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The end of chief induction, at least as many sailors have come to know it, was previewed in a stern message early this year from Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens.
And now, as 17,465 first classes wait for the selection announcement, commands are ready to implement big changes to the annual initiation.
The word "induction" has been stricken from the record for its association with hazing-like behavior. Stevens has eliminated alcohol from the process and made it clear that profanity has no place, either. And when it comes to the final day and hours leading up to the pinning of the new chiefs, he's not going to tolerate shenanigans and sophomoric pranks.
Stevens' new rules have caused quite a stir in the chief community, both past and present. Many accuse Stevens of watering down the training — and the tradition. In his own message, Stevens said he wants selects to face a gentler, more professional transition.
When selectees are announced this cycle, Stevens stated, "we will NOT abruptly start using a different tone or harsh style of training (as was customarily practiced at some locations in the past.) We will respect and treat those that have been selected to become chief petty officers in the same way we treat each other and that is NOT open to interpretation."
So does that mean the practice — formerly known as induction — is going to be easier? Stevens said that shouldn't be the case.
"I believe we can conduct tough, challenging and meaningful CPO training and keep it in alignment with our core values," he said in a July 10 interview with Navy Times. "We can abide by existing regulations and policies while still creating a challenging environment where our first class petty officers can develop their leadership skills and become great chief petty officers."
With the term "induction" gone, Stevens said the selectee process will roll into the existing CPO 365 program — the yearlong training for petty officers founded under Stevens' predecessor, MCPON (SS/SW) Rick West.
In a new twist, petty officers who aren't selected to become chiefs will remain part of the process, even after names are announced.
Stevens has faith his orders will be carried out in the coming weeks.
"I have an extraordinary amount of trust and confidence in our chief's mess that they will embrace this CPO 365 training process and be successful at it."
Facing a backlash
MCPON's office was inundated with emails and phone calls after Stevens announced the changes to chief induction. Navy Times also received numerous letters criticizing the decision.
Stevens says he understands the reaction and initial backlash.
What caught everyone's ear, he said, was that he eliminated the word "induction" from the process.
"If we didn't change the name, I'd argue we wouldn't be having this discussion," Stevens said — a point he has made over and again in the past half-year to chiefs and messes around the Navy.
Many have equated the name change with removing an important tradition.
"The whole idea behind the old chief's initiation is testing a first class before letting him become a chief," wrote retired Chief Machinist's Mate (SW) Jim Yancy in a letter to Navy Times. "The initiation's 'secrets' and the chiefs' fraternal brotherhood were strengths of limitless value," he said. "I knew every single CPO on planet Earth by his first name, and he knew mine: It was 'Chief.' "
The problem is that in the Old Navy, and in some commands in recent years, this initiation included cross-dressing and diaper-wearing, consuming foul foodstuffs, and being pushed past the point of exhaustion.
Stevens told Navy Times, in a March interview, that he had faced a number of challenges as a chief select, including eating some mysterious items covered in whipped cream "that would exercise your gag reflexes."
"They were edible. They did not kill me. That was one of the things that we did back then to earn the rite of passage," he said. "It was probably not unlike what some college fraternities did."
Stevens said times have changed, and that is unacceptable in today's Navy. Plenty of readers have accused Stevens of bowing to pressure and being politically correct.
"I wonder if the Naval War College tossed out teaching Halsey, Farragut or other great naval war fighters because they were not politically correct?" wrote retired Senior Chief Electrician's Mate (SW/AW) Charles March. "Sorry, but serving with a kinder/gentler military costs lives and makes us a sham. I'm so relieved I retired before this hit."
Stevens said he expected emotions to run high.
"Any time you make a change as significant as this, some people will take it good and others won't take it so well," he said. "But what I've been pleased with is many of those who originally were not in favor of the changes when we rolled this out, they've had time to think about it and let their emotions subside a bit and have thrown themselves in planning with their messes."
And this is only the latest step of an evolution as the Navy becomes increasingly more professional.
"With every CPO season that's gone by, we've learned and then taken those