Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, who retired Aug. 9, said interacting with sailors was the best part of being chief of naval personnel. Here, Van Buskirk speaks during a May all-hands call in San Diego. (MC2 Shannon Heavin / Navy)
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As Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk left the Navy behind Aug. 9, and with it the job of chief of naval personnel, he said what he’ll miss the most is the sailors on the deck plates.
“The great thing about this job, as with others operating at this level, is the ability to go out and engage with our sailors and see what’s on their mind,” Van Buskirk said in an exclusive exit interview July 29 with Navy Times. “That’s been my favorite part, and what makes leaving so bittersweet.”
He’s leaving behind a Navy that’s hovering around its authorized end strength and has been in a yearlong, concentrated effort to close manning gaps at sea.
Advancement in the enlisted ranks has skyrocketed over the past year and a half and the service has eliminated re-enlistment approval for much of its workforce.
But it wasn’t always this rosy a picture, and he also worries that the picture could change again under sequestration cuts.
When he took over the job in October 2011, the Navy was in the final days of a nearly two-decade-long drawdown and was in the process of executing two enlisted retention boards that cut 3,000 midcareer sailors in 31 overmanned ratings and year groups from the service.
“It was an interesting time to come in,” he said. “[Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert] came in just before I did and our first order of business was to stabilize the workforce. The good news was the very fact we were going to stabilize the workforce for the first time in decades — that was heartening — but at the same time the idea of getting there was daunting.”
The drawdown that began in the mid-1990s with a force of 560,000 would cut it to under 329,000 by 2009.
On the table were even deeper cuts, personnel officials said — to about 314,000. Advancement was falling, and re-enlistment approvals were getting scarce.
“Certainly the ERB, however unpalatable that was, it was a necessary action to help us balance our workforce,” he said. “It enabled us to balance our ratings so we could then concentrate on accessing the right mix of skills in the rest of the force.”
Then in December 2011 came word that the drawdown was over and the Navy would level off at 322,000 people, but the Navy’s numbers continued to decline throughout the year.
“It was a tough go, every month we were watching end strength — monitoring our losses and accessions closely,” he said. “I don’t think many are aware of the losses that naturally occur each year and how difficult it is to maintain manning levels as well as all the skill sets we need.”
In recent years, the Navy has averaged an annual turnover of about 45,000 people. Getting that manning mix right, Van Buskirk said, is a “balancing act.”
“We’ve turned that around; we were down to 317,000 and now we’ve got 5,000 more sailors in the ranks,” he said. “That’s significant as we continue to attack closing the manning gaps at sea.”
Though he says he’s glad to be leaving the Navy in a good manpower situation, he’s worried about the long-term impact of sequestration on the force and not only on the size and shape of the force in terms of end strength, either.
It’s the quality-of-life initiatives — pay, housing, health care and family support — that he says were “on the tip of everybody’s tongue just a few short years ago” that could suffer under sequestration, too.
“I worry as we go forward here and have to make the tough decisions we’ll have to make that those issues will come back in play,” he said. “I hope we’ll continue to protect them because we ask a lot of our sailors and many have high op tempo and pers tempo these days, and these are things we need to keep intact so our people don’t have to worry about them.”