Officials say liberty rules are needed because sailors must conduct themselves properly in a foreign port. Here, sailors step ashore in South Korea for liberty. (PH1 Novia E. Harrington / Navy)
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SAN DIEGO — Ah, liberty call. You've waited weeks, if not months, for those sweet words and can't wait to get down the brow and absorb some of that international culture that partly hooked you into the naval service.
Liberty buddy? Uh, yeah.
Liberty chit? Whaaaat?!
Getting off your ship — even for an evening or a weekend in an exotic foreign port — isn't the serene recruiting image you envisioned when you signed up. There's always that asterisk denoting official rules and exceptions. It's a reminder that your free time in the Navy isn't exactly freedom and that liberty ashore is often complicated by security threats, fragile U.S.-foreign relationships and occasional missteps by off-duty U.S. service members.
Since 2007, high-profile incidents involving sailors — not just minor offenses, but allegations of rape and murder of locals — prompted top Navy officials in Japan to crack down on liberty, ordering early curfews, banning alcohol consumption and requiring command approvals for most sailors venturing off their ship or outside their base. Violations can draw swift punishment, from bad evals to fines and busts in rank. Similar rules, though not as severe, have taken effect for travel into Mexico and other places including the Middle East and, to a lesser degree, Europe and South and Central America.
Officials say the rules are needed because sailors must conduct themselves properly when living in or visiting any foreign port. But for many sailors accustomed to walking off the brow with impunity, the crackdown on their off-work time was akin to Big Brother poking into their personal lives.
So Navy Times asked sailors what they like or dislike about the direction the Navy's liberty policies are heading. Of the 57 e-mails received, the majority of junior sailors and petty officers lashed out at the tightening of restrictions over the past two years. The rules are ridiculous and ineffective and hurt morale, they said.
The older set — some first-class petty officers, chiefs and a few officers — said rules are there for the sailors' own good, and if young sailors want more freedom, they should keep their noses clean.
The younger sailors focused on the fine-print rules, such as having a "liberty buddy" or two and permission chits, which many commands require before a sailor can go into town.
They also hate that the Navy, whether through fleet policies or their own skipper, tightens the rules too much after the most isolated liberty incident. Punish the offenders, most said, and don't treat the rest of us like children.
"I understand the need to know what our sailors are doing with their free time, but at some point the Navy has to let people make their own ‘right' decisions," said Sonar Technician (Submarine) 1st Class (SS) Jose Gutierrez. "As much as the Navy does not want it, grown men and women will make mistakes and they alone should pay for them, not the fleet in general."
"The Navy's liberty policies are too tight, especially for E-5/E-6 personnel who have been in for quite awhile," wrote Culinary Specialist 1st Class Robert Sanchez. "You only get a couple of days to enjoy liberty when you do pull into port."
While almost half of the writers support liberty policies in general, a little more than half had mixed thoughts about what measures the Navy, and sailors, can take to prevent trouble ashore. Some say rules can help prevent liberty incidents in the first place.
"Training, liberty briefings and harsh [nonjudicial punishments] did not work by themselves," said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Brian Sullivan, electronics material officer aboard the 7th Fleet command ship Blue Ridge. "So we are now back to liberty cards and the buddy system. If it were not for anti-terrorism concerns, I believe, we would be back to wearing our uniforms on liberty and civilian clothes would be a privilege again.
"Until we can go for a period of time without robbing, stabbing, raping and even killing [people in] our host nations and visiting ports of call, I do not see the system changing," said Sullivan, who believes bouts of media attention to embarrassing public incidents "are driving most of the restrictions on our liberty."
Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman (SW) Rich Belanger, assigned to the Norfolk, Va.-based dock landing ship Carter Hall, said rules keep sailors safe and protect the Navy's image overseas. "You take any young sailors and place them in a foreign country where they don't know local customs or laws and allow them access to alcohol, chances are you are going to have an incident," Belanger said. "When that incident occurs, the question directed at the command will be, ‘What did you do to prevent this from happening?'
"If intrusive leadership is what it takes to ensure a positive image and they're tired of being treated like children, then they need to start policing themselves and their shipmates," he said.
Liberty rules vary from place to place, and they change with regular reviews by commanders. The two-person "buddy system" is common at many overseas commands. In Bahrain, for example, sailors E-4 and below are only allowed to go out into town with two liberty buddies, one of whom isn't allowed to consume alcohol.
