Trust in government, schools, banks, and other public organizations is in decline.1 The armed forces are no exception. What happens when members who belong to these institutions also lose confidence in them? How can any institution, but particularly the military, continue to function well if its members perceive it as untrustworthy?
It is time to double down on the U.S. Navy’s role in building and maintaining trust. Citizens need to trust that the Navy’s readiness and forward presence will keep defense of the homeland an “away game.” Industry needs to trust the service will be a reliable partner with stable financial commitments. Most important, sailors need to trust that their well-being (and that of their families) will be a top priority for the organization.
When sailors commit to life in the Navy, they are in a metaphoric “trust fall” (an old team-building activity in which a person falls backward, trusting their team to catch them). In exchange for an arduous life of service, they can and should expect that their housing and pay will be handled with care and efficiency. However, that is not always the case.
Recent survey and social media feedback, suicide clusters, travel pay delays, and at-sea manning shortfalls make it clear the Navy is failing at maintaining trust with its sailors. A recent Reddit listening session with Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON) James Honea supports this assertion. In more than 200 posts on the r/navy subReddit on 20 January 2023, sailors raised issues such as poor living conditions and slow resolution of pay problems.2
There is a disconnect between Navy messaging and Navy policy. Words alone cannot build a high-functioning, resilient force. The mantra, “Sailors are our top priority,” must be backed by investment and visible effort. Regardless of policy-makers’ intentions, the sailors who reached out to the MCPON last January perceived a service that does not care about its members. For the Navy to rebuild and reinforce trust with its most precious resource, they offered some suggestions.
A ship is not acceptable full-time housing for single sailors. Living on a ship underway and during a deployment is an adventure; living on one in port or in a shipyard can feel like a prison sentence. Why would a sailor want to be at work 24/7 when there is no operational need?
Sailors’ onboard living spaces were designed for at-sea operations; they are small, utilitarian, and not particularly welcoming. Also, most ships cannot provide the information technology infrastructure 21st-century sailors need to connect with others or complete their largely application-based military requirements.
A married sailor receives a housing allowance regardless of seniority, while single junior sailors often must wait years to receive the same benefit. This policy could be contributing to behaviors such as driving under the influence and other unfortunate liberty incidents. Single sailors seek connection and relaxation in public spaces because it is not available in their living spaces.
In port, all single sailors should either have unaccompanied housing rooms or receive a housing allowance. Shipboard racks and berthing barges should be only for the temporary use of the duty section. In port at home, it is not unreasonable for sailors to expect to have personal space for decompression and relaxation.
Pay and Personnel
In 2016, the Navy consolidated many personnel support detachments and customer support detachments into a system it said would be “centralized, integrated and self-service oriented.”3 This well-intentioned effort is a proven failure.
By policy, officials who approve payments can be held financially responsible for mistakes. As a result, housing allowance updates, changes to dependency status, and liquidation of travel claims are evaluated from a pecuniary responsibility perspective. Approval nearly always requires multiple levels of scrutiny outside the originating command. During this often lengthy process, the sailor carries the risk associated with debt. The Navy has become that friend who never has their wallet and needs to be covered financially.
Implemented as a means of improving auditability and quality control, the system has become overwhelmed. The information technology infrastructure to support it was not implemented as envisioned. Recent stories of travel claims taking more than a year to liquidate led the Navy to form “tiger teams” to resolve pay and paperwork issues at the individual command level—and these teams have done incredible work clearing the backlog. But tiger teams are by definition not a long-term solution. Backlogs will happen again.
Individual units should have the discretion to make pay and personnel transactions for themselves. Authority to approve payments and transactions on behalf of sailors should be returned to unit commanding officers. They must be able to start housing allowance, approve changes to dependency status, and authorize payment for travel claims.
A sailor’s “trust fall” does not become a “trust fail” through senior leader indifference—keeping faith with sailors is every leader’s solemn obligation—but these leaders are under tremendous pressure when it comes to resourcing decisions. There is a relentless push from external stakeholders to invest in new ships, aircraft, and technology.4 Because housing, pay, and other sailor programs are not usually part of this daily drumbeat, they tend to bear the brunt of budget cuts.
In addition, senior leaders are not getting feedback on the impact of their budgetary decisions on sailors. The days of open door policies and all hands calls as a way to take the pulse of the fleet are fading. Most leaders are not as comfortable as the MCPON was in doing an “Ask Me Anything” session. Instead, they are relying more and more on self-referential positions such as “That’s the way it was when I was a young sailor.”
Poor decisions made in the past have come home to roost. Inattention to young sailors’ problems by seniors who do not have those problems has led to the impression of a caste system. Sailors are communicating this belief in online forums and through social media.
It is the job of Navy leaders to follow the MCPON’s lead and go where sailors are comfortable sharing their concerns and listen to them. Then they must return to those same forums to communicate what they are doing to address those concerns. It is time to focus on the mission of regaining sailors’ (and their families’) trust.
1. Jeffrey M. Jones, “Confidence in U.S. Institutions Down; Average at New Low,” Gallup.com, 5 July 2022.
2. Reddit.com/r/Navy, www.reddit.com/r/navy/comments/10h6oz4/what_was_everyones_view_on_this_ama/.
3. Navy Personnel Command Public Affairs, “Navy Personnel Command Consolidates Several PSDs, CSDs,” The Flagship, 9 February 2017.
4. Dave Ress, “‘The Navy Owes the American Public an Apology,’ Rep. Luria Says during Rebuke of Biden’s Budget Proposal,” Stars and Stripes, 30 March 2022.