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MCPON's next moves: Uniform fixes, fleetwide tablets and more

Mar. 29, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Mike Steven
Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens discussed his plans in a March 19 interview. (Rob Curtis/Staff)
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Changes to the way uniforms reach the fleet could be coming as a result of efforts to streamline, or remove, the Uniform Board. Here, recruits receive their uniforms at Great Lakes, Ill. (MC1 Andre N. McIntyre/Navy)

A year ago, a lot of people were mad at Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens.

He ended the rite of chief’s induction and ordered a more fitting and professional transition for the chosen petty officers first class entering chief’s messes.

But the backlash has died down after the latest — and, by many accounts, still arduous — chiefs’ season, and now Stevens is focused on other ways to update the fleet and to make sailors’ jobs easier and lives better.

“I was very pleased with how CPO 365 went down after the changes I made in my first few months on the job,” Stevens said in a March 19 interview with Navy Times reporters and editors, crediting the success to the mess: “They have put their arms around it. They have embraced it.”

He’s one of the leaders looking at ways to streamline the uniform process so new, better items get to the fleet sooner. He’s mandated attending the Senior Enlisted Academy for those who want to make master chief. He’s leading efforts to one day issue tablets to sailors.

And with more than two years left, there’s plenty more he wants to tackle.

Stevens discussed his vision and priorities for the fleet in a wide-ranging sit-down interview with Navy Times, detailing his plans for uniform updates, chief training, tablet devices, re-up rules and more.

Uniform updates

One of the biggest uniform issues on the table is the move to put women in new dress uniforms and covers, ones that look like those worn by male sailors and officers.

This summer, female sailors will don the “Dixie cup,” while female chiefs and officers will wear a newly-designed combination cover that resembles the version worn by men.

These wear tests are moving quickly, and prototype uniforms are expected to be tested as early as this summer in Norfolk, Va., sources tell Navy Times, though the timeline, details and commands that will test the new dress duds remain to be seen.

“Right now we’re looking at how we as a force, as a Navy, can be more uniform across the entire force,” Stevens said. “We’re not trying to make women look like men — what we’re trying to do is to put the Navy in a like uniform.”

The service needs to be careful not to make such changes “haphazardly,” Stevens said, taking time to ensure the uniforms are tailored properly and can “adjust and fit to all bodies and all body types.”

That’s not the only uniform change he’s watching, however.

Right now, the Navy is still issuing the poly-cotton coveralls to sailors in boot camp, uniforms they’ll have to set aside once they get to the fleet. They’ll get new flame-resistant jumpers to wear underway.

The fleet now limits the wear of these utility coveralls to non-shipboard activities. Navy Times asked Stevens if flame-resistant coveralls might soon replace the poly-cotton versions in the seabag.

“I have not talked to [the chief of naval personnel] about this,” he said. “But, looking at where we’re at, and at what we’re doing, I think that it would be a reasonable assumption to say that at some point, the current seabag-issued coverall becomes phased out and replaced by the fire-retardant coverall.”

But that could be more than a year or so away, and Stevens said he hasn’t looked into the cost comparison or begun to investigate the feasibility of a seabag switch.

“The biggest priority is making sure that our sailors are operating safely,” he said. “And so, I think that it’s reasonable to assume at some point that that coverall could replace the one that we have right now. ... That’s a conversation that I’d have to have with CNP.”

Nixing the Uniform Board

The Uniform Board’s days may be numbered.

In February, the Navy’s top personnel official said he was looking for ways to radically overhaul it, even blow it up, to create a smaller, streamlined group that can get uniforms to the fleet faster. As it stands, some uniforms can take forever to reach sailors, like the redesigned crackerjacks; it will take the better part of decade before sailors get their sets.

Stevens is a big player in this process and is consulting with Vice Adm. Bill Moran, the chief of naval personnel, on fixes to what many sailors see as a broken process.

“The end state is to be able to quickly deliver to the fleet the uniform needs of the Navy,” Stevens said. “We’ve got to make sure that it’s responsive, and that we don’t bog ourselves down unnecessarily — but, that we provide the right uniforms, that we provide safe uniforms, and when they hit the fleet, they are well accepted by the fleet.”

Stevens said he and CNP are still working through how the new process could work, but Stevens believes a change is needed, as many uniforms are taking too long to develop and field.

“By the time you get the uniform out, it’s already, to some degree, outdated,” Stevens said of the current process. “So, if you want your uniforms to be relevant for the times that you serve, you have to be able to respond quickly.”

Chiefs' training

Stevens has gotten a lot of feedback after the latest CPO 365 season, as the year-round regimen for eligible first classes is known. There were a few issues, including one incident in which a dozen chiefs-select were PT’d to the point of hospitalization, but by and large, he’s happy with the results.

