After 17 sailors were lost at sea in two catastrophic collisions last year, many discussions of the root causes of those tragedies centered on issues directly related to deckplate sailors and their enlisted leaders.
Navy leaders voiced concerns about basic seamanship and whether sailors were getting enough sleep on ships, and about technical knowledge of sailors on the job and on watch.
Yet throughout that time, sailors heard very little from the Navy’s top enlisted sailor, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (SG/IW) Steven Giordano.
“During all these events, MCPON was in River City,” said one of Giordano’s former staff members, referring to the Navy shipboard condition that shuts down communications to and from the ship.
“He has had no impactful voice or message for the mess at large, no marching orders, no direction,” said the former staffer, who spoke to Navy Times about Giordano on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Giordano has now completely dropped out of the public’s eye, at least for the moment. He officially took leave in June amid a Navy Inspector General’s investigation into allegations that he fostered a hostile work environment among his small Pentagon staff.
But not seeing and hearing a MCPON out advocating for sailors and leading the enlisted force and reacting to the issues of the day is nothing new for today’s Navy.
For more than a year, sailors and the chiefs mess have been asking why the MCPON seems absent on the job and, in stark contrast to his predecessors, reluctant to engage the fleet on issues related to some of the Navy’s toughest challenges.
Several former staffers in Giordano’s office who spoke to Navy Times say that Giordano is reluctant to speak out or discusses hot-topic issues that are impacting the Navy because he wants to avoid controversy. Behind closed doors, he is reluctant to make decisions and is quick to dismiss or simply ignore ideas brought forward by advisers or his own staff.
Even before last summer’s ship collisions and sailor deaths rocked the Navy to its core, Giordano was opting against the kind of vocal leadership and aggressive agenda that sailors have come to expect from MCPONs.
For example, last year there was a scandal that caused the Navy to shut down the master chief selection board because members tried to collude together to get their candidate advanced. Giordano made no significant public comments about it.
Since Giordano took office, 10 command master chiefs have been relieved and sent home due to misconduct, a sign that, critics say, he has taken his eye off a focus on misconduct that was a top concern for his last two predecessors.
“He’s been absolutely invisible to us out here on the deckplates,” one command master chief with multiple CMC tours under his belt told Navy Times last spring.
“Being invisible equals being irrelevant when it comes to leadership.”
A year later, the Navy’s collective chiefs mess moved from frustration to resignation.
“A large portion of the mess has simply moved on and grown accustomed to essentially not having a MCPON,” said the same command master chief in a recent follow-up interview.
“The angst his silence created initially has now grown into chiefs at all levels working around him to move on the best they can. And now it’s a waiting game until he leaves office,” he said.
But his supporters say Giordano is simply getting his legs under him and starting to move forward after nearly two years in the job.
He is focused on enlisted leadership development, his office’s current spokesman said, a nagging problem for Navy leadership for more than a decade. The issue received new life when Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson announced his leader development initiative last year.
Navy Times queried Giordano’s office about his accomplishments as MCPON, and requested a sit down interview to discuss them. Instead, Navy Times received a written response from his office.
“Day to day MCPON has been and is involved and advocates in various issues and initiatives throughout the Navy at various command levels,” wrote Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist (SW/AW) Hendrick Simoes, spokesman for Giordano’s office.
“Understand, MCPON feels his role is not to seek affirmation and recognition, but to humbly be the senior enlisted advisor to the Chief of Naval Operations and the Chief of Naval Personnel on enlisted and family matters, in the spirit of improving and strengthening our Navy.”
WAITING FOR AN AGENDA
Giordano got off to a slow start after taking office in late 2016, admitting on multiple occasions, a former staffer said, to having “no agenda and no plan.” He spent most of his first few months on travel visiting sailors.
But no clear agenda ever emerged from his office.
“There was a lot of hope that somewhere in there would be something to get him going,” said a second former staffer. “But nothing ever came of it and we really never understood why.”
The staffer pointed to the example of the time last summer when MCPON accompanied Richardson on a trip to Japan to visit the sailors of 7th Fleet after the guided-missile destroyer Fitzgerald collided with a merchant vessel.
“One thing we heard coming out of that visit and later through the investigations was that sailor fatigue had been a significant issue at the command and in the fleet in general,” the second former staff member said.
“It occurred to us as a staff that this was a deckplate chiefs issue and something that MCPON should express concern to the mess about, so we created a message for him to send to the mess and planned out visits to all the fleet concentration areas.”
But Giordano never acted nor officially said much of anything about the collisions.
In his defense, Giordano’s spokesman pointed to his appearance on a panel of senior enlisted leaders in March 2018 at the Sea, Air and Space Exposition in Washington.
Giordano and the panel were asked a direct question about the fatigue issues tied to the collisions and what was being done.
Giordano’s response was that sailors’ schedules are filled with “time spent operating on those platforms, the time spent training, the time spent qualifying and the time spent doing all the other things they want to be able to achieve ... and that is demanding, so what can we do better to help them manage that time a little bit better?” Giordano posed, essentially rehashing the question.
“It’s important that sailors get sleep; the science will tell you that you have got to have a certain number of hours of sleep to be capable of performance,” he said, concluding his response.
In an interview with Navy Times last year, Giordano responded to a question regarding grumblings across the fleet about his lack of public leadership in regards to the compromised master chief selection board.
“Not everything needs an immediate response,” Giordano said in the interview.
“You don’t always need to be so reactive to things, as some things require some introspection before you start to message it out there.”
Giordano has rarely communicated with the Navy’s collective chiefs mess at large as his predecessors did. In his first attempt in January, after more than a year in office, he created division in the ranks by accusing the mess of losing direction and then stating the obvious for solutions.
