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The inside story of how the Navy's top brass eliminated ratings

October 9, 2016 (Photo Credit: PO1 Nathan Laird/Navy )
The Navy’s overwhelmingly unpopular decision to eliminate its time-honored job titles was conceived and advocated by its former top enlisted sailor who, with the backing of its top two admirals, pushed for the controversial change despite having gathered very little input from the rank-and-file personnel principally affected, Navy Times has learned.

Ultimately, the decision was made by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, whom multiple sources described as eager to announce the new policy before his impending departure after more than seven years atop the the sea service. Mabus, the first to broadcast this new policy Sept. 29, was motivated by a fervent desire to promote gender neutrality across the Navy and the Marine Corps, which he also oversees. He was presented with four options for removing the word “man” from nearly two dozen job titles — what the Navy calls ratings — and opted for the most extreme option.

Beyond a small working group, convened this past summer and led by then-Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Mike Stevens, next-to no one in the Navy saw this change coming, sources with knowledge of the decision-making process say. And it’s been received with near universal contempt by sailors past and present. Stevens, who retired in September after four years in the top enlisted post, has discussed that process at length with Navy Times going back to the summer. Stevens said he had full support from the service’s top admiral, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, and Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Robert Burke.

“I felt it was not optional,” Stevens said, “but my duty to lead this effort, knowing all along that there would be controversy attached to it.” The former MCPON, as the position is known throughout the service, says he believes the move is necessary and that now Navy leaders “must follow through.”


Deckplate sailors view the change quite differently. They say Navy leadership has stripped them of their identities while failing to communicate why the move is even necessary or how it will be implemented. And their frustration is palpable. As of Oct. 5, a White House petition demanding the policy be reversed has garnered more than 66,000 signatures, well on its way to reaching the 100,000 required to elicit a response from the commander in chief.

With President Obama set to leave office in January, there is speculation at the Pentagon and beyond that Mabus — he’s known throughout the military as the SECNAV — may choose to step down before a new administration arrives in Washington. Those most upset by the secretary’s initiative say they are hopeful that will happen sooner rather than later, and that Mabus’ successor will look to score an early win with the fleet by restoring its cherished ratings in some form.


Boatswain's mate
The Navy’s historic ratings, such as the boatswain’s mate, are no longer in effect after a bombshell decision from the Navy on Sept. 29. Here, Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Ian Soper calls lunch for the crew using a botswain's pipe aboard the destroyer Truxtun.
Photo Credit: PO1 Tim Comerford/Navy
“My questions are: Why now, and was this merely an attempt by SECNAV in a political year to rush an important personnel initiative to the forefront for some sort of political or personal legacy gain?” said a retired admiral with multiple tours in the Navy’s personnel system who, like others interviewed for this report, agreed to speak with Navy Times on the condition of anonymity so as not to be seen undermining the service’s senior leadership. “Our brilliant sailors, male and female, should not be pawns for political agendas.

“This initiative may be necessary,” the admiral added, “the reasons for it may be compelling, but the manner in which it was delivered leaves more questions than answers. If the case for these rate designation descriptions is compelling, they should be further explained.”

To date, such explanation has remained elusive.

Mabus declined to speak with Navy Times. He and other top Navy officials, including Richardson and Burke, have said that the change, while a nod to gender neutrality, will facilitate sailors’ professional development and career advancement by freeing them to cross train and attain broader skills spanning multiple specialties. That should make them more marketable when they leave the military, too, they’ve noted.

Mabus’ office provided only a brief statement in response to questions about the decision’s timing and its ensuing fallout.

“This change,” said spokesman Capt. Pat McNally, “will give our sailors increased opportunities within the Navy, such as a higher level of flexibility in training and detailing, and increase their opportunities when they transition out of the service. This is the right move to bring our Navy into the future and make our sailors more effective in their jobs and service.”

