Originally created 01/25/03

Web wardroom keeps Navy officers, families connected



NORFOLK, Va. -- When Lt. Cmdr. Michael Crockett was promoted to executive officer of the guided missile destroyer USS Porter, he naturally sought advice from fellow officers on other ships.

But he didn't pick up the phone.

Crockett posted a query for "XO pearls of wisdom" on an Internet discussion list for U.S. Navy surface warfare officers, or SWOs - the 10,000 or so junior officers who command a ship's sailors and lead them in combat.

He received many responses, from words of encouragement to suggestions on how to streamline tasks.

The discussion list is just one feature of the Surface Warfare Officer Network, which debuted a year ago. SWONET is a Web portal where SWOs can receive counsel from colleagues stationed worldwide. They can air their gripes, obtain training documents and stay in touch with family and friends.

"It's virtual mentoring," said Crockett, who reported to the Norfolk-based Porter a few months ago. "In this busy life we have, it's neat to be able to log on to something and when someone else has the time, they can give you some free advice."

The site - most of which is off-limits to the public - appears to be a hit, especially its discussion groups. There are 13,500 separate conversation threads like Crockett's on the site.

Since July 2001, traffic to the groups has jumped from 17,000 page views, to 665,000 a year later, to 1.2 million by Nov. 1, said SWONET program manager Tom Hart, who works for Integic Corp., the Chantilly, Va.-based company that developed the site under contract with the Pentagon.

SWONET arose from the Navy's desire to find a better way to communicate with junior officers, said Lt. Cmdr. John Fuller, who manages SWONET as part of his Pentagon responsibilities overseeing the surface-warfare community.

"There's a lot of information that doesn't get out because ships are spread out," Fuller said. "There wasn't a dedicated forum like this before. This gives people the opportunity to talk about things outside the wardroom, outside the waterfront."

The Navy pays Integic roughly $1 million a year to support the site, including changes to content and security patches that have so far shielded it from hackers, Hart said.

Integic designed the site to cope with achingly slow satellite connections on the Navy's smallest ships, which, in some cases, share as little as 32 kilobits-per-second of bandwidth between six computer workstations - a fraction of the bandwidth of a home dial-up connection, he said.

For larger ships and shore command posts, where bandwidth isn't a problem, the Navy has added streaming video to the site so an admiral can sit at his desk and videotape a morale-boosting message for officers to view at their convenience.

"This system is there to let those officers out there on the tip of the spear know that the community still cares about them," said John Sutton, vice president for uniformed services at Integic.

Some 60 percent of SWOs have looked at the site. A third are regular users, Integic says.

As an attraction, SWONET users get a personal e-mail address that they can keep throughout their careers. Regular Navy e-mail addresses are tied to commands, meaning sailors must get new addresses each time they are reassigned - often every two years.

The network's search mechanism allows users to track down and e-mail counterparts based on criteria such as their ships, graduating class or job responsibilities.

"Say I'm in operations and I have a question for other ops officers. I'll click on 'ops' and search," said Lt. Chris Senenko, the Porter's operations officer. Senenko demonstrated SWONET in the ship's combat information center, a darkened room where battle is managed.

The most popular feature, discussion groups, has sailors exchanging job advice, discussing investments and asking where to find housing or what the schools are like where they are about to be stationed.

"What's neat about it is it's 100 percent anonymous," Crockett said.

That makes people free to speak their minds, which can result in some lively discussions, he said.

On the Net:

http://www.swonet.com