Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Mike Stevens (AW/NAC) speaks with Navy Times on March 11 in Springfield, Va. Stevens said there is no place for hazing-like behavior in today’s Navy. (Mike Morones / Staff)
Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens made waves early this year when he announced an end to chief “induction” as sailors have come to know it. The shenanigans often considered a rite of passage will not be tolerated. Stevens is also stamping out use of the term “induction” altogether, because of its association with hazing.
Stevens talked about his decision — and the response from the fleet — in a candid interview March 11 at Navy Times headquarters in Springfield, Va.
He also weighed in on other hot-button issues sailors face today, including looming tuition assistance cuts, personal fitness, new jobs for women and the fire risk of your Navy working uniform.
A stop to hazing
When Stevens put on his chief anchors in 1995, he was subjected to antics that, at the time, were accepted as part of the induction process. Today, they would certainly be considered hazing.
“The chief petty officers that initiated me were initiating me based on what they had learned, what they had experienced and what they felt at that time was the best thing to prepare a young first class petty officer to become a chief petty officer,” Stevens said.
While he did not go into great detail about his induction, he did share that he was forced to eat a number of unpleasant things covered in whipped cream “that would exercise your gag reflexes.”
“They were edible. They did not kill me. … That was one of the things that we did back then to earn the rite of passage,” he said. “It was probably not unlike what some college fraternities did.”
This experience has colored Stevens’ opinion of induction and hazing, and he now believes there is no place for such “demeaning” behavior in the Navy. Back then, Stevens said, “pain and suffering” were believed to forge unity.
“Some people believe that,” Stevens said. And in today’s Navy those people would be in opposition to his orders for the fleet.
In January, Stevens put out his guidance on chief’s initiation with the intent to eliminate hazing in one of the Navy’s most time-honored traditions.
“I believe that CPO initiation, transition and induction worked well for its time — as times change, we must change.”
The term “induction” is gone. Alcohol is no longer permitted during interactions between chiefs and selectees. There’s no profanity. And in those final hours before pinning, good order and discipline must be maintained. These changes are part of his update to CPO 365, the yearlong program that prepares first classes to become chiefs.
His hope is to open a new chapter in the process of putting on chief that has been marked with events that have often crossed the line, violating the Navy’s hazing policy.
“When you have to review a policy on hazing before you conduct training, you have to ask yourself if you need to make some adjustments,” he said. “As we have laid out CPO 365 in its current state, it is a professional and well-organized training event that lasts throughout the year — if it is done per the guidance, you would not have to concern yourself with things like the potential of hazing.”
Initial reaction to MCPON’s change — mostly from the retired community — was quick and harsh.
“It is something that our chiefs’ community has been very passionate about for a long time. We expected it,” Stevens said. “I was and am convinced within the very depths of my heart that the decision we made was the right thing to do.”
Stevens said he’s hearing more support from the fleet.
Meanwhile, evidence of inductions gone wrong persists. An investigation is underway onboard the aircraft carrier George Washington, looking into allegations a sailor was hazed during last year’s final night of chiefs’ induction.
Stevens declined to discuss the case because the investigation is ongoing.
He said he believes that his changes will reduce such problems.
And it’s not just the end of induction as sailors have known it. The Navy is also getting away from some of the shenanigans associated with becoming a shellback, or crossing the equator for the first time. Another Navy ceremony steeped in tradition, it has involved crawling through rancid food and kissing the greased up-belly of “King Neptune,” usually a crew member with an exceptionally round belly.
“When you talk with sailors that have done it recently, what you will find is that many of the same changes have occurred with crossing the line, to make it more of a training and education … experience. It has gotten away from some of the practices of old.”
Stevens said he does not regret his initiation experience.
“I did not see any issue with it because that was the Navy we lived in … but certainly as I have grown, learned and developed, and as times have changed, I would say that if you were to do today what we did then — it would certainly be considered inappropriate.”
Cutting tuition assistance
With the budget crisis still raging, troops are really beginning to feel the squeeze. Most recently, the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard suspended their tuition assistance programs for the remainder of the fiscal year.
That’s not what Stevens wants to happen in the Navy, but he’s not ruling out cuts, either.
“It would not be a recommendation of mine to suspend it,” he said. “I found that in my time in the Navy, when we suspend something, it becomes very difficult to start it back up again.”
Though he wasn’t ready to discuss specifics, he said sailors can expect changes. Sources tell Navy Times that the Navy will release its new TA guidance and rules “soon,” and that the Navy will keep an active TA program in place this fiscal year.
“I would support making adjustments to tuition assistance so that we can still keep tuition assistance in place,” Stevens said. “I think what you do is you lay everything on the table and you say, ‘These are the options.’ … I would hope that we can still keep it open to some degree, and keep it going to the largest degree possible.”
Physical training can be a positive activity as a command, but making command PT mandatory would not work across the board, Stevens said.
Because the service has many different “tribes,” which have different work and operational schedules, commands must have control to determine how they encourage physical training. In Stevens’ experience, command PT works best when it’s broken down into smaller units.
