To most sailors, lack of access to computers, email and the Internet at sea is just a fact of life — a reality that must be lived with along with other hardships and sacrifices that life in the sea service brings. Now the Navy is doing something about it.

Enter eSailor, an initiative pushed by the Navy's top enlisted sailor, that next month will put issued electronic tablets into recruits' hands.

And MCPON feels your pain.

Nearly year and a half ago that Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens came up with his own idea to get computing power in the hands of sailors — issue them a tablet or smart device — or at least enable them to use one of their own.

Problem solved? Not quite.

The effort launches in April at Still, help is on the way as Stevens and Recruit Training Command Great Lakes, Illinois, where 200 tablets will be issued to a new crop of recruits and their trainers. will kick off what's being called the "E-Sailor" initiative at the Chicago based boot camp in early with the issue of 200 tablets to a new crop of recruits and their trainers.

"This isn't a matter of if we want to do this," Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens said told Navy Times March 10. "We must do this."

The pilot program will issue two types of tablet devices to recruitssailors, which they'll have to return at the end of boot camp. But Stevens says this is the first step towards eventually issuing tablets to everyone, devices that are central to improving sailors' quality of life, training and communications with home. Sure, it's a pilot program, though the tablets will be "seabag issue," that will only be for the period of time they're in boot camp — for now.

But the vision and where this could lead the Navy is what has Stevens excited as he believes this could change for good the road ahead for sailors in quality of life, training and even communications from the Navy to them as well as their families.

"To be a Navy of the 21st century we must embrace this technology, and we can't let things like security and cost and all that kind of stuff drive the decision — we've got to learn to lead and manage through that," Stevens said. I'm not saying they're not challenges, but to say we're not going to do this is unacceptable. We have to figure it out."

Stevens, who points out that many major corporations have already navigated this road, says the opportunities far outweigh the risks of issuing this technology to sailors. or are starting down it now. Where leadership sees potential security risks and the cost of buying and maintaining, devices, he says he sees opportunity.

And so are many others in the fleet and the Navy's leadership and the idea of sailors being issued — or the Navy finding a way to allow sailors to use their own smart devices in learning and executing their Navy jobs has captured more imaginations than just his own.

"I've had people in the Navy come and see me and say that the e-sailor is essentially striking a match in a dry hayfield," he said. "That it is now encouraging them to look towards that technology and being able to leverage it."

Across the Navy, the use of tablets is being tested in training and maintenance, and it's kicked into high gear the testing and development of Wi-Fi networks at sea, too.

The end goal: government issued devices in sailors' hands.

In the end, he says, all these efforts, over time, will end up with smart devices in sailors hands and being used on the job.

When this happens is still up in the air and Stevens is being realistic about it.

"Oh yeah, so this is a crawl, walk, run process," Stevens said. "It won't happen on my watch — I'm just hoping to get RTC going on my watch."

For much of the past year, officials have been preparing some barracks at Great Lakes to be the test bed for this effort. The "long pole in the tent" was getting Wi-Fi in place that would allow leaders and sailors access to training materials, while also restricting access to the open Internet.

"The first pilot is relatively small," he said. "It consists of two divisions of recruits and the training staff."

Stevens said he couldn't elaborate about what brand and type the devices themselves would be, as that could be construed as an endorsement, but did say that approximately 200 would be issued. One type will is an off-the-shelf tablet, and fifty will be beefed up to military specifications. These will be loaded with the recruit's training syllabus and Navy references that serve as course materials.

But these aren't just for training.

He did say that one type is an off the shelf tablet, while fifty of the devices are beefed up to military specifications so the tests also capture performance, durability and maintenance issues as well.

"The staff will have devices as well as the recruits," Stevens said. "RTC Great Lakes training division and their IT division is finishing up loading the final material on the devices, training material — so a lot of the stuff that they typically would get hard copies [of] is now loaded on the devices."

These include the recruit's training syllabus as well as Navy references such as instructions that recruits are taught from. The devices will be the constant companion of the recruits throughout training.

Stevens said the pilot program was held up to bring in WiFi to the tests in order to teach recruits about the how the Navy expects them to use smart devices and set expectation of their use, including internet communications, something the service doesn't do now in entry level training.

"To me, it's important that the recruits have the ability to use the email capability because [when] a lot of sailors show up for boot camp now — they've never even written a letter before," Stevens said. "Email to them is like a letter was to us."

But that doesn't mean recruits will have around-the-clock access to the Internet, either.

"It doesn't mean they're surfing the web at night — this is all done in a controlled environment where the RDC's have access and ability to [control access]."

Stevens is also realistic and tells sailors that a Navywide tablet or smart device issuen't imminent, but and is still years away, and for those who get them in boot camp willthey'll have to turn them in when they graduate.

"But I would say that the goal is that everybody that comes into the Navy is issued some kind of a device or they're issued software or they're issued an application that gives them access to software," Stevens said.

"You know it's going to be very difficult to issue a device to 400,000 people, so maybe you say there's technology out there that this can be a personal and a professional device — more than giving a sailor a device, it's about giving every sailor access to information with the device."

Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.

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