Adm. Bill Gortney, head of Fleet Forces Command, observes flight operations Jan. 30 aboard the carrier Harry S. Truman. Gortney sat down with Navy Times to discuss some of the top issues affecting the fleet. (MC3 Lorenzo Burleson / Navy)
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FLEET FORCES COMMANDER
Name: Adm. Bill Gortney
Past commands include: Carrier Air Wing 7 and Carrier Strike Group 10, both while operating in the U.S. Central Command area of operations; 5th Fleet in Bahrain.
Flight stats: He has flown more than 5,360 mishap-free flight hours and performed 1,265 carrier-arrested landings, primarily in the A-7E Corsair II and the F/A-18 Hornet.
Ribbon rack: Defense Distinguished Service Medal, Navy Distinguished Service Medal, Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit (four awards), Bronze Star, Defense Meritorious Service Medal (two awards), Meritorious Service Medal (three awards), Air Medal (three awards: Gold Numeral One, two Strike/Flight), Defense Commendation Medal (three awards), Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, Sea Service Ribbon (eight awards) and the Overseas Service Ribbon (two awards).
While the budget crisis may be paramount, it's certainly not Adm. Bill Gortney's only concern.
Fire risks of Navy uniforms. Sailor misbehavior on liberty. Fleetwide alcohol breath tests. Your Fleet Forces commander has had only four months on the job, but he's tackling these issues and more.
The admiral sat down with Navy Times on Jan. 28 and spent 90 minutes on a mix of hot-button topics.
Excerpts from the interview, edited for space and clarity:
Q. Two working groups are being formed to assess the fire risk of Navy uniforms while at sea. What is the status of those?
A. There are two parts to the study. One is, what do we want our sailors to be wearing? What are the requirements they need, and where on the ship do they need to be wearing it, in order to give them the suitable protection? That's an organizational clothing discussion.
I've actually asked [commanders] three things first: What are we spending on that organizational clothing? What are they buying? And what protection are they getting? That's what the working group is focused on.
And then, what do we want our sailors to wear? Let's have an informed discussion and look at risk, and that's the trade-off. And that's on a fairly quick timeline to come back to me.
Q. Is there a hard deadline on that?
A. I'd rather not tell you what that hard deadline is. But it's a lot closer than most people think.
Once they've come out with the requirement, then the question is, do we want a Navy uniform at sea that meets those particular requirements, or is the organization clothing suitable?
Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Cecil Haney and I will make a recommendation to the chief of naval operations, probably through the chief of naval personnel, through the uniform board.
Q. When the news first came out that this new [burn test on the Navy working uniform] was done, was that a surprise to you? Did you know that the uniform would drip and melt like that?
A. I did not.
Q. What was your reaction when you first heard?
A. "Why didn't I look inside the label and see what it was made of?" I go to sea, I always wore a flight suit and cotton underneath it and flight-deck jerseys and 100 percent cotton pants. And that's because when I was a [lieutenant junior grade] on my first set of workups for Nimitz, [there was a] flight-deck fire. We lost sailors. This is in 1981. A Prowler hit a tow tractor, it flipped upside down and we had a major flight-deck fire. It had an impact on a young J.G.
It was about 2 in the morning. And I'm a firm believer that if there's a mass fire, you're either fighting the fire, finding safe passage or taking care of a shipmate. I was taking care of a shipmate on the way to go fight the fire. You wear whatever you're wearing. The question is, what should they be wearing?
Q. Let's talk about the Navy ship collisions that have occurred in recent months. Does that give you concern, and are there any steps that fleet leaders are taking to address these?
A. As a result of mishaps at sea — ships and submarines, I have an $850 million unforecasted maintenance bill. CNO doesn't give me any extra money to take care of that. What matters to me is mishaps costs lives, and I can't replace a sailor's life. And mishaps cost money to repair equipment. And I can go buy new equipment, but it's expensive.