“I think a lot of times, when we envision command PT, we envision all of our sailors in formation on a flight deck all doing PT at the same time,” he said. “That is not practical in all cases. You may have to take a small cadre of folks with a work center supervisor and go to the gym and work out. This group is going to do cardio and another group is going to go and do weights. Maybe a small group is going to go PT. They may break that down by division or department.”
And while commands should foster a culture of fitness and give sailors the chance to PT, at the end of the day, it’s really up to each sailor to control his or her own fitness, Stevens said.
“Nobody is more responsible for physical fitness and health than the individual,” Stevens said. “I believe that sailors need to take, and I believe a lot of them are, first and foremost responsibility for their own physical fitness.”
Mandatory school for E-9s
Just a few years ago, the Navy announced that associate degrees would be required to advance to senior chief, but later rescinded that requirement after the off-duty education was found too difficult for many to complete.
Even so, Stevens believes “secondary education is a very valuable tool for us to develop ourselves as sailors and as leaders.”
So he’s looking at new professional, on-the-job requirements, and that could mean making attendance at the Navy’s Senior Enlisted Academy a must for putting on master chief.
But he added that putting this vision in place could take time and would involve increasing the capacity at the Newport, R.I.-based school.
“This is not something that you can just wave a magic wand to do,” he said. “If I can get every senior chief petty officer at some point through the Senior Enlisted Academy, I believe it goes a long way in our developing leaders’ strategy … more than secondary education.”
Stevens said he does not favor requiring every chief to have a degree to be eligible for senior chief or master chief.
Concern over NWUs
Stevens said the recent news that the service’s aquaflage Navy working uniform burns “robustly” when exposed to flame came as a surprise. Even worse, the fabric melts and drips in a fire, adding to a sailor’s injuries.
“I am always concerned about our sailors,” he said. “I am a sailor, my son was a sailor, my brother is a sailor — I have a vested interest in our safety and well-being.”
Though service leaders didn’t immediately ban the uniform from being used on ship, Stevens said the Navy’s senior leadership is taking this seriously.
“No one sat around and said to themselves, ‘Oh well, we are just going to leave this alone,’” he said. “Once it was identified and brought to light, leadership quickly took action and put this working group together to take a fast and furious look and what our best course of action needs to be — I am confident knowing that both U.S. Fleet Forces and [Pacific Fleet] are working on this. They will put together a good proposal to move forward with.”
Fighting alcohol abuse
The Navy has increasingly gotten stricter on drinking, and there’s still work to be done to “deglamorize the use of alcohol,” Stevens said.
“If we could change the behavior of how we use alcohol for one that is more responsible, then it would certainly help us to eliminate some of these issues of misconduct that we have,” Stevens said.
It’s no secret that irresponsible alcohol use is still a problem. Last year, while Stevens was still the top enlisted sailor at Fleet Forces Command, Navy leadership decided to start a random breath-testing program at all commands for sailors reporting for work.
The program has been called “nonpunitive,” but commands can flag sailors for counseling and education programs. Sailors who have a blood-alcohol level of 0.04 percent or higher can trigger a competence-for-duty examination which could lead to punitive action.
In the time he’s been in, Stevens said he has seen the service get tough on those abusing alcohol.
“We are very strict on the adjudication of alcohol misconduct,” he said. “A DUI for most sailors is going be very damaging to their career — they know that.”
In his time in the service, Stevens said he has seen a culture shift.
“There was a time 10 years ago or so, that you would go to a Christmas party or some kind of a function and it was not uncommon to see a number of people using more alcohol than they probably should,” he said. “Now, it is not uncommon to go to an event — even an all-chiefs event — where there is no alcohol being served. Or if it is, those planning the event have arranged for designated drivers and all-night parking so cars wouldn’t be towed.
“You are talking about an all-chiefs event, where at one time it would have been a free-for-all,” he said. “There was no pre-planning whatsoever — now you go to one of those types of events and there is a lot of due diligence paid just to that specific issue.”
New jobs for women
Now that the Pentagon has formally lifted the combat exclusion policy for women, the Navy and the other services are reviewing their selection criteria for all jobs. That could mean female sailors serving as riverines or SEALs.
Stevens fully supports more career opportunities for women.
“I mean this with all my heart. I have said this and I have been saying this long before I became MCPON. Every single sailor in the Navy deserves a fair and equal opportunity to succeed. We need to look at every possible way that we can make that happen,” he said.
While reviewing the jobs, it’s also important to review — and possibly update — the standards, Stevens said.
“They are not male and female standards. They are just standards,” he said. “If we have had a standard in place for a number of years, the only question that we ask now is what is the purpose of the standard? If that standard is proved to be legitimate, it needs to remain in place.”
For example, the SEALs have long required sailors be able to pass a special fitness test that includes running, swimming, pushups, situps and pullups to even be considered for the training. He said it’s these kinds of requirements that must be validated again.
“If 20 pullups is the right number based on what they may be physically asked to do, then so be it,” he said. “If it is not the right number, then we have to determine what that number is. … We are working very hard and diligently to make sure those opportunities present themselves for everybody.”