After two decades in the enlisted and then commissioned ranks, the Navy aviation officer accepted his promotion to the O-4 rank of lieutenant commander in summer 2020, thinking he understood his new obligations.
The promotion paperwork he signed — and the relevant Navy instruction — indicated he would need to serve two years at that rank before he could drop his retirement papers and begin the next chapter in his life.
He duly put in for retirement in August 2021, aiming to end his time in uniform a year later. But last November, the Navy denied his retirement request, and in the process the delicately aligned plans for his family’s life were upended.
It turned out a law change in the fiscal year 2021 defense policy bill, which became law on Jan. 1, 2021, now required O-4s to serve three years at that rank, not two.
And according to two affected officers who spoke with Navy Times for this report, nobody from the sea service told them.
As of this week, 61 Navy O-4s denied retirement under the law change have received waivers to retire at the next lower rank, while nine others decided to withdraw their retirement request and serve the third year, according to Chief of Naval Personnel spokesman Capt. Dave Hecht.
Other services have also been impacted by the law change, but it remains unclear whether their efforts were more effective than the Navy’s.
Big Navy did publish guidance regarding the service-in-grade law change on its officer retirement laws website in May 2021, but one affected officer said the site is an obscure resource and he basically stumbled upon the guidance.
“Had I not been nerding out on the MyNavyHR website, I never would have known,” the second officer said.
More significantly, the relevant Navy instruction, OPNAVINST 1811.3A, has not been updated and still states that two years in grade are required to voluntarily retire as an O-4.
That is an issue because Navy administrative messages, or NAVADMINs, regarding promotions that are sent out monthly reference that OPNAV instruction for promoting officers, so that they know how long they will need to serve at their new rank before they can voluntarily retire.
Such an important law change is usually accompanied by its own NAVADMIN letting members know about, the second affected officer said.
“I don’t think the services expect members to spend their time reading the (defense policy bill),” the officer said.
“Every promotion message since the law change references the same instruction, which has not yet been updated to reflect the change in law,” he added. “So O-4s are accepting promotions with an understanding that they need only complete two years as an O-4 to retire in the grade.”
“They didn’t advertise the change at all,” the aviation officer said. “For me to find out about the change four months after I submit my retirement request, and they come back and deny the request and cite this, that’s shocking.”
Both officers requested anonymity to speak freely and avoid retaliation from their command.
Hecht said the relevant OPNAV instruction “is currently being updated,” but he did not provide a timeline for when that would happen, nor did he answer questions regarding why it wasn’t updated sooner.
Anyone retiring from the military knows that the process is often a years-long, carefully calibrated effort to line up new work, a new home and other necessities.
But the little-publicized law change has muddied this process for some O-4s.
Navy Personnel Command “is reviewing potential courses of action to address the matter for those who retired prior to the new lieutenant commander time in grade requirement being updated,” Hecht said in an email. “In the meantime, (Navy Personnel Command) is approving next lower grade waivers for those officers who, due to no fault of their own, ended up with an additional year of time-in-grade requirement in accordance with NDAA-21 and wish to retire even though it means retirement at a lower grade.”
Opting to retire at O-3 instead of O-4 won’t affect these officers’ retirement pay, as the “high-3″ pay calculation is based on a retiring member’s pay during their last three years of service, Hecht said.
“Having been 23 years in the Navy, I’ll believe it when I see it,” said the aviation officer, whose scrambling efforts to still retire this summer as originally planned took months to iron out.
In the end, his last day at his command before embarking on terminal leave was last month, the same day he got his retirement orders that will see him leave the service as an O-3.
The affected officers who spoke with Navy Times were quick to admit that the issue affects a relatively small number of servicemembers.
But retirement after decades of service to their country is a massive life moment.
“It affects a very small number of people, but that doesn’t make it okay,” one officer said. “I’m okay with just fading out of the Navy after 23 years and not having a big ceremony…but if I wanted to have a big ceremony, to mark a great milestone, I don’t think I could’ve done it, because of the last-minute approval and the long waiver process.”
“One day, my grandkids will look at my shadow box on the wall, and it will say O-3 instead of O-4,” he added. “But I served as an O-4.”
The other officer said he’s currently awaiting a decision from Navy Personnel Command regarding his time-in-grade waiver request but said he would have made a different decision if he had known about the law change.
The officer said the problem will eventually resolve itself over the next few years, as those affected by the time-in-grade law change cycle through.
“If this is a retention tool, I can assure you that it will have the opposite effect,” he said. “Treating people in this manner creates distrust within the organization, not just with those directly affected.”
The other services have or are in the process of changing their guidance to reflect the law change, according to officials.
The Air Force has updated its retirement application process to advise officers of the law change “and is currently coordinating updates to our regulatory guidance to reflect” the changes, service spokeswoman Capt. Tanya Downsworth said in an email.
The Air Force has not denied any retirement requests due to the law change, Downsworth said, and officers with more than two years in grade but less than three who were already retired or approved for retirement before the law change were provided “relief.”
The Marine Corps “has not denied any O-4 retirement request due to the time in grade change,” service spokeswoman Yvonne Carlock said in an email.
“The Marine Corps is in the final stages of revising and publishing the Marine Corps Separation and Retirement Manual to implement this change,” Carlock said. “The change in statute has been shared with the force through our Officer Assignment Branch Roadshows that takes place annually aboard Marine Corps installations.”
The Army is also in the process of updating is regulation covering such matters but has reached out to its component retirement sections to make them aware of the change, according to spokeswoman Maj. Angel Tomko.
The Army has approved time-in-grade waivers for 38 officers who had two years at the O-4 rank and had been approved prior to the law change taking effect, Tomko said.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.