INTERVIEW WITH THE
MASTER CHIEF PETTY OFFICER
OF THE NAVY
MMCM(SS/SW/AW) James L. Herdt, USN
MCPON talking to Sailors on USS Louisville (SSN-724)
Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy James L. Herdt, a native of Casper, Wyoming, joined the Navy in 1966. After attending Machinists Mate A School in Great Lakes, Illinois, he served a sea tour aboard USS Will Rogers (SSBN-659) (Gold) and shore tours at Nuclear Power Training Unit, Windsor, Connecticut, and Radiological Repair Facility in New London, Connecticut.
Master Chief Herdt served aboard USS Cincinnati (SSN-693), and on the staff of Nuclear Power School in Orlando, Florida, prior to his tour as Chief of the Boat aboard USS Skipjack (SSN-585). He has also served on aircraft carriers and a nuclear-powered cruiser and assumed his current position as the ninth Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy on 27 March 1998.
Master Chief Herdt is qualified as an Enlisted Aviation Warfare and Surface Warfare Specialist, as well as in the Submarine Service. He has earned a Master of Business Administration, with a concentration in human resources management, from the Florida Institute of Technology. His personal awards include the Meritorious Service Medal with two Gold Stars, Navy Commendation Medal, and Navy Achievement Medal with Gold Star.
MCPON: Id like to start off by thanking UNDERSEA WARFARE for the opportunity to communicate with Sailors and by congratulating you on this publication. I read your inaugural issue and am proud the Silent Service has now spoken so loudly.
USW: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us and to address our readers. In your visits with the Fleet, what are the biggest concerns of submariners and the Sailors who work at submarine support organizations?
MCPON: The concerns of Sailors in all our communities are similar. Most Sailors are concerned about very basic issues: pay, retirement, the amount of time spent working in port, and advancement.
As you know, our annual pay increases are normally capped at one-half a percent below the employment cost index (ECI). Im afraid that many of our superb Sailors interpret this cap to mean that they are somehow worth less than their civilian counterparts. I am pleased to see that in their separate versions of the 1999 Defense Authorization Bill, both the Senate and House of Representatives approved a 3.6-percent pay raise, which is equal to the ECI. We are moving in the right direction, but I dont believe we will ever be able to pay Sailors enough for their sacrifices and their willingness to sacrifice all to defend this country. At the very least, though, we ought to be competitive and fair.
Sailors are quite concerned about retirement, specifically because we have Sailors serving under three different retirement plans. Sailors with the biggest concerns are those who fall under the Military Reform Act of 1986, more commonly known as the Redux retirement system. The Redux system calls for military members who entered the service on or after 31 July 1986 and who retire after 20 years to receive retirement pay equal to 40 percent of their basic pay averaged over their final 36 months on active duty. Cost-of-living adjustments are also capped at one percentage point less than the Consumer Price Index (CPI) each year. In comparison, Sailors who entered the Navy on or after 8 September 1980, receive 50 percent of their highest 36-months average, and Sailors who entered the Navy prior to 8 September 1980 receive 50 percent, without averaging the highest 36 months of their basic pay.
Many Sailors, especially those under the Redux plan, are disturbed about getting less retirement pay than shipmates who might have joined the Navy just days ahead of them and with whom they work every day. They perceive that they are not as highly valued as shipmates who are doing the same job.
I stress to Sailors who fall under Redux that the 40 percent retirement is still an excellent plan for 20 years of service compared to other retirement plans today. I am not comfortable with the changes brought about by Redux, but I am confident that those who talk to Congress, both the civilian and uniformed leadership and military coalitions, are fully engaged, and efforts to address this are gathering steam. I believe there will be some change, although how, when, and what kind are still in question.
I also tell Sailors affected by Redux that serving 30 years is an option for those wanting more retirement pay. Under the three retirement programs, all Sailors receive the same percentage of their basic pay if they retire with 30 years of service, although the base pay calculations and the cost-of-living adjustments are treated differently.
USW: What can you say about working in port and advancement?
MCPON: I am pleased to say that the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jay Johnson, working with the Fleet Commanders-in-Chief, has directed an initiative to identify ways to cut 25 percent of taskings for Sailors work during the inter-deployment training cycle. Sailors should keep their eyes out for upcoming innovative changes.
The question of when advancements will get better is one of the most frequently asked by Sailors everywhere. My answer is, they have been getting better and are stabilizing in most ratings. I want to stress most, not all. Our advancement system is complex. Every rating offers different opportunities and challenges, but overall, improving long-term advancement opportunity remains a top priority at the Bureau of Personnel (BUPERS). For example, in the most recent E-8/E-9 Selection Boards, senior chief quotas were up from roughly five to ten percent, and master chief selections were up approximately ten to 14 percent.
I am also often asked by Sailors what they should do improve their chances for advancement. I encourage all Sailors to study hard, work hard, take the hard jobs, and be patient. Because the advancement system is vacancy driven, some cycles will be better than others. I also encourage all junior Sailors in severely overmanned ratings to consider converting to an undermanned rating with better advancement opportunity. For example on the September 1997 E-4 exam, 38 ratings advanced 100 percent of those eligible, and on the March 1998 E-4 exam, 42 ratings advanced 100 percent.
USW: As submarine missions expand from the traditional anti-submarine operations of the Cold War, how do you see the role of the chiefs and enlisted personnel evolving with respect to operating and fighting the ship?
MCPON: Enlisted Sailors will continue to be the solid foundation of the Submarine Force. They are the cornerstone of our legacy. Though the roles of submarine operations are more diverse today, the roles of chiefs and E-6 and below are the same. You are all warriors and possess the warrior ethos. We must work together to operate and fight. We must be technically knowledgeable in our specialty and be qualified in our platform. Chiefs must continue to lead and set the example.
USW: We hear a lot about below average retention and inadequate recruiting, especially for nuclear-trained personnel. What is the Navy doing to turn the tide in this area?
MCPON: Nuclear enlisted recruiting is doing well in this extremely difficult recruiting market. There is no specific goal for recruiting nuclear-trained submarine personnel, but rather a single accession goal for the entire nuclear-trained community (surface and submarine). The recruits/trainees are assigned into the submarine or surface warfare community near the end of the prototype training based on Navy needs and personal desires.
Earlier in FY 98, it appeared that Navy Recruiting was going to fall several hundred recruits short of the 1998 nuclear accession goal. Due to lower than programmed attrition at Recruit Training Command (RTC) Great Lakes, we were able to reduce the FY 98 goal from 3,900 to 3,600, which will still send the right number of people to the Fleet for proper first-term manning. Navy Recruiting has met the FY 98 nuclear accession goal and is working hard to build the FY 99 Delayed Entry Program inventory, a vital part of meeting the FY 99 goal. Navy Recruiting has never missed an annual nuclear enlisted accession goal.
Many initiatives were implemented in FY 98 to achieve the annual nuclear enlisted accession goal, including increasing Enlistment Bonuses, growing the number of nuclear-trained recruiters to increase coverage and better represent the program, and fine-tuning field Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Board (ASVAB) line score requirements for program entry. The new requirements are predicted to lower attrition and increase the pool of candidates that qualify for the program. Finally, women accessions are increasing from 290 to 465. While this wont directly impact submarines, it does aid the overall nuclear accession effort. One thing that was not done to improve recruiting was to lower standards. The Nuclear Propulsion Program continues to require the same academic, moral, and character standards that have always been required for program entry.
Nuclear-trained submarine retention requires some improvement, however. First-term retention is pretty good, but second- and third-term retention is falling short by ten to 40 percent in meeting steady-state manning requirements. For the past ten years, the Submarine Force has been downsizing. As a result, lower overall retention rates were acceptable, even desirable, to proportionally reduce the entire force structure. Now that the Submarine Force downsizing is nearly done, we have to reestablish the retention rates that support a level force structure. We have begun taking steps to improve overall retention, including raising retention requirements for Zones A, B, and C and increasing the Selective Reenlistment Bonus and Special Duty Assignment Pay (SDAP) for nuclear-trained submarine supervisory personnel at sea.
