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Chief's ‘spot checks' go beyond polite visits

Jul. 10, 2011 - 09:49AM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 10, 2011 - 09:49AM  |  
Fleet Master Chief (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens catches up on phone calls and emails during a trip to a farewell luncheon in Norfolk's Ghent District.
Fleet Master Chief (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens catches up on phone calls and emails during a trip to a farewell luncheon in Norfolk's Ghent District. (Mark D. Faram / Staff)
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The Riverine Squadron 1 chiefs' mess presses Stevens for information about the future of their sailors and the riverine mission during his afternoon visit to Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story. (Mark D. Faram / Staff)

NORFOLK, Va. Fleet Master Chief (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens, the top enlisted man for Fleet Forces Command, was meeting with enlisted leaders aboard the destroyer Jason Dunham when he pulled two folded pieces of paper from the pocket of his Navy working uniform blouse.

Stevens had spent more than an hour answering questions from the ship's chiefs. Now it was his turn.

He laid the papers on the table and smiled as he sat across from Navy Counselor 1st Class (SW/SS) Josh Maskerines, who eyed the creased papers cautiously.

"We pulled the records, and we're not showing you have completed your onboard E-5 leadership training," Stevens said. "What's the story?"

Maskerines smiled and flipped open the nearly 5-inch-thick binder he had prepared.

"Yes, we completed it yesterday and entered the course completion for everyone yesterday, so the records online are all good to go," Maskerines said.

He snapped the binder rings open, lifted some papers and handed them to Stevens, who studied them for a moment.

"Good. This happens more than you think," Stevens said. "We realize you are busy out here, and I'm glad you got this done now let's talk about your career development boards."

Half an hour later, Stevens was done. Maskerines looked relieved, as did Command Master Chief (SS) Raymond Chamberlain, the ship's senior enlisted sailor.

But Stevens had made his point: He's watching, and he wants sailors to know.

Stevens, 47, was conducting what he calls a "spot check" of the destroyer. As senior enlisted adviser to Adm. John Harvey, Stevens is responsible for checking the pulse of the fleet and making sure his boss knows what's going on.

But the 27-year Navy veteran is no gruff old sea dog. He's easy to talk to and smiles as he talks to all ranks. He approaches people with a quiet respect that immediately puts them at ease.

He also can be forceful, a side that was on display when he allowed Navy Times to shadow him for a full and hectic workday in late April.

Since taking the job last fall, Stevens has reached out to many of the roughly 277,000 military members and civilians under FFC, often through spot checks.

While he said he doesn't grade commands he visits, these are not social calls.

"I want my visits around the fleet to be meaningful for both the commands and myself," he said. "It does no one any good to interrupt their busy day just to shake hands and slap a few backs and then leave. So while I'm there, I'm going to be in your business, too."

He doesn't give much warning of what he's going to dig into while visiting a command, but it usually involves equal opportunity, command climate, career counselor programs and onboard leadership training, to name a few.

"We want to make sure these programs all of which directly impact sailors are in place and functioning as they're supposed to," he said. "It's also their chance to bring concerns from their level they want us to know or look into."

To stay informed about his commands and sailors, he maintains a brisk pace, spending as much time as possible on the waterfront, running up and down brows.

So by that measure, April 20 was just a routine day for the man sailors call "Fleet."

0530, Gym at Fleet Forces Command

Stevens begins his workday with a workout on a stationary bike and weight-lifting at the gym.

During the next 14 hours, Stevens will visit two deploying commands on two bases.

In addition, he'll meet with sea and shore command master chiefs at Naval Station Norfolk; have a teleconference with Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (SS/SW) Rick West, Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Mark Ferguson and a host of force master chiefs; and attend a farewell luncheon for a junior sailor on his staff.

"That's pretty much what my life is like on a daily basis," Stevens said. "I'm a moving target, but that is what this job is all about."

Stevens is on the road one to two weeks per month, often traveling with his boss. The rest of the time is spent in and around the Norfolk area.

His day usually starts at the gym.

"That's my quiet time," he said. "That's when I get my thoughts together and get going."

He usually warms up with a fast 15 minutes on the bike. Once he breaks a sweat he hits the weights, preferring free weights so he can do bench presses, incline bench and curls. If there's more time, he'll add exercises.

But not today the fleet was waiting.

0700, Naval Station Norfolk galley

His first stop after the gym was a breakfast meeting with all command master chiefs from throughout the base. But he didn't have time to sit and eat.

The meeting was underway when he arrived. Stevens listened as Tom Jacobson, the local Navy Exchange general manager, fielded questions about computers being removed from the local Navy uniform shop making it difficult for sailors to check regulations before buying uniform items. The manager promised to look into it.

Then it was Stevens' turn to face his khaki counterparts.

Sailor cuts were a big issue, as was the current push to restore billets to sea and sea-support commands. Uniforms also came up, specifically wear rules for Navy working uniforms and the enforcement of standards. The chiefs wanted clarification on policies, which can be confusing.

"They usually don't hold back and let me have it straight when they feel something is wrong or don't understand," he said. "Right now, the fleet has just been told about this fall's enlisted retention board, and they've got a lot of questions and concerns on how that will impact their sailors and commands."

