U.S. Navy downsizing, sending sailors home

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More and more sailors are becoming civilians as the Navy trims its ranks.

About 3,000 sailors have been told in recent months they will be involuntarily separated from the force. The move comes as part of a procedure known as the “enlisted retention board,” a process the Navy is using to reshape the force.

Since September, boards have reviewed about 16,000 sailors ranked from petty officer third class to senior chief petty officer to determine which ones should be let go.

All of those reviewed had been enlisted for seven to 15 years and worked in one of 31 different jobs — many in aviation-related fields — specialities that the Navy determined it had too many people doing.

“We’re making sure we have the right people in the right jobs,” said Lt. Laura Stegherr, deputy public affairs officer for the chief of naval personnel.

The move to separate sailors in the middle of enlistments is highly unusual. For most enlisted sailors, being told their services are no longer needed occurred when they went to reenlist: Over the past several years, a process known as Perform to Serve was the mechanism through which the Navy would cut what it considered low-performing sailors looking to re-up.

The need for the additional cuts stems from a drop in the number of sailors leaving the service voluntarily, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Rick D. West said in an address to the force. That’s slowed down the rate of promotion and left some jobs overmanned and the force unbalanced, West said.

That’s small comfort to those sailors who had been in for more than a decade, many of whom had decided to make the Navy a career — and who will now within a year find themselves without a job. All those notified will leave the Navy by September.

The challenge they’ll face is particularly hard with the scarcity of jobs in the civilian economy: Veteran unemployment is around 12 percent, almost a third higher than for non-veterans.

“It’s hard to get civilian employers to understand what a veteran can do for them,” said retired Capt. Bob Buehn, who worked with veterans in his former job as the city’s military affairs chief.

The Navy has committed to helping sailors during the transition, Stegherr said, including assistance in obtaining civilian certifications and in learning skills like resume writing.

Those veterans may soon be joined by others. Although the retention board cuts are small percentage-wise, they presage a military-wide force reshaping as budgets are cut and the Pentagon pulls back troops from overseas.

These cuts aren’t likely to have a major strategic effect on the Navy, said Travis Sharp, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, where he focuses on military policy. Such cuts are necessary, he said, as technology makes some jobs able to be done by fewer personnel.

At the same time, he said, “Quantity has a quality of its own.”

“Even the most highly advanced ship can only be in one place at one time,” he said.

Still, Sharp said, he expects the Navy to do well in the intra-service struggles for funding expected to play out in years to come. One big reason: A renewed focus on Asia.

“The speed and flexibility offered by naval assets are very attractive when in the Asian theater,” Sharp said. “And they’re an attractive tool to maintaining relationships with key allies.”

And for those thinking about a naval career, the cuts don’t mean there aren’t openings. The continued recruiting even while cutting has irked some sailors, but the Navy says it’s necessary for its future.

“Stopping the flow of new recruits is not the answer, and would very likely create a talent gap that could cause problems for decades,” said West, the Navy’s top enlisted sailor.

timothy.gibbons@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4103


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