About 8,700 senior enlisted sailors Navy-wide will potentially be on the chopping block in December as the Navy — for the first time in two years — convenes a continuation board that will likely force hundreds of underperforming chiefs into early retirement.
The board, which begins on Dec. 4, aims to clear out senior enlisted sailors who have engaged in misconduct or whose performance has slipped noticeably. These moves will clear the path for younger sailors performing at their best to move up into the chiefs mess.
Fleet Master Chief (SW/IW/AW) Russell Smith said the board has no quotas to meet in the process, meaning there is no target number of chiefs that the board is seeking to push out of the fleet.
“We’re not using this as a force shaping device,” Smith, the senior enlisted advisor for the Chief of Naval Personnel, told Navy Times in a recent interview.
“We’re just looking to make sure the chief petty officers who have the privilege of serving beyond the 20-year point are earning that privilege by meeting our high standards — that they still have that same fire in their belly as when they were first selected for chief.”
The board will take a hard look at the personnel files of all retirement-eligible sailors at the E-7, E-8 and E-9 paygrades. Active-duty chiefs will be reviewed only if they had at least 19 years of active service and have spent three years in their current paygrade as of August of this year.
About 8,700 sailors meet that criteria.
There are no exceptions to those having their records analyzed, and even the most senior sailors — up to and including Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (SG/IW) Steven Giordano — will be reviewed.
“Our sailors and their families expect chief petty officers to operate at the highest level every day as their advocates,” Giordano told Navy Times in a recent interview.
“The Senior Enlisted Continuation Board has a responsibility to review the competency and character of these leaders and determine — based on established criteria — if the continued service of those eligible for the board is in the best interest of the Navy,” Giordano said.
There is no way to know how many chiefs will be forced to retire this year. Historically, about 4 percent, or one in every 25 at-risk sailors, will be forced out.
The number of sailors at risk this year is the highest since 2011.
This year’s board will be the first since December 2015 — last year’s was nixed because of a scheduling mix-up.
Over the years, the numbers of chiefs forced into retirement has fluctuated. The most retirements came in 2012, when 593 were not continued. The lowest was in 2015, when just 161 were separated.
For worried sailors who feel their record doesn’t paint an accurate picture of their service, letters to the board to alert them of mitigating circumstances can be sent until Nov. 17.
“If they want to submit additional documentation along with that memo, they certainly have that right,” Smith said. “All of those things will be considered by the board.”
WHO’S AT RISK?
Most chiefs under review will be approved for continuation. But those with red flags will face possible retirement.
The board will be looking for adverse information in the past three years, Smith said, or in the time since the sailor made chief petty officer. Possible red flags include any documented nonjudicial punishment or misconduct, as well as substandard or declining performance.
An evaluation with an individual trait grade of 2.0 or below, documented evidence resulting in a sailor’s inability to perform their job, physical fitness failures or security clearance loss in a rating that requires continuous eligibility are examples of such determining factors.
“If you don’t have any of these triggers in your record, then you really don’t have anything to worry about,” Smith said. “If you do, it does not mean you automatically go home — it just means your record will be looked at in greater detail.”
The primary document used in the review, as with selection boards, is the annual performance evaluation, Smith said.
“There are lots of opportunities for commanding officers to point out where the performance of their chief petty officers are,” Smith said. “The principal source document we use in any selection process is the evaluation and it’s going to be heavily considered for it’s verbiage, for CO’s recommendation, etc.
“If the CO recommends advancement and retention and marks them accordingly, those are factors that are absolutely considered.”
HOW THE BOARD WORKS
One flag officer will preside over the board, which will also include 10 or so other officers and about 60 master chiefs as voting members, the same composition as in 2015.
Once in session, the board breaks into panels, just as the enlisted selection boards do, but that’s where the similarity ends.
Unlike officer boards, there will be no pictures — just names — included in sailor records, something some senior enlisted think needs to change..
Each panel produces two stacks of records, those with adverse information and those without.
Once a panel has completed its review, it takes those records into the “tank,” a large room where records are briefed and voted on.
Those with no adverse information will be briefed as a group. The board votes on this group as a whole.
If 51 percent of the board agrees, they’ll be set aside as having been approved for continuation.
Those with adverse information come next. Each record will be briefed to the group.
“The bar is pretty high as to what would cause your record to be screened in the tank,” Smith said. “And if you find yourself in that group, it’s your performance that’s warranted that discussion. It doesn’t mean your going home, as there could clearly be mitigating circumstances that will come out in the conversation. It just means that conversation gets to be had.”
For example, a chief who had a physical fitness failure three years ago, but who has since improved and has no other adverse information in his record, will most likely be approved for continuation, he said.
But it will be an entirely different case for someone who, for instance, went to mast two years ago and whose performance never recovered.
Once the board’s results are published, there’s no appeal. All those not continued will be required put in their request to retire by March 16 and must be retire on or before Sept. 1.
The only exceptions to these cases are operational and readiness waivers.
Operational waivers are for circumstances when the loss of the sailor will hurt the command’s ability to complete their short-term mission. These waiver can buy a sailor an additional three months of duty, but no more.
The board was created in 2009 as a solution to multiple issues facing the Navy at the time.
During the most recent draw down nearly a decade ago, the Navy’s senior leadership viewed the high retention of retirement-eligible senior enlisted leaders as reducing advancement opportunity.
In February 2009, 60 of 82 ratings were at or above 110 percent capacity among sailors with 20-plus years of service.
Back then, some senior Navy officers wanted to give the boards quotas — mandatory cuts of up to 2,000.
But the top enlisted sailor at the time, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (SS/SW) Rick West, and others fought back, and persuaded Navy leaders to instruct the board to make a “quality cut” to weed out what West and others called “deadwood” in the ranks.
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.