Much of what I write about surrounds my experiences as a member of a flight crew but an equally noteworthy part of my experience in the Navy is being a Chief Petty Officer. I was reminded of this topic as I recently watched a new group of Chief Selectees go through induction and become Genuine Chief Petty Officers in the Navy. Its a special time and a once in a lifetime experience that is unique to only the Navy. With all due respect to the other branches of service, the responsibility and authority that a Chief welds is unmatched by an E-7 in any of the other branches. Navy Chiefs are appointed to their rank by selection board and can only be reduced in rank by conviction by court martial.
Selection to Chief represents the most significant change in an enlisted Sailor’s career. Less than 10% of all that enter the enlisted ranks of the Navy will be selected. The level of responsibility they assume is a reflection on their leadership potential as well as technical prowess. Chiefs are considered the subject area expert in their rate (military occupation) but also assume many collateral duties including training junior officers as well as junior Sailors. The phrase “Ask the Chief” has become solidified with the level of trust that comes from both the commissioned and enlisted ranks that they have learned that the Chief can get it done, no matter what, if it is for the good of the Sailors.
So as I watched the latest group of Chief Selectees go through and be tested (as this process is supposed to do) it made me reflect on my own experiences going through the transition process and more importantly, what it truly means to be a Chief Petty Officer. So that begs the question…”What does it mean to be a Chief?”
The rank of Chief Petty Officer was created on the 1 April, 1893 and as been followed by 116 years of tradition. For those 116 years, the Chief has always provided that leadership for numerous reasons. First our responsibility is to the Sailors entrusted to us. Second, as my mentor put it, “You’re not a real Chief until you’ve made one.” Chiefs are entrusted to train our replacements and pass the traditions of the Navy onto them. Last, we are entrusted to guide and train the junior officers, in much the same manner that you experienced and benefited from in your career.
Simply stated, there are many good Chiefs, Senior Chiefs and Master Chiefs out in the fleet. Leaders who were provided with great leadership as they came up through the ranks and are paying it forward to the next generations that will follow.
It’s my humble opinion that many see some of the changes in uniforms or other cosmetic differences and see the Navy as becoming ‘soft’ or “Not the ‘real’ Navy”. I think nothing could be farther from the truth. A Chief is a Chief no matter what uniform he/she wears (and even in their shower shoes). And the one constant that the Navy has always experienced: Change. That’s why the generation before me might not completely relate with the way the Navy is today and I’m sure that I won’t always agree with the generations after I’m gone. But the sound and solid leadership skills, traditions and values we’ve passed on are what are unchanging.
As a Chief in today’s Navy, I can assure you the traditions, mentoring and skills are being passed on to the Sailors on the deckplates. And it’s evident when you look at the performance of today’s sailors at sea, in the desert or in the air. Stories of heroism, bravery and steadfastness like the USS Cole, or many more in Afghanistan or Iraq illustrate how today’s Sailors are capable, strong and committed as they always have been. That wasn’t by accident but rather reflects upon my brothers and sisters in the Chiefs’ mess who have provided that leadership.
Sailors learn quickly in their career that a Chief can get things done that no one else can. Commanding Officers entrust in their command’s Chiefs’ Mess for much the same reason. The Chiefs are the backbone of the Navy. When a Sailor has problems the first person that gets involved is his/her Chief. Even when a Sailor goes to Captain’s Mast (Article 15), his/her Chief is right there as an advocate to the Commanding Officer on that Sailor’s behalf. I once watched my mentor, then a Senior Chief, tell the Commanding Officer of an aircraft carrier who was ready to ‘toss the book’ at a young Sailor, “Sir, I think we can save this one. With all due respect Sir, let me train him and show you what he is capable of.” The Captain trusted my mentor’s judgment and that Sailor’s career was not only saved but by the end of the cruise he was promoted. The power that Chief’s have over their Sailors’ careers comes with a lot of responsibility and is never taken lightly.
So how do Chief’s do it? They rely on each other. That is why so much importance is placed on the induction/initiation process that a Chief Selectee goes through. The Mess wants to trust that person, to know that they will do what needs to be done, no matter what for the benefit of the Sailors above anything else. The beauty of that process is building that bond and simple trust. Why is that so important? Here’s an example from my personal experience. I have been on the road and ended up needing assistance with my aircraft (needed some parts for a repair) so we could continue on with our mission to return some Sailors back to the U.S. My duty was to those Sailors who wanted to get home. I never thought twice about seeking out one of my brothers or sisters for help. Even though that Chief didn’t know me personally, we were still bonded by a shared similar experience. They took care of me like a brother and helped me take care of those Sailors because they knew if the situation was reversed, I’d do the same for them. That’s what its all about…the Sailors. That is what makes it such an honor to be part of one of the worlds most powerful and wide-reaching fraternities.
To be a Chief means to be a part of something that is bigger then one’s self and to create a legacy that will live on long after your body is ‘decommissioned’ and send back to the great ship builder in the sky.
My congratulations to the Fiscal Year 2010 new Chiefs. Welcome to the Mess and never forget where you came from!