The Navy’s personnel chief, who now faces the challenging task of explaining and implementing this “enlisted rating modernization,” as it’s being called, issued a similarly short statement on the Navy’s website. “Sailors have had a lot of questions,” it says. “We've heard you, and we will continue to keep you informed as the modernization process continues.”

Stevens’ replacement, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Steven Giordano, also weighed in. Two days after the announcement, he emailed the entire senior enlisted community, all 32,000 chief petty officers known collectively as the Navy’s “chief’s mess.” His Oct. 1 memo, obtained by Navy Times, sympathizes with those who are upset, calling for calm as officials work to clarify how the policy change will be implemented. It’s this leadership bloc, Giordano wrote, who must carry out the order.

“I fully understand,” the email says, “that as sailors we all became specialists/professionals of specific career fields and the sub-culture of being in a specific rating was a means of identifying oneself with the history and heritage of our Navy. As we move forward, I fully expect that we will be able to maintain that same sense of professional pride in new career fields and Navy occupational specialties. Although we are charged with being keepers of our Navy traditions and heritage, as chiefs, we are also a key body of change agents for our Navy, and I need your support as we move forward.”

How it happened

Much of the frustration tied to Mabus’ decision stems from its timing. Most average sailors and deckplate leaders alike don’t understand why the announcement was made while so much of the plan remains undeveloped.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the decision-making process have said the Navy’s top uniformed leaders, while supportive of the move, wanted more time to work the ideas both in Washington and throughout the fleet. That scenario, sources say, would have allowed the Navy to mitigate — to some extent — the shock and outrage that many now feel. It also would have afforded leaders an opportunity to prepare detailed answers for the many questions this shift raises.

Mabus, sources said, was determined to put ratings reform in motion — and on the record — before he leaves office. Gender integration, while Obama’s directive, has become a hallmark of Mabus’ tenure as Navy secretary. And he’s upset plenty of people along the way, notably within the Marine Corps, which has reluctantly opened its ground combat units to women and modified many of its job titles as well, though not to the extent that the Navy has.

It was left to Stevens, Richardson and then personnel chief Vice Adm. Bill Moran to ensure ratings reform happened. And while Mabus was focused on removing the word “man” from the Navy’s job titles, he never specifically asked for a plan to eliminate rating titles entirely.

“Where there’s challenge there’s opportunity, and what I need to do is mine this challenge and find the opportunity in it,” Stevens told Navy Times as the process got underway in June.


The MCPON assembled a working group composed of “about 12” individuals, Stevens said after Mabus’ announcement. At first, he turned to the Navy’s force master chief petty officers, who oversee and represent all enlisted personnel assigned to commands worldwide.

“We went out to all our communities [of] senior enlisted leaders,” he said, noting that whatever decision was reached, it had to come from the fleet or sailors would reject it. “We also brought in some others — a corpsman from [Marine Forces Command] — because that was going to be a tough community, … brought in a commander that has surface, aviation and reserve experience, along with a Navy lawyer.”

When the group convened in Steven’s Pentagon office, emotions were high, Stevens said. The mandate from Navy leadership was straightforward, he said: Everything was on the table. 

By July, Stevens had four proposed courses of action.

“Course of action number one was simple: Remove man from titles,” Stevens said.  “What we found was that you could in most cases, remove the word ‘man’ and replace it with the word specialist or technician — a specialist was someone who operated the equipment or employed their skill set in a mission perspective. A technician was someone who maintained or repaired equipment.”


There were 21 titles that included the word man, and the working group found solutions for each.  Hospital corpsman would become hospital corps specialist, Stevens said. Engineman would become engine technician and so on.

The second proposal built upon the first and sought to determine whether the job titles in fact aligned with the work being done.  An example here is yeoman; it’s a historic title, but it was decided that “administrative specialist” was a better fit for the work being performed, Stevens said. 