As he answered questions and discussed concerns, Stevens' executive assistant, Chief Hospital Corpsman (SW/AW) Ingrid Cortez, took notes on follow-up items; Stevens credits Cortez with keeping him focused during his hectic schedule.

Then it was back to the office for a morning briefing before preparing for the day's first command visit.

0900, Destroyer Jason Dunham

Stevens' visit to one of the fleet's newest ships would touch on what became the theme of his day enlisted leadership expressing concerns about plans to cut more sailors without a cut in mission requirements.

"Right now I'm telling you that things are tough in this fiscal environment," Stevens told the destroyer's chiefs' mess. "I'd like to be able to tell you that isn't the case, but it's the truth it's going to take hard work from all of us to minimize the impact on our commands and sailors. For that, I need your help."

He fielded many questions and took notes, hearing concerns about everything from supply problems to poor screening of sailors who showed up at the destroyer with issues such as fitness failures.

Then Stevens hit them with questions of his own.

Stevens writes a trip report after each command visit, discussing what he discovered when onboard.

The reports are "largely favorable," he said, but he doesn't hesitate to point out problem areas, as well as pass on command concerns, in the reports, which go to Harvey.

"[Harvey is] a very involved leader and really relies on knowing the pulse of the deck plates," Stevens said. "This is one way he can hear these concerns without any filter."

The force master chief at the command's type commander also gets a copy.

"When we do find problems, I trust my force master chiefs to work with that particular command to take care of anything that needs fixing," Stevens said.

1100, Driving on Hampton Boulevard

Leaving the Dunham, Stevens was off to the Ghent area of Norfolk for a farewell luncheon for Yeoman 2nd Class Jessica Burbach. Burbach, who worked at FFC for two years, was re-enlisting and heading to a new command.

With Cortez at the wheel, Stevens sat in the back seat reading email on his BlackBerry and catching up on phone calls.

"In a job like this, it's your staff that can make you or break you," he said. "Most of these sailors have been here longer than me and having their help and sometimes guidance is the difference between success and failure. I couldn't do this alone, and I want them to know it."

1300, FFC headquarters

Stevens returned to the office to prepare for his teleconference with MCPON West, the CNP and all command master chiefs working for a two-star or above.

The topic was, not surprisingly, the upcoming enlisted retention boards, through which 3,122 sailors are expected to be sent home. Navy Times was not allowed to listen in on this discussion, but Stevens later said it involved working out the details of how the boards would be conducted and the role of fleet and type commanders in the process.

The talk, slated for an hour, took a bit longer, potentially derailing Stevens' schedule. But the ever-vigilant Cortez had Stevens out the door and in the car in time for his next stop, a command visit.

"Without her," he said, "I could not do this job."

1430, Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story

Pulling up to Riverine Squadron 1, Stevens was greeted by an old friend, Command Master Chief (SW) Ross Cramer, RIVRON 1's top enlisted sailor.

Here, Stevens met first with the command's program representatives, asking how things went in Iraq last year.

Then Stevens met his toughest audience of the day 20-plus cammie-clad and deployment-hardened chief and senior chief riverines.

They, too, bent his ear about proposed cuts and wanted to know about the future of their community, with the U.S. pulling out of Iraq. Next was the Navy's new drawdown plans, and the chiefs listened to Stevens detail the challenges of the next couple of years.

"Why doesn't the Navy just cut off recruiting for a while and not take the cuts from the backs of our sailors?" one chief lamented.

"Why can't the Navy get this right?" asked another.

Stevens explained that it wasn't that simple. The Navy cut recruiting deeply in the 1990s and paid dearly with shortages in some career fields for more than a decade, he said.

"I understand your concerns," he said. "But that's not the way to go. The truth is, we're seeing retention through the roof at a time when we're being asked to downsize the force. It's a tough job, but we need to deal with it."

Proposed cuts in some career fields were forcing the Perform to Serve re-enlistment approval system to act as a drawdown tool, something it wasn't built to do, he said. So Navy leadership needed drastic measures to get overmanning under control.

The retention boards are going to be "painful," but they will clear out overmanned ratings and create opportunity for more junior sailors to advance.

"Yes, times are tough, and some good sailors are going to go home," he said. "But that's where we're at, and we just need to take care of our sailors and get through this."

Wrapping up, Stevens asked if there were any other questions.

"Fleet, why is it that we deploy as much as fleet commands, but we don't qualify for sea pay?" asked one chief, clearly annoyed by the rule.

After a lively discussion, Stevens said he'd look into the issue, but made no promises.

Stevens later learned that the rule specifically stated that sea pay was only for those actually at sea, and the only way riverines could collect was if their unit deploys aboard a ship.

He passed the information back to Cramer. The solution would require a total rework of the policy.

1700, FFC headquarters

Most people had left when Stevens arrived at his office. But visits or not, he had an inbox to attend to Stevens estimated he gets about 100 emails a day and attacked it with a master chief's determination.

It was after 1900 when he was finally able to change clothes, get back in his pickup truck and head home for dinner.

Tomorrow, it would all start over.

Keeping up with his schedule is demanding, but necessary, he said. "If you want to make a difference, you have to do this with all your heart and soul," he said.

"What I lack in talent, I make up for in effort the good Lord knows I need a lot of effort."

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