“To a large extent, I was very pleased with how CPO 365 went down after the changes I made in my first few months on the job,” he said. “We certainly had a few lessons learned. And, I made some minor adjustments to the guidance as we move into this year. And I don’t anticipate really making any other changes.”

Stevens wants any further changes to come from the fleet — and chiefs’ messes that lead the training.

“I want our chiefs’ mess to be able to really get their arms around this and to become comfortable with it,” he said. “They have embraced it, they’re far more innovative in their approach than I could ever be — the continued success will rest on their shoulders.”

He says the idea behind the year-round CPO 365 is to offer petty officers striving to make chief continuous learning and leadership opportunities — something he says is a responsibility of chiefs Navy-wide.

He also insists that training be professional and “done so with dignity and respect.”

Still, Stevens has heard criticism from those up in arms in the fleet and retiree community who believe he softened the process.

Stevens disagrees and says it’s as challenging as it’s ever been.

“I’ve had a number of people write me or talk to me on the side, both new chiefs and folks who have been around for a long time,” Stevens said. “What they have shared with me is that in their opinion, nothing has been lost, and much has been gained.”

He says there’s not a “one size fits all” approach for the chief season training across the Navy — it’s too diverse a service. What his guidance does, Stevens said, is simply set the boundaries.

“MCPON guidance ... builds a fence,” he said. “I’m asking them to operate within that fenced line.”

Senior Enlisted Academy

Earlier this year, Stevens announced plans to make the Senior Enlisted Academy mandatory to compete for master chief — and he’s pushing hard to make that idea a reality.

Once you make chief, the Navy offers no further formal leadership education — and MCPON wants that changed. He’s reworking the curriculum to have nine weeks of distance education followed by two weeks of in-residence training at the academy in Newport, R.I.

Stevens has heard some in the fleet questioning this new requirement, but he remains committed to his plan.

“Anytime that you do something new there’s always some concern, there’s always some wondering if it’s going to work, and there’s even some pushback,” he said. “So, if we use that as a reason not to do anything, then we’d still be sailing around in wooden ships.

“I’m not afraid of change. I think that when you recognize that it’s the right thing to do, you have an obligation and responsibility to go forward.”

Re-up rules

Other services, which are facing drawdowns, recently tightened their re-enlistment rules. The Army bars those with sexual assault convictions from re-enlisting. The Coast Guard goes further, saying that substantial evidence of an assault is enough prohibit a re-enlistment.

Navy Times asked Stevens if the Navy was considering or should consider similarly tightening re-up rules.

Stevens said sex assault convictions are often grounds for discharging a sailor.

“When a person goes on trial, or goes to captain’s mast, and they’re found guilty of an offense, a sexual assault offense, I believe that especially now more than ever the level of accountability is extremely high, and in many cases, it’s determined that that person is not suited for military service anymore,” he said.

But he also said he’s not sure whether it’s legal to bar re-enlistments for those charged — but not convicted of — a sex offense.

“What I’m comfortable with is that leadership is looking at the best possible ways to hold convicted members accountable,” he said. “I’m sure that this will be an ongoing process — we’ll continue to review our legal process and systems, making sure that we protect the rights of the accused and protect the rights of those who were offended, and then hold the accused — if found guilty — accountable.”

Tablets on the deck plates

Stevens takes his iPad everywhere he goes and thinks it’s time sailors get armed with the handheld technology that has changed corporations and civilian life.

He plans to launch a “smart device” pilot at Recruit Training Command Great Lakes, Ill., that would eliminate the paper and books sailors are issued today.

He’s working with Rear Adm. Dee Mewbourne, the head of Naval Service Training Command, who oversees most enlisted and officer accession training.

“They have a working group right now who is evaluating the use of a smart device. The goal is sometime later this year to get a smart device in the hands of two divisions [of recruits],” Stevens said.

The device — most likely some kind of tablet computer — would be issued with their seabag, he said.

“The plan is to download course material and other relevant information to the device, maybe some videos and those sorts of things,” Stevens said.

“They’ll take notes on it, they’ll take it to class with them — we’ve even talked about, and they’re working to have, the capability to have wireless within their ship, so that they can send emails home,” Stevens said.

The Navy is already working to teach sailors as soon as they enter the fleet “to be responsible on the Internet and hold them accountable in the fleet for this,” he said. “Where better to teach them responsible use of the network world than right there at RTC and then give them something that they can actually use?”

Stevens said he’s gotten some pushback. But he says this change is overdue.

“I think that if you’re going to operate in the 21st century, then you should leverage the technology that’s available,” he said.

“We just need to kind of walk through this very carefully, so that we get it as right as we possibly can.”

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