In his first appearance before Congress, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russ Smith told lawmakers that sailors and their families need more child care services, improved infrastructure and continued funding to modernize the personnel system.
While on Capital Hill, Smith (SW/IW/AW) also fielded questions from members of the The House Appropriations Subcommittee for Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies about civilian credentials for both sailors and spouses and and increased reporting of sexual harassment at the service academies.
Smith appeared along with the top enlisted members of the Marine Corps, Army and Air Force at the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcomittee hearing.
“While we currently have the most capable ships and leading- edge technology, our greatest edge in battle against any determined adversary will always be the asymmetric advantage that is provided by our people,” Smith said in his opening remarks.
Smith pointed to “three specific areas I would like to discuss from my fleet engagements and numerous conversations with sailors I know are foremost on their minds,” leading off with child care.
“One common thread I hear at every fleet visit among sailors in all pay grades is the accessibility and affordability of quality child care,” he said. “Lack of available and affordable child care is a national issue for our generation. For our Navy it is a critical readiness issue.”
Smith said that too often child care gets slotted as an issue solely facing women, but in reality it’s a family issue because the Navy has single mothers, single fathers and many dual-income working families.
He advised lawmakers to funnel resources into hiking on-base military childcare facilities. That would allow the military to offer subsidies for families to pay for the services while guaranteeing children a higher level of quality because of elevated Department of Defense standards.
“Any investment you can through our way that supports child care facilities gets after enabling us to get our folks into the fight,” Smith testified.
Smith warned lawmakers that the “condition of many Navy facilities impacts the Navy’s quality of life and their ability to train" and "providing first-rate infrastructure can translate to a sharper focus on the mission,” but stopped short on elaborating specific projects that required funding.
MCPON testified that the ongoing “Sailor 2025” reforms to the Navy’s personnel system have become “the most critical effort we’ve undertaken in the Navy since the turn of the 20th Century.”
He said that putting the Navy’s human resources programs on par with the private sector not only will improve the quality of life for sailors but also “effectively allow us to recruit, develop, manage, reward and retain talent in our force."
“Many administrative systems and programs were outdated overly bureaucratic and riddled with administrative distractions that took time away from the warfighters,” Smith testified, adding that streamlining the operations will return time to commanders, allowing them to refocus their attention on tactical skills and readying crews for combat.
Although subcommittee chair Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, a Florida Democrat, raised concerned about reports of terrible conditions dogging military housing, Smith said that the Navy hasn’t suffered “the same sort of systemic issues and complaints."
But that didn’t mean that the sea service was free from problems, Smith said.
While surveys last year found that 84 percent of Navy housing residents expressed satisfaction with their accommodations, 16 percent “aren’t happy and aren’t satisfied with where we are,” Smith reported, and 2 percent of those asked were totally dissatisfied.
“We are not happy with that and we are chasing something better. We are looking for improvement, but I wouldn’t say we have the same problems the other services have," Smith said.
Smith and the other senior enlisted leaders agreed that it was important for lawmakers to help spouses of service members more easily transfer their professional credentials when moving to a new state
Last year, Smith said, 42 states enacted laws that allowed some certifications to “cross state borders,” an important boost to spouses but there still remains much work to do on their behalf.
When pressed by Rep. John “Judge” Carter, a Texas Republican and the subcommittee’s ranking minority member, Smith advocated “a leniency period of six months to a year” for spouses to finalize the transfer of their professional licenses and certifications from one state to another.
When Wasserman-Schultz mentioned reports of rising numbers of sexual harassment incidents at the service academies and expressed frustration at the military’s slow pace in tackling the problem, Smith and his peers pushed back slightly.
Smith said that often a rise in reports is a good sign because it shows a greater willingness for service members to come forward with complaints to a more trusted military that’s more likely to listen to them and act on them.
“The uptick that you refer to across the academies, I think is evidence of trust in the organization and that we have an uptick in reporting, I think that is indicative of real trust in the organization,” he said.
“It’s not a good news story when we see that number go up, but I think it does tell us that we have more people trusting the organization so we get a better accounting of what the picture is so we can truly be accountable in getting after a solution.”
Smith said that there was no “issue you can tackle in any organization that’s more important than this.”
He promised lawmakers that the Navy will remain committed to fully investigating all reports of sexual harassment and “ensuring that we both hold people who do bad things accountable, and victims and ultimately survivors feel they have their opportunity to get justice and continue to find a home in our Navy."
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.