Leaders say strict rules are needed to ensure good behavior — and the Navy's reputation.
Liberty rules can be tightened quickly, as sailors in Japan experienced in 2007 and 2008 after a series of high-profile crimes involving sailors and Marines. Fleet Master Chief (SW/AW) Marcos Sibal described that time as "a really dark period." Japanese society holds military personnel in high regard and expects professional behavior, so one bad incident "is a black eye on all of us," he said.
But sailors far and wide complained that the growing trend of tighter liberty rules doesn't treat them like adults.
"Liberty is a joke! They demand this 24/7 professional conduct and to ‘act like adults,' but as soon as we tie up, we are treated like children!" wrote Gunner's Mate 1st Class (SW) John Linke, range safety officer with the San Diego-based destroyer John Paul Jones. "I have seen 7th Fleet's liberty policy go from good to bad to downright stupid."
But some acknowledge that rules are needed.
Aviation Structural Mechanic 1st Class (AW) Douglas Lehman, a leading petty officer aboard the carrier John C. Stennis, said that during a recent six-month Western Pacific cruise, "I saw people totally ignore [the rules] and end up arrested for being drunk and stupid by local police. I saw the responsible ones back on time with no issues while having to look for others who ignored the rules."
"Whether you have strict rules or not, some sailors will get in trouble regardless of what you do," he added. "But they may give a person a second thought instead of going stupid."
Aviation Ordnanceman 2nd Class Jimmy Schaff believes "the ‘tight regs' need to be tightened."
"I have witnessed the actions of these kids. It just seems to be getting worse; then again, that just puts more pressure on us supervisors," said Schaff, assigned to the San Diego-based carrier Ronald Reagan. "I was once an E-1 and acted very childish and didn't like being treated like a kid. But now I am an E-5 and I see the difference. I treat my kids like kids. Plain and simple. But morale is always going to be low on a ship. You have nowhere to go. It's just life and the kids don't know how to face it. Again, that's where we supervisors need to come in and help these kids out.
"Off duty ... no such thing," he added. "As our Gun Boss or CO put it, it's called duty ashore. Basically, act responsible or else."
Two's company, but three?
The liberty buddy system is a sore point with many sailors.
Machinist's Mate 2nd Class Johnny Brewer said he hates that some commanders impose the rule for stateside ports. "I can understand away from home port, but in your home port it does not have logic."
Worse is when commands require two or three liberty buddies, or when one buddy who isn't allowed to have a beer or any alcohol.
One sailor stationed in Japan said it's not always easy to pair up with one or two liberty buddies who share your interests. "You have less incidents when guys are on their own than you do when you have guys walking around arguing about let's do this and let's do that, which takes up half your day," said Logistics Specialist 2nd Class (SW/AW) Donald Outlar, in Japan. "Two drinkers and one nondrinker don't mix, either."
On his last underway, a six-month deployment to South America, Logistics Specialist 2nd Class (SW) Tom Murphy and his crew faced some strict rules for the little liberty they got. "We pretty much stayed underway for three weeks at a time or until we needed fuel or food. When we did pull in, it was usually some Third World country so there was no overnight liberty, all hands on board every night," said Murphy, now assigned to Naval Hospital Jacksonville, Fla. "You had to go out with four liberty buddies, [and] one of them could not consume alcohol."
But the rules applied only to Navy personnel. "We had Coast Guard guys on board, but they didn't have to follow these rules," he said, "so it was kind of a slap in the face for us."
The buddy system also has its defenders. "Some people just get way too drunk and without a liberty buddy would be screwed getting back to the ship," said Hull Maintenance Technician 3rd Class (SW/AW) Brandon Oesch, aboard the San Diego-based carrier Nimitz.
In 7th Fleet, the rule also applies to officers and chiefs, and is focused on ensuring safety in foreign cities. "If something bad happens to you in a dark corner, we're never going to know about it," Sibal, the 7th Fleet CMC, said.
Perhaps no rule raises sailors' blood pressure more than 7th Fleet's previous requirement for sailors — and that includes some chiefs and officers — to submit detailed "individual liberty plans" before being allowed to leave. The ILPs detail what they plan to do and who would accompany them when they go ashore.
Seventh Fleet since has eliminated the rule, Sibal said, but individual COs can still require the plans.