Then the group examined whether each Navy rating translated to the private sector. More changes were recommended. “I’ll give you one example,” Stevens said. “Legalman. That changed to legal specialist and ultimately to paralegal, because that’s essentially the job they do. Oh, by the way, we discovered in the review that legalmen already are required to get an associate’s degree and become a paralegal by the time they’re first class petty officers — so that fit, too.”

But none of the changes seemed right, he added. Taken in total, they did not amount to the profound change he felt the Navy needs. That’s when Stevens suggested something groundbreaking. 

“What if we just eliminated rating titles altogether and simply referred to ourselves by our rate? That’s the traditional Navy word for rank. You could feel the air leave the room,” he said. 


Stevens persisted and forced the working to group to consider the Navy’s other personnel initiatives already underway. “I asked them to think about it and hear me out, to think about billet-based distribution [the Navy’s new job assignment system], the untapped capabilities of it today, ready relevant learning and what that brings and above all, the capacity of our sailors.”

Soon, he said, the mood changed to excitement. With approval from Richardson and Burke, Stevens was ready to brief Mabus on the four proposals. The MCPON and the admirals did so as a team.

“If you want to do just what you asked us to do, here are the rating title changes that need to happen to remove ‘man’ from those titles. He said ‘it’s done and it’s easy and we can do it tomorrow,’” Stevens said, recalling the conversation with Mabus.

Stevens then outlined the idea of removing all rating titles, telling the secretary that he felt this was the the best proposal for the service. But he followed up with a warning. 

“Make no mistake about it,” Stevens recalled telling Mabus, “this course of action will be the most labor-intensive, probably the most expensive, certainly the most controversial as well as difficult to accept socially throughout the Navy. But it certainly advances us the furthest.”

Mabus “sat there a little bit, pondered it, asked a few questions and then decided, in the best interest of the Navy's future, this was the path he wanted to take,” Stevens said.  

Why the fleet feels blindsided

Throughout the Navy, enlisted sailors up and down the chain of command are contesting the notion this course of action truly arose from the fleet, as Stevens has suggested. While it was known that a working group had been assembled in Washington to explore how the service could make its job titles gender neutral, a command master chief petty officer on the East Coast called the final result “something none of us could have possibly expected.”

There was “absolutely no signal, no hint that a move of that magnitude was being planned, discussed or soon-to-be forthcoming,” said the command master chief, who also spoke to Navy Times on condition of anonymity. “Our sailors don’t understand it. They don’t understand why the ratings that they chose to enter have been selected for elimination, and they don’t see the need for it.”

When the order came down to provide feedback about possible gender-neutral ratings changes, most sailors were cynical, the command master chief said. Many, wondered why the Navy was prioritizing the issue. “No one,” he added, “not a single sailor — across paygrade and gender lines — I spoke with saw the need to change the names of ratings based on gender neutrality.”

Those leading teams and units have no guidance for explaining the move to their sailors, and it’s creating morale problems, he said. “I do not envy the boatswain’s mate chief petty officer who is standing on the forecastle of some ship today, having to look his sailors in the eye and tell them they’re not boatswain’s mates anymore,” the CMC added. “Telling those in the most traditional rating in the Navy they can’t be called ‘boats’ anymore? To me, that is saddening.”

“First and foremost, the [chief's] mess will handle this — we’re being directed to do this and we’ll do it,” he said. "We’ll lead through it. The mess understands change and we are equipped to lead through change but it’s easier to lead when the changes are executed well and those changes make sense and this hasn’t been truly investigated as it should and right now it doesn’t make sense to anyone," the CMC said. 

He is but one of many chief petty officers who contacted Navy Times in the wake of Mabus’ controversial decision. All have said they believe the Navy should study the issue longer and incorporate input from the service’s lowest levels.

“We don’t understand why this could not have been a two-to-three year, very gradual process that examined all of the effects from advancement to recruiting, and how it will affect the administration of our Navy on many different levels. It doesn’t appear,” the CMC said, “that any thought was given to that.”
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