“I have come to realize the expectations of a chief petty officer may have become somewhat muddled,” Giordano wrote in his message to the mess.
“Please allow me to offer some clarity on this subject … it’s in the creed.”
He was referring to the chief petty officer’s creed, a hallowed collection of words and themes that outline much of what is expected of chiefs in general. Ask any chief and they will tell you that “the creed” as it is called, is the touchstone of Navy CPO culture.
Giordano never fully clarified what he meant by “muddled” or the underlying cause of that perception.
Many chiefs reacted negatively to the message, feeling that the MCPON sent a mixed message with little substance or true guidance.
Giordano did follow in the tradition of his predecessors by annually putting out guidance for the CPO-365 year-round training program. He even gained some popularity by allowing the revival of the phrase “initiation” to describe the period of time after a new chief is selected and when they put on their anchors.
His recently announced “Laying the Keel” program to revamp command-delivered enlisted leadership training courses was an extension of Richardson’s leadership framework that was announced in 2017.
But the initiative is simply building on the to-do list for the past two MCPONs ever since the Navy cut back on brick-and-mortar schools and sent the training to the fleet without the resources attached to make it happen.
But even this, his former staff members said, was driven by the CNO’s office.
“MCPON’s only direction and voice came after three- and four-star flag officer intervention and clear direction from them,” said the first former staff member.
As criticism of Giordano mounted in June, the top enlisted leader for the CNO’s staff came to Giordano’s defense with a written statement to Navy Times.
“During the short time MCPON Giordano has been in office, I have seen a significant increase in both the quantity and quality of products and programs driven from the office,” wrote Command Master Chief (SW) Charles Collins, the senior enlisted adviser on Richardson’s staff, a separate job that focuses only on the Navy’s top staffs.
“In the background, during a tumultuous time in our Navy, he is not a rush-to-judgement leader,” Collins said.
According to Collins, Giordano was key in the development of the Navy’s response to the “Marines United” scandal last year, which revealed a website where sailors and others were trading nude pictures of female service members, and in some cases making harassing and threatening comments.
Collins said Giordano created working groups to promote “signature behaviors that should define every sailor in our Navy.”
“Frankly, I feel this seems to have been both a reassuring surprise and quite effective in changing behaviors across our Navy,” Collins said.
But it’s unclear whether there is any public record of Giordano’s work or any public statements on that issue.
Giordano has traveled extensively during his tenure as MCPON and often holds town hall-style events with sailors, alone or in tandem with the CNO.
By all accounts, he does well when playing second fiddle to his boss, but struggles on his own.
Those who’ve heard him speak say that’s where he’s arguably done himself the most damage during his time in office.
Former staffers said Giordano fails to understand many of the key issues facing the fleet, like personnel and family initiatives that directly impact sailors.
“He has been reprimanded by leadership for putting out inaccurate information to sailors because he’s not taken the time to fully understand the programs and policies the Navy is creating,” said a Navy official with knowledge of the situation.
“Senior admirals are often left to pick up the pieces, spending countless hours scrambling to provide clarity and correct information to the fleet and top Pentagon leadership, causing growing dismay at the fact that he cannot work more closely with the very three- and four-star admirals — and their staffs — that he has access to and considers his ‘peers.’”
Other times Giordano just performs poorly, appearing awkward and even inadvertently insulting some sailors.
“He’d stand up there cracking jokes sometimes for 45 minutes or more before opening the discussion up to sailors for questions and that got awkward at times,” said a third former staff member who often traveled with Giordano.
“Then he’d take maybe two questions from sailors — and that was it. But when we’d ask him about it, he’d get angry and insist that he’d taken more questions.”
His attempts at telling jokes often backfired, leaving audiences with a bad impression.
“Frankly, this was quite embarrassing at times,” the third former staff member said.
One such occasion was a speech at the Senior Enlisted Academy class 210 in Newport, Rhode Island, last December.
“At the beginning of his conversation, the MCPON took the time to make fun of a senior chief that clearly had a medical condition … this senior chief wears dark sun glasses as part of this therapy for traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress,” said one class member speaking on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal.
Navy Times spoke with several sailors who attended the event, and they all recalled a similar exchange and a MCPON with a condescending attitude toward the group as a whole.
That sailor was Master Chief Master at Arms (EXW/SW/AW) Sean Sant, who has served with boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan during his 20-year career. He is recovering from a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress and is fighting to stay on active duty despite it all.
He wears special tinted glasses as treatment for headaches and anxiety brought on by these conditions.
“MCPON looked directly at me and rudely stated, ‘Oh the lights must be too bright,‘” Sant told Navy Times. “He proceeded to take questions and was extremely rude to everyone in the audience, creating an air of discomfort immediately, talking down to them as he gave his answers.
“During a response to a question, [MCPON] stopped mid-sentence and looked directly at me again,” Sant said. “I have a very thick skin and turned around in jest and poked at the wall behind me.”
Sant then said Giordano kicked it up a notch, saying, “If you have to turn around and look behind you, then clearly the issue is with you.”
Sant said he sensed what Giordano was getting at and spoke up.
“I said that the glasses are prescription,” Sant said. “MCPON then rudely responded ’Ya, I’ve heard that one before,’ and went on, continuing to speak to everyone as if they were lesser. And you don’t need to take my word for it — all if this can be seen in his speech critiques completed by the class after the visit.”
Even after the speech was done, Sant said he went up to Giordano to engage him about a PTSD program that was losing Navy support. He stated that he was still being treated for that and other combat-related injuries.
“Even then, he said nothing — nothing to me about the exchange we’d had — not even a hint of an apology,” Sant said.
“He gave his stock answer, telling me to email his executive assistant and went back to taking selfies with others.”
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.