not make the NOSC obsolete—a reservist’s closest NOSC will still be the local point of contact. But now the NOSC is there only to assist with personnel issues, health insurance, advancement exams, and the mobilization/demobilization process. This will give each member a point of contact for support.
If the Navy spent the money and time to train and outfit each NOSC with the skills and ability to do what ECRC and Fleet and Family do, it could better support service members in the integration process prior to and after returning from a mobilization. If a member spent 12 months away from home, the last thing he would want to do is spend a week listening to speakers in a class. What better way to reintegrate than to let reservists return home and take the same classes at their local NOSCs. That way, they get to see their families, have something to do every day, and can slowly ease back into normal life. This process also will allow the staff at ECRC to support the fleet in other ways that benefit the mission.
Everyone wants to do things in life they are good at, have a real purpose, and feel appreciated. The Navy has overlooked two of these goals as they pertain to reservists. The service has not given them the proper time, resources, or support to allow them to be good at their Navy jobs. The Navy must appreciate them for their purpose, which is to step in when needed to continue the mission at a high level. The only thing the Navy has gotten right is that reservists have a real and much needed role to play.
The world’s political and military climate is becoming increasing unstable, and the forecast predicts more of the same. The need to train and use the reserves is there, especially with military enrollments down. The answer is not just to take in more bodies—the Navy has the bodies. But until the service better outfits and uses them, the reserves will remain an underused asset.
From the Proceedings Podcast: