Navy thinning is forcing out thousands of sailors
Corinne Reilly - The Virginina-Pilot
(March 2, 2012)
The day that Amanda Humburg's husband found out he would be involuntarily discharged from the Navy, his command sent him home early to give him time to absorb the shock. He walked through the door of their house in Chesapeake with a blank expression on his face and a pile of papers in his arms that explained what came next - severance pay, six months of health coverage, free advice on how to write the first resume of his life.
"He was almost emotionless," Humburg recently recalled. "He looked at me and he said, 'I have bad news.' And then he just dropped all the papers on the floor and went to the bedroom. He wouldn't come out for the next two hours."
Humburg's husband had been in the Navy all of his adult life. He joined right after high school, and over the course of the next 14 years, he made every sacrifice the job required: half a dozen deployments, four missed wedding anniversaries, countless nights spent away from his two little girls. It wasn't easy on their family, but the Humburgs thought it would be worth it, said Amanda, a stay-at-home mom; they figured he'd put in six more years, and then he'd be eligible for retirement.
Now, though, they are facing an entirely different reality, and his Navy career will be over by September, even before the end of his current enlistment contract.
Humburg's husband, who chose not to be interviewed for this story, is one of about 3,000 sailors who will lose their jobs in the coming months as part of an unprecedented and drastic effort to thin the Navy's ranks in overcrowded job fields. It marks the first time the service will lay off thousands of sailors who are in the middle of enlistment contracts, including hundreds in Hampton Roads. In the months since the move was announced, it has become widely unpopular and controversial.
Navy officials contend they had no other choice. Faced with record-high retention because of the economy, the service's usual mechanisms for keeping the ranks in balance have not done enough, said Rear Adm. Anthony Kurta, head of manpower plans for the chief of naval personnel. He said the decision to resort to breaking enlistment contracts was not made lightly, and the method the Navy used to determine who would stay and who would go - panels of senior enlisted sailors and officers dubbed an "enlisted retention board" - was the fairest way to do it. For those selected by the board for discharge, the Navy is doing everything in its power to help them find new employment and successfully transition to civilian life, Kurta said.
Still, he acknowledged several facts that affected sailors and their families say are making the layoffs especially hard to swallow: Many of those being forced out have been in the Navy for well over a decade, and many have good service records. In most cases, they were chosen for discharge based simply on their rank and job classification in order to meet set quotas.
"We know that this is painful and, frankly, a shock to some sailors who are performing incredibly well and doing great work," Kurta said. "This was a very, very difficult decision."
Many sailors chosen for discharge, including Humburg's husband, say their commands were equally stunned by the board's choices, and in some cases their superiors had told them they had nothing to worry about. Months after affected sailors were given the news, many are still struggling with one question they say the Navy has not answered: Why me?
"More than anything, I think he just feels betrayed, and honestly so do I," Humburg said. "He did everything they asked him to and he never screwed up. As a family, we kept our commitment to the Navy. I guess we just thought they'd keep their commitment to us, too."
While the Navy's ranks are slowly shrinking - the service now keeps 324,000 active-duty personnel, about 50,000 fewer than a decade ago - officials say the enlisted retention board layoffs are not simply about cutting, and they're not directly driven by larger efforts to reduce military spending. Rather, they are about rebalancing the force.
The Navy explains it this way: Because of the economy, far fewer sailors are leaving the service than in years past. As a result, 31 of the Navy's 85 enlisted fields have become badly overcrowded. For sailors in those job categories, such as aircraft maintenance, that has meant fewer opportunities for promotion, which has swelled the midcareer ranks. While the Navy can compensate to a degree by enlisting fewer new sailors into overmanned fields, it cannot stop altogether; for budgetary reasons and for longer-term force effectiveness, it needs to keep a particular number of sailors in each field and in each pay grade.
And the service cannot simply allow the higher enlisted ranks to swell while continuing to fill the lower ranks, because the Navy is mandated by Congress to keep its force below a certain number of sailors, and it has only so much money to pay them.
The ultimate goal, officials said, is not to cut the force by 3,000 sailors; it is to restore the appropriate mix of personnel so that the Navy is adhering to a proven plan for how best to use the people and resources it is given, and so service members who remain can advance through the ranks properly.
The problem of high retention is not one the Navy didn't see coming. For several years the service has offered early-out programs for sailors wanting to leave before the end of their contracts, and since 2003, the Navy has used a program called "Perform to Serve" to keep in check the number of sailors in overmanned job classifications. It requires midranked sailors in popular fields to essentially compete for their jobs against one another each time they're up for re-enlistment. Sometimes those not selected for re-enlistment in their current fields are able to switch to undermanned jobs and stay in. Others are forced out. In 2011, nearly 7,000 sailors who wanted to stay in the Navy were dismissed through Perform to Serve.
Early last year, however, it became clear that the program wasn't doing enough, Kurta said. To achieve the number of discharges the Navy needed to stay on track, it would have to look at a slice of its force wider than just those up for re-enlistment. The service announced plans in April to convene the enlisted retention board around August. Those selected for discharge were given the news in November, and they must be out of the Navy by Sept. 1.
Board members reviewed the official records of roughly 15,000 sailors in the 31 overmanned fields, ranging in years of service from seven to 14, and in rank from petty officer third class to senior chief petty officer, according to the Navy. Just over 300 were selected for discharge during a preliminary round that picked out sailors with obvious shortcomings, such as major disciplinary actions or run-ins with the law. The rest were chosen based on quotas that targeted the most overcrowded fields and ranks. The majority who will be let go are first- and second-class petty officers responsible for maintaining aircraft, operating radar, navigation and communications equipment, and running various shipboard machinery, such as engines and generators.
About 125 sailors who were initially selected for discharge were subsequently spared and chosen to switch jobs into one of the Navy's 16 undermanned fields. For the rest, there is no process by which the dismissals can be appealed.
The Navy has undertaken similar boards to reduce the ranks among senior enlisted personnel and officers, though in lesser numbers. So far those efforts have targeted only officers eligible for retirement, and senior enlisted sailors chosen for discharge were picked based on job performance, not quotas.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric Clevinger is one of those still struggling with why he was chosen.
A 33-year-old aviation electronics technician who joined the Navy more than 14 years ago, he was deployed aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise with Strike Fighter Squadron 211, based in Virginia Beach, when the enlisted retention board was announced. At first, he said, his command told him he wasn't among those who would be considered for discharge. Later, after he learned he would be considered, his superiors told him he shouldn't worry because of his strong job performance, he said.
"There was just a lot of confusion about how the decisions were being made. I thought I was safe."
His commanding officer at the time, Cmdr. James McCall, recently described Clevinger as a proficient, motivated technician who had a positive influence on the people working around him. McCall said that delivering the news to Clevinger and the four other sailors in his squadron who were selected for dismissal was "probably one of the most unpleasant things I've had to do as a commanding officer." He said it was only made harder by the fact that he couldn't give his sailors concrete explanations as to why they were chosen.
The Navy has said that no records from the board deliberations were kept except for the members' votes, and even those are confidential, as is the case with other Navy boards, such as those that decide promotions. Kurta said the best the Navy can do is explain the process it used: Simply put, board members compared the service records of all the sailors who were under consideration in a particular field and year, and then they ranked them. Those deemed to have stronger records were selected to stay, but that doesn't necessarily mean those who will go were chosen for a single, identifiable reason.
The Navy couldn't say exactly how many Hampton Roads-based sailors are being discharged through the enlisted retention board layoffs, but if 1 percent of the service's total force is affected, that amounts to roughly 700 personnel here. It's a number large enough that efforts have sprung up to fight the dismissals, including Facebook pages and a White House petition. At least one sailor is suing over his discharge, according to the publication Navy Times, and even among sailors who haven't been affected, the enlisted retention board has become a source of consternation and anger.
Ward Carroll, the editor of Military.com and a retired naval aviator, said the service's decision to break the enlistment contracts of so many sailors could have wider consequences for recruitment and morale.
"You show up with some idea that if you want to - short of being punished with a court-martial or something - you can stay for 20 years. That's the general conception of what the military is all about," Carroll said. When things play out otherwise, "it does feel like a breach."
In response, the service has sought to reassure its ranks that such layoffs won't become routine. Although he wouldn't rule out the possibility altogether, Kurta said the Navy does not foresee the need to use an enlisted retention board again for at least the next two years.
Officials are also playing up the benefits of the board for those left behind. Speaking to sailors in San Diego last week, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Juan Garcia said the layoffs already have made it markedly easier for remaining sailors to extend their careers. The Navy is now accepting eight out of 10 who seek to re-enlist, Garcia said.
The service is also highlighting what it is doing to help lessen the blow for those being let go. In addition to providing the usual separation benefits given to all departing sailors, the Navy signed a $5 million contract with the Chicago-based outplacement and consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, under which those affected by the layoffs are being offered one-on-one help to create resumes, search for jobs and prepare for interviews. Kurta said the company is personally calling each sailor to explain the help that's available and encourage them to use it, and the Navy is working to connect as many as possible with civilian jobs within the service.
And last month, the Navy announced plans to allow sailors who reach 15 years of service by the time they are laid off on Sept. 1 to apply for early retirement. Roughly 300 of the 3,000 sailors who will be discharged are eligible for reduced monthly payments, including Amanda Humburg's husband.
Humburg said learning that her family might collect the payments has gone a long way in restoring her opinion of the Navy. "It did change a lot for me," she said. "If we get it, we'll still be getting much less than we would have if he'd been allowed to stay in for 20 years, but at least it's something. At least they're recognizing that he's owed something for his service."
But the Humburgs must apply for the payments, and they won't know for some time whether they'll get them. So for now, they are preparing for the worst. They are planning to sell their house and move back to the Midwest, where they'll be closer to extended family and where they think job opportunities may be more plentiful. They're not sure whether their girls, ages 2 and 6, will continue to have medical insurance.
Humburg said her husband, a petty officer first class, is still struggling to come to terms with his new reality. He had an especially difficult time explaining his impending discharge to his father, who is a Navy veteran.
"His dad's first question was, 'What did you do wrong? You don't get kicked out of the Navy unless you did something wrong.' "
Corinne Reilly, 757-446-2949, firstname.lastname@example.org