ABOARD THE USS NORMANDY — Operations Specialist 1st Class (SW/AW) Peter Nonnon said he's just one of those people who doesn't learn well by studying.

"I'm a hands-on guy and I learn best by doing something, not reading about it," Nonnon said. "That's just how I am."

That puts him at a disadvantage in a Navy that advances sailors mostly based on test scores from rating-knowledge exams — as a result, Nonnon spent seven years as a second-class petty officer until the Navy's Meritorious Advancement Program helped him finally move up in rank. The program, known as MAP, allows commanding officers to tap their top-performing sailors and directly advance them, allowing them to bypass the traditional exam cycle.

"I came to Normandy to get my career back on track," Nonnon said. "I was on a carrier before.  But where OSs really learn their job is on a small boy. ... That's why I came here, to learn. And now being recognized through the meritorious advancement program has really got my career going again."

According to his commanding officer, Capt. Derek Trinque, Noonon benefited from the new rules the Navy put in place as it revamped MAP a few years ago.

"I'm pleasantly surprised that the MAP program has turned out as it has and having a season where everyone is doing it at the same time actually helps," Trinqe said.

Nonnon, the CO said, didn't get the ship's single E-6 quota, but the command felt strongly enough about his strength as a sailor that they submitted a package up the chain of command, all the way to Fleet Forces Command.

"It was an additional quota that Normandy competed for and because Petty Officer Nonnon deserved it, he got it."

Normandy is Trinque's third command and he says that he doesn't know any CO that doesn't like to advance sailors. With more quotas this year — and the promise of increasing quotas for the next few years — he says it's great for commands.

"Frankly, it's the best part of the job," he said. "I love to get up and advance sailors — and yes, there's always someone who is disappointed. But in a competitive environment, that's how it is."

On Normandy, the MAP process starts with department heads and leading chief's getting together to decide who among their sailors they believe should be advanced. Then the decision goes to the command master chief and the leading chiefs of his mess.

"The focus has changed from using these quotas to save someone from high-year tenure because they've taken the test 10 times ... he might not necessarily be the best of the best," said Command Master Chief (SW/AW) Steven Rioux.

"That's what we're looking for today — department heads get with their [Leading Chief Petty Officers] and  ... look at their evaluations and their [fitness assessment] scores and basically rack and stack them all to see who are the best candidates."

What ensures that the best sailors get picked for the program, Trinque says, is ensuring the command has the right process in place.

"I have a lot of sailors I could advance. A lot of them deserve this. How am I going to get to deciding who the right sailors are?" he said.

"You develop a plan and you set a timeline to give yourself the time to think it through and talk it through and make sure everyone's questions get answered."

It's not the only time that Normandy has to rack and stack their sailors. They do it at evaluation time and again when looking for the command's sailor of the year. No one thinks that adding MAP is an additional burden.

"From my perspective, it's good for leaders and the mess to get together and talk about who our best sailors are and what makes them so," Trinque said. "We're building leaders, future [command master chiefs] and [limited duty officers] and commanding officers — if we have to do this process a few times a year, I don't think that's a bad thing."

In the end, the hardest part of the process, everyone agreed, is keeping who is getting advanced a secret.

Nonnon said that he started getting suspicious because the command was going to hold an all-hands call, but no one knew what for —  and his chief kept telling him to make sure he was there and that his boots where shined.

A similar thing happened to Sonar Technician (Surface) 3rd Class (SW) Logan Stafford, who got advanced by Normandy last year during MAP season.

"The day of the all-hands call, I had a medical appointment off the ship in Portsmouth that morning," Stafford said. "And I must have gotten 30 text messages from people making sure I was going to be back in time."

He said that he was getting the feeling that something was up.

"What sealed it for me is when someone texted me "congrats STG3" —  I knew," he said. "But it didn't really sink in until it actually happened."

"It changed my perspective that I'd been noticed and recognized this way — boosted my internal morale towards the Normandy and the Navy."

Nonnon said his reaction was similar.

"As the day went on, I got more suspicious that something was up, but nothing solid," he said. "but then it happened and I just got numb — I couldn't believe it."

Though he already wanted to make the Navy a career, he admitted his career had felt stuck at second class and now his goal of making chief petty officer was in reach.

"MAP got me back on track and made my goals of chief petty officer and beyond reality again and within reach," he said.

"As a leader, I believe that I can use my story to help my sailors and with MAP a reality — it shows everyone that there's always hope — and that there's another way to advance."