"To me, this is a way for the Navy to push the blame off them and say they did all that they could," said Oesch, the HT3 from Nimitz. For many junior sailors, "This is their first port visit and they don't know what there is to do out in town, so how can the chain of command expect that sailor to tell them what they are going to do each day on liberty if they don't know what there is to do?"
Blanket punishment, from shipwide curfews to all-ranks restrictions such as those 7th Fleet instituted in early 2008, are the wrong approach, sailors said. One petty officer equated it to "corsets. They hide the problem, but it is still there."
"Restrictions on liberty, [whether] overseas or in the states, are a punishment. When you take away privileges of all because of the misbehavior of a few, it's called ‘collective punishment,' " said Aviation Electrician's Mate 1st Class (AW) Edward Moran. "It's time the Navy call it what it is."
Some sailors wondered whether broad punishment really can prevent incidents. "I know there is no way to eliminate all the bad apples from a basket, but doing this blanket punishment to all is only going to make matters worse," said Linke, the GM1 from John Paul Jones. "Eventually, people are going to develop a ‘they're going to punish me no matter what, so who cares' attitude."
"Those of us who have never misbehaved, never had a single alcohol-related-incident ... and never committed crimes while on liberty should never be punished along with the sailors who have done those things," said Cryptologic Technician (Maintenance) 3rd Class David Zolot, who's attending school in Pensacola, Fla. "The time when my liberty has been interrupted, even for a minute, due to the bad acts of others, is always unsat."
"Everyone has heard the saying, ‘One crew, one screw.' This attitude towards discipline reflects a command's inability to hold individuals accountable for their actions," said Culinary Specialist 1st Class (SS) J.C. Stull, assigned to the ballistic-missile submarine Louisiana in Silverdale, Wash. "I have been on several deployments where one individual has made a bad choice and then the entire crew has to suffer with liberty restrictions, while the individual escapes with a [disciplinary board punishment] and in some instances just a counseling chit."
While he'd like to see well-educated sailors and a command climate that promotes sailors policing their shipmates, he noted, "there is always going to be one bad apple in a bunch."
Sibal, for one, is no fan of blanket punishments. "Your personal liberty depends on how you act," he said. He would rather see the offender — not the entire unit — punished.
Midnight curfews — often called "Cinderella liberty" — aren't new, but they still rub sailors raw.
A few years before he retired in 2003, then-Chief Yeoman Bernie Burawski recalled a port visit in the Persian Gulf region. His skipper aboard the submarine tender Simon Lake imposed strict rules on everyone, requiring a liberty buddy and approved chits for overnight liberty.
Burawski hated it. "Basically, it was the Navy saying flat out to sailors: We don't trust you, and to the CPO Mess: You have no credibility or respect," he said. "There has been a leadership crisis in the Navy since at least that time — but I think it's gotten 10 times worse."
A dozen sailors wrote that about strict curfews, complaining that chiefs and officers can do overnights ashore and junior sailors are stuck on the ship. Several said curfews keep sailors from re-enlisting. Gunner's Mate 3rd Class Ted Markam, assigned to the Everett, Wash.-based frigate Ford, said strict curfews "really bring the [morale] down of the newer Navy sailors.
"I think the liberty policies set forth now really hurt the morale of newer sailors like myself, and it is a reason why so many of them do not like the Navy and decide to get out," he said.
While 7th Fleet's rules got the most complaints, sailors can face restrictions elsewhere. Zolot, the CTM1, said that during a year-long tour in Seoul, he had "a fairly unreasonable curfew" of midnight on weeknights, 3 a.m. on weekends.
Liberty incidents prompted the tightened restrictions, Zolot said, and the top commander there dictated a "standdown for standards" that was held one Saturday morning after an earlier 10 p.m. Friday curfew.
"That evening, I had just finished one of the longest, hardest, most grueling weeks of work I might ever see in my career, and I couldn't go out to a bar, relax and have a good time, because of the misdeeds of others," he said. "The curfew and the standdown were unreasonable, and illustrated a worsening trend not only in the Navy, but the armed forces as a whole."
Some curfews are necessary in cities with high crime rates, officials say. It's why Capt. Bob Kopas didn't allow overnight liberty when the amphibious assault ship Makin Island reached Rio de Janeiro during its summer trek from Mississippi to San Diego. The city has a lot of crime, so he ordered a curfew. Kopas eased curfews but maintained some liberty rules, like the buddy system, when the ship visited Valparaiso, Chile, and Lima, Peru. "It allowed them to prove themselves," he said. "I trusted my crew from Day One."
Different rules for different ranks
Curfews, combined with the paygrade-based tiered system that many ships use, is another complaint, not just of junior sailors but of older petty officers.
In Japan, 7th Fleet issues newly reporting sailors E-4 and below the more-restricted white liberty card, which carries a midnight curfew.
Most sailors can earn the blue card within two or three months, Sibal said, adding that the rank differentiation "is another incentive for promotion."
Such rank-driven rules, though, don't account for age or maturity.
Aviation Ordnanceman 1st Class (AW) James Kenney said liberty policies should allow older sailors, who are likely to be mature and well behaved, more freedom. The 15-year veteran is married with three children but, unlike a 22-year-old ensign, has a curfew.
"I have to be back onboard by midnight," said Kenney, now assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 87 in Virginia Beach, adding he's "a squared-away sailor who has more to lose than that 22-year-old ensign."
LS2 Rommel Langomez, a contracts clerk in Norfolk, agreed that liberty policies should be based on age first, then paygrade, noting it's "the reason why auto insurance is less as one gets older."
"Age and paygrade together is a better indicator of maturity. A 22-year-old O-1 is more likely to get in trouble compared to an O-1 36-year-old," Langomez said. "I have seen more responsible enlisted personnel than officers who are younger."
What sailors would change
Despite living with sometimes harsh rules, some sailors believe the Navy can avoid serious or embarrassing liberty incidents with proactive measures. Some of their ideas:
• Better overseas screening. "The U.S. relationship in Japan is so fragile," said Electrician's Mate 2nd Class (SW) Jimmy Faraon, who spent three years in Yokusuka, Japan, and is now stationed in San Diego. "Overseas screening should be strictly imposed to those to be [deployed or assigned] overseas."
• A little hard labor. Gunner's Mate 1st Class (SW) John Linke would like to see commanders "slam these few bad apples as hard as UCMJ or local laws will allow. A few stories of dirt bags doing time in the brig or a Far Eastern jail will rattle some nerves straight."
• Be more selective. "The Navy needs to look at who they bring in and not at the quota that has to be made," said Machinist's Mate 2nd Class Johnny Brewer. "A lot of people in the Navy [are] only in it for themselves and screw everyone else or better yet ‘what's in it for me' frame of mind."
• Offer no-alcohol incentives. "Incentives should be given to those who abstain from alcohol," said Logistics Specialist 2nd Class Rommel Langomez. "Unfortunately, DUI is a big problem in the U.S. simply because alcohol drinking is not engrained, unlike our European counterparts."
• ID the offenders. "It is not acceptable to be a sailor who goes out in town and causes trouble," said Aviation Electrician's Mate 1st Class (AW) Edward Moran. "Maybe it wasn't a big deal at one time, and liberty restrictions were the best way to handle it. Now, that sailor probably wouldn't get an OK to re-enlist."
• Abide or say goodbye. Rather than blanket punishments, "make military personnel accountable for their action," said retired Master Chief Boiler Technician Richard Lester. "You punish the person, not the crew. And if that doesn't work, you send that person back to the States and kick them out of the military."
• More deck-plate leadership. Retired Chief Fire Controlman Gary Beckwith recalled when chiefs and leading petty officers ran their own shore patrols during liberty in Yokosuka, and used them as a leadership tool. "It's amazing how enlisted leadership actually sharing liberty with their charges builds morale and encourages good standards of conduct," said Beckwith, who lives in Japan.
Rules by region
Some liberty rules for sailors stationed or visiting overseas:
• Sailors must register with the U.S. Embassy.
• A liberty chit is required for sailors E-6 and below.
• All must have completed level one, anti-terrorism training within the previous year.
• A liberty buddy is required.
Sailors E-4 and below must go out in groups of three; one of them may not drink alcohol.
• Sailors E-4 and below have a midnight curfew, with a 1 a.m. curfew for first- and second-class petty officers and 2 a.m. for chiefs and officers.
• Overnight liberty with special approval.
• Sailors E-4 and below and anyone with command-issued white liberty cards must return by midnight.
• Blue liberty cards mean overnight liberty and fewer restrictions.