When we have a mishap, the whole purpose of doing a mishap investigation is to determine the root cause factor. None of 'em are because it's an act of God. It's a series of events that is personnel-related or materiel-related, whether it's decision-making, supervisory or any of these reasons. We want to determine the root cause.
We accept and reject those possible cause factors. Those that we accept, we put a recommendation to processes in place to prevent a recurrence. So, I'm a firm believer in investigations to determine the root cause. Not to apply blame.
Q. Are there any steps that you can identify now, or changes that you can identify now?
A. Maybe this is because I'm just an old sailor, but I've yet to identify a cause factor that's new. Every rule on a flight deck of an aircraft carrier is written in blood. Lines are drawn on the flight deck. You don't go in the port catwalk during flight ops. They are all written in blood.
So it's a matter of instilling [tactics, techniques and procedures] and a mindset that this is a rule. It isn't because we wanted to inconvenience you. It's there because we wanted to save your life. Every time we have one of these mishaps, if it's personnel related, we already knew it. There was a breakdown and we either forgot, or there wasn't a supervisor in place to make sure that the proper procedures were held. Or we weren't explicit enough in our publications.
Q. Can we talk about Breathalyzers?
A. Sure, but they're not Breathalyzers.
Q. Excuse me, "alcohol detection devices."
A. And there's a big difference. Why is that a difference?
Q. Well, the logic we're hearing is that "Breathalyzer" is a brand people associate with law enforcement.
A. Punitive. [The Breathalyzer is] a punitive measure. The A-D-D is a tool. I look at health-of-the-force issues: driving under the influence, domestic incidents at home, suicide, sexual assault. In a very high percentage, alcohol is the last step in a chain that prevented good decisions.
We need to educate our force on consumption of alcohol.
Q. It's been repeatedly said that it's nonpunitive. But if you blow a 0.04 or higher, it can be used for probable cause to do a fit-for-duty review, and that can lead to disciplinary action. So is it fair to say it's nonpunitive if it can lead to disciplinary action?
A. Yes. Punitive is something that is going to hold up in court. An A-D-D is not going to hold up in court. However, if someone blows a 0.04, I probably don't need an A-D-D to know he's incapacitated. I am probably going to smell him coming up the brow if there's not much wind on the quarterdeck.
If it happens more than once, someone in the chain of command probably knows that Billy Joe Bob might have a drinking problem. And then we're going to get them the help that they need.
Q. Liberty issues: You put out a message, jointly with PACFLEET [after the alleged rape of a Japanese woman by U.S. sailors]. What's the status of sailors on liberty?
A. Liberty is a mission. It's just as important as putting the warhead on the forehead. And as I've looked at this, everybody is pretty good when they're on liberty. [The problem is] where you live, when you don't think you're on liberty. You think of liberty as when you go to Naples [Italy]. But every time you go out on Friday or Saturday night, or after work hours, you're on liberty and the consequences of irresponsible behavior are just as severe.
Q. 360-degree reviews: What is your opinion of them, and should there be more use of them in the Navy?
A. I'm all for tools that help inform leadership on successful and nonsuccessful leadership traits. I'm also more excited about tools that help individuals learn about themselves. And the 360 can do both, depending on how the person that does the 360 uses it. And that's [CNO] Adm. [Jon] Greenert's decision on how he wants to use 360 degrees.
[Editor's note: The conversation soon shifts to the subject of screening boards.]
In my mind, the most important statuary or administrative board that goes on every single year are the O-5 command screening boards that every one of the communities run. The reason is because it's from that board that our future chief of naval operations or chairman of the joints chiefs of staff is chosen.
Also, we're picking the O-5 commanding officers of our squadrons and our ships and our battalions. They are determining whether or not our sailors and our chiefs and our junior officers are going to stay in the Navy or not. My first two COs made me want to stay in the Navy.
In our business, you have to follow your leadership. But the great commanding officers are the ones where people want to follow that leadership.