CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan -- Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Rick West visited with sailors and Marines at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, Dec. 8, to bring them up to speed on important issues and spend time with his troops.
West began the day with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Four, eating breakfast with nearly 70 fellow chiefs in the chief’s mess and discussing issues that ran the gamut from retirement pay to women on board submarines.
He cited pay changes since he first enlisted in 1980 that had already taken place, such as moving from “final pay” to “high three,” and that Department of Defense officials were meeting and considering proposals such as moving into a 401(k) for retirement among other investment models.
“I don’t see any big changes in the near term,” West assured his audience, “but we’re still studying it.” He said he was convinced that change would come in the future and recommended sailors keep themselves informed of topics on Capitol Hill, so they could make knowledgeable decisions when voting.
Concern about cutting sailors with 15-20 years in service was voiced and the MCPON answered that situations warranted close examination at both upper and lower job-performance echelons. He stressed that illegal behavior will not be tolerated and a clear and transparent Chief Petty Officers Mess was imperative especially for the younger sailors.
“We have asked several folks between the 15 and 20-year point to move along. There was that point in time where everyone thought they had a sanctuary of 17 to 19 [years],” West said, adding that a sailor was sent home recently who had accumulated 19 years and eight months of service.
The MCPON also addressed opportunities for women aboard submarines. He said the future is only limited by the number of women available; though certain types of duty, such as aboard fast attack submarines (SSNs) will be phased in more slowly.
“We’re going with the officers first – like the model we followed putting women on ships,” West said. Women are currently filling jobs in every rate in the Navy, except with the SEALs (Sea, Air and Land teams).
After breakfast, West toured facilities aboard Camp Leatherneck, and hosted a town hall meeting with over 500 sailors and Marines.
The MCPON hailed sailors filling individual agumentee billets, but emphasized that though the process will remain, “Sailors will be getting a little more wet, like we used to be.” When you think about the Navy – think 70-80-90 – seventy percent of the world is covered with water, eighty percent of people live near water and 90 percent of international trade comes across the water, West explained.
“Forward presence is what we’re looking at.”
Regarding force attrition, West said that the Navy is well situated presently and does not foresee another round of Enlisted Retention Boards next year.
As a tool to manage historically high retention and low attrition rates, the Navy instituted ERBs and sent home nearly 3,000 Sailors in pay grades E-4 through E-8 earlier this month. An initial board, held in August and September, cut 1,922 sailors in pay grades E-4 and E-5.
“ERB was not something we wanted to do,” West said. “ERB was something we had to do.”
“How much do you think we spent last year on TA?” said West, answering a question about tuition assistance with another question. After he elicited a $2M answer, he explained the Navy spent $93M on TA and other educational benefits last year for sailors.
He said the program will remain in place but with restrictions. “We did that because people were taking the CLEP (College Level Examination Program) exam, for instance, 9 times and weren’t studying. That gets into some big bucks.”
West said he wants sailors to learn his or her job first and earn warfare pins before thinking about college. West also recommended sailors and Marines interested in furthering their education look to other, untapped resources for expenses such as the GI Bill.
He spent the afternoon visiting with staff and wounded warriors at the Combined Aid Station. The 23,000-square-foot facility opened in June and provides comfortable, temporary lodging to rehabilitate warriors before going home or returning to the fight.
West gingerly squeezed Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Alexander Perez’s shoulder and looked directly into the sailor’s eyes. “Thank you so much for what you do,” West said.
Perez said he wasn’t used to others taking care of him. “It’s a big change. They’ve been looking after me and making sure I’m okay. Initially it was extremely stressful. I didn’t know where I was and I’m still having a hard time remembering names, family members, faces. That’s the hump I’m trying to get over now.”
Perez is recovering from a Grade-3 concussion, with amnesia, he received from a blast while with his unit in the field.
The MCPON chatted with each of the wounded warriors recovering in the Combined Aid Station, asking about hometowns and sports favorites; ensuring each had one of his massive, glittering coins shaped like an anchor, before he left.
“It was inspirational,” said Marine Lance Cpl. Kyle Burt, after meeting the MCPON. Burt, who is recovering from possible concussion due to a blast at the CAS, cradled the coin he received.
“This is what charges my batteries – to be out here with Sailors and see what they’re doing for us and for our nation. That’s what keeps me doing my job,” West said.
“We have a lot of hardworking soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines out here taking the fight to the enemy. But they’re doing all kinds of things that will have an impact on the world, our country, our Navy, our nation. I’m pretty darn proud.”