In summary, submarine nuclear-enlisted recruiting is on track. While FY 99 will be a difficult year for recruiting, N133 and Navy Recruiting have taken promising steps in the past year, and the nuclear field is heading toward achieving its goal. Submarine retention requires improvement in specific areas, but were taking the right actions to address these shortfalls.
MCPON as a young Petty Officer
USW: Looking back on all you experienced in your career, what lessons learned from your submarine duty best prepared you for lifes other challenges?
MCPON: Meeting standards, such as becoming qualified in submarines, was one of the many lessons I learned as a Submarine Sailor. Disciplining myself to study for qualification, to be at my watches on time, and to do my best were also lessons I learned early in my career that have served me well. Also, no submarine can get underway without teamwork. Taking care of our own was exemplified in the submarine community. This characteristic of looking out for each other, taking care of fellow shipmates, and working together was key for me both professionally and personally.
USW: Whats your opinion on why, and how much being a submariner contributes to the success of many master chiefs who wear the dolphins and later go on to other platforms?
MCPON: Leading on a submarine brings a certain perspective. The style of leadership you develop has a lot do with the close proximity in which we work and live. It hones your interpersonal skills. You are never too far away from those you are leading. These skills and style of leadership help you be a better leader. I think our Fleet Master Chiefs, MMCM(SS) Tom Hefty in the Atlantic and EMCM(SS/AW) Steve Hillis in the Pacific, are two leaders who really embody these qualities. (Ed. Note: The Spring 1999 issue of UNDERSEA WARFARE will contain a feature article on the successes of submariner Master Chiefs who have excelled in billets outside the Submarine Force).
USW: What would you say to the young Sailor who asks, MCPON, would you do it all over again if you were just starting out in todays Navy? And why?
MCPON: Yes. The Navy gave me the opportunity to mature and assume responsibility at a young age. For instance, we have Sailors who are 20-years old recovering aircraft on carriers. There isnt a real equivalent in the civilian world. That hasnt changed in 30 years. Theres an opportunity for growth in the Navy, and it is an organization that really cares about its people.
Most importantly, our mission is vital to the American way of life, and the Navy trusts its Sailors to live by our core values of honor, courage and commitment.
The Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy
The Office of the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy was created by Act of Congress in 1966 to designate a single senior enlisted leader as a representative of the enlisted perspective on recruiting, training, and retention. The Marine Corps had already established a billet for a Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps in 1957, and the Army had followed suit in July 1966.
In the fall of 1966, at the conclusion of an exhaustive selection process, a special board selected Master Chief Gunners Mate Delbert Defrece Black as the first Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy. Master Chief Black was installed as the first MCPON in ceremonies at the San Diego Naval Training Center on January 13, 1967.
Since the tenure of the first MCPON, his role and responsibilities have continued to grow. This has been due largely to the initiative of successive incumbents, who have worked tirelessly to expand the purview of their office. For example, MCPON Black himself worked with the Fleet Reserve Association to develop the Navy-wide Sailor of the Year competition, which provides recognition to hundreds of role model Sailors each year.
Today, MCPON serves as the senior enlisted leader of the United States Navy, advising the Chief of Naval Operations and other flag officers on a wide variety of issues. He is the focal point of a Navy-wide network of senior enlisted leaders who serve as a chain of communication that supports and strengthens the chain of command. In this capacity, he travels extensively, talking with and listening to Sailors and their leaders all over the world.
From his office on Washiongton, DC, MCPON also serves as the Sailor's voice in Congress, testifying before Senate and House subcommittees on readiness, compensation, housing, family support, and a myriad of other quality-of-life issues.