Friday, December 1, 2017

Crosspost from Proceedings Magazine - Become a member

From the Deckplates - A Mistake Should Not Kill a Sailor's Career

Mistakes Happen 

Before enlisting in the Navy, I was in college working toward a bachelor’s degree in business. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but what I didn’t want to do was graduate college with no career goals and a load of debt. So I joined the Navy. 
I was the first in my family to join the military, and I taught my family the importance of military service. I scored high on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test and signed a contract to be a linguist specializing in modern standard Arabic. I breezed through boot camp and found myself at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. Life was easy, and I was doing well in school. I had friends, and we spent all week studying our languages and most weekends together drinking and blowing off steam. I was getting good grades, volunteering, and had all my required duty qualifications. What could go wrong? 
Life went on like this for about six months. The night that forever altered my career started when a couple of my shipmates came back late for curfew. They were returning from a party I had attended, and it was discovered there had been drinking. The command led a monthlong investigation until every person who had attended the party was identified. Every one of us was sent to a disciplinary review board. 
Suddenly, I went from being an asset to the Navy to being expendable. I was told the Navy didn’t need me, the Navy couldn’t trust me, and that I would be lucky if I were allowed to stay in the Navy. I went to captain’s mast. My departmental leaders assured me they would vouch for me. Unfortunately, my captain let no one speak on my behalf. This led to me being awarded every nonjudicial punishment (NJP) except administrative separation. I lost half a month’s pay for two months and was demoted, put on restriction, given extra military instruction, and kicked out of school. In addition, the entire command was required to witness the captain’s mast at 0400. 

Life after NJP 

Life after NJP was terrible. No one would look at me or speak to me, and everything I had worked for was taken. I served 30 of my 45 days of restriction before receiving new orders and leaving the command. I was sent to the USS  America (LHA-6) as an undesignated Sailor. 
Being an undesignated Sailor was demoralizing. I hadn’t been in the Navy long enough to use tuition assistance to go to school; I had no advancement to study for; and I was surrounded by negativity. I worked with Sailors who had been undesignated for years, trying and failing to get picked up for a rating. I spent weeks on end working from sun up to sun down, and for what? I was told I wasn’t going to get a real job because of my record and that I should take whatever the Navy gave me. Day after day, the reasons to give up expanded. 

Overcoming Adversity 

I finally realized that if I wanted my life to change, I would have to change. From then on, I picked up collateral duties, started pushing to acquire more qualifications, and went after my enlisted surface warfare pin. 
Although these new goals changed my attitude, I still had to learn how to ignore the negative words from those around me. When I had been on my ship for a year, it was time to apply for a job. I decided to try for information systems technician, understanding that I was unlikely to get the job because of my record. As I waited for the results, I continued working toward my goals, and a month later I earned my surface warfare qualification. I was the first sailor in my department to get pinned. The day I got pinned also was the day I found out I had been picked for the information systems technician job. I cried tears of joy when I learned I would be getting new orders and leaving behind my past. 
Over the next three months, I earned my enlisted air warfare pin as well as my enlisted information dominance pin. Yet, again I was told it would be impossible to get what I wanted. I was even told that leaving with three pins would “hurt the integrity of the program” because I was only a seaman. I was determined, however. I earned my third pin the same day I departed the ship. I was the first seaman on the ship to earn the enlisted information warfare pin, and the first sailor on the ship to complete all three warfare programs. 

Invest in Sailors 

Over the past three years I have seen an incredible gap in leadership. Sailors of all ranks and rates have made mistakes and been knocked down, yet more senior Sailors show no compassion for junior Sailors in these situations. Putting down our Sailors after they get into trouble, questioning their character, and stripping them of opportunities sets them up for further failures and tells them that the Navy will not take care of them. How can we trust these Sailors to fight for the Navy and defend their ship if they don’t believe the Navy will fight for them? If we want our Sailors to look out for each other and us in both good times and bad, then we, as leaders, must do the same and fight for them. 
The Navy should offer training to Sailors who are awarded NJP and counseling on how they can turn their careers around. These Sailors need to hear from other Sailors who have been in trouble that it is possible to overcome those obstacles. They need support, leadership, and guidance. NJP is the punishment; there is no reason the rest of their careers also should feel like a punishment. Right after NJP is our greatest opportunity to provide guidance and care to our Sailors. We need to look out for all Sailors, but especially those who are having difficulties. Building strong and resilient Sailors creates Sailors we can trust to stand by our side and carry out the mission. Overcoming adversity is one of the most important traits we can instill in our shipmates, and life after NJP is our best opportunity to do so. 

Petty Officer Heck enlisted in the Navy when she was 20. She currently is a member of the precommissioning unit of the  Portland (LPD-27) in Pascagoula, Mississippi.


LCDR Bob Morrison said...

During my time in the lower echelons of the Navy most of us had a "Sea Daddy," someone (typically a Chief or LPO) who would quietly take a young sailor aside when necessary and point out the error of his/her ways. Usually that's as far as things went, and this was especially true of the SecGru. I can only recall a few cases where someone actually went to mast.

I don't know the details of the case in question, but it sounds like this was more than a bit of overkill, and most likely could have been resolved with EMI rather than mast and a blot on an otherwise clean record. In many situations I found EMI resolved the problem and most who received it took it to heart in the right way. Those few repeat offenders need to receive stronger measures, but EMI can be noted in a DO/Division Chief's record (if they still have those), and used down the road to document action against a weak performer.

My best to Petty Office Heck. You can overcome this, and it looks like you have already started.

oldwave said...

That massive waste to prosecute attendees at a party where there was drinking? Alcohol? By off-duty personnel? Has the Navy proscribed consumption of alcohol? Was mere consumption the "crime"?

I'm not surprised to read of the waste of personnel at DLI, which was systematic when I attended in 1982. I entered DLI from another rating as an experienced PO2. When I reported for duty I was immediately assigned to a duty section and, like all other Navy students of every pay grade, stood barracks watches even on school nights, plus far-too-frequent morning musters and personnel and room inspections. I do not recall Dad's class having any duty but an occasional appearance at Company offices, yet our Army students not only stood barracks watches and at least as many formations as we did, but also were put through daily rigorous PT sessions.

Our class started with 80 students; at 6 months we were down to 40. Students were dropped for academic failure in the last month of our 12-month course. Noone ever was set back to a later class except via hospitalization. Policies seemed to be intended to cause, not forestall, failure. Students were regularly whisked from class and terminated, then used as barracks gofurs pending reassignment, which often took months. Disgusted, I withdrew at the half-way mark and returned to my own rating.

One of the most striking things I observed in the Navy was the rapid deterioration of arrivals from A school. They arrived well-prepared, eager, hard-working, conscientious. Within three months, almost without exception, they were sullen, disinterested, sloppy in appearance and performance, counting the days until their discharge. What happened?

At my first command, our Leading Chief said he'd be studying for the E-8 exam in our lounge every evening for a couple of hours, and would welcome company from anyone else who wanted to prepare for exams. Most of us not on watch showed up. We had most of the programmed instructions and a full set of the manuals governing our rate. Everyone who took exams that fall was promoted, including our Leading Chief.

When I proposed study sessions at later commands, my seniors replied, "Don't spoon-feed those kids. Nobody did anything like that for me, and I made it. They can, too." I never again saw a full set of programmed instructions or manuals. My first set of PARS was signed off by my section leader, LPO, Leading Chief, and O-in-C, after a grilling. The rest were signed off over my objections, without any attempt to verify my qualifications.

We took meals to our 12-hour watches because we weren't released for galley meals, nor was there office-barracks-galley transportation. We were required to make all visits to Personnel, Disbursing, Medical, Dental, Education, or Divine Service when off duty. Although we often worked outdoors, we had no foul weather gear. At one point, a Command Career Counselor told me that he had seen every member of our (tenant command) outfit in his office at least once, and about half several times, seeking guidance, transfer, or a change of rating. A Chief Corpsman told me that most of us had deteriorating eyesight because our spaces had inadequate lighting, yet our command refused to pay for improvements; that many of us had hearing loss from unprotected exposure to aircraft engine noise; and that at every base on which he'd been stationed, our rating always had the poorest teeth and the highest percentage of colds, flu, headaches, and various stress-related problems.

Lack of leadership, of consideration or courtesy, of compassion or encouragement for struggling individuals: That's what happened to those bright young A school grads. Petty Officer Heck was pilloried, repeatedly. It's far too easy to she suffered from gender discrimination, but I suspect that she did. Still, any discrimination is a failure of leadership. Failure of leadership is rampant in and out of the Armed Forces, yet nowhere can it have such devastating consequences.

How can WE help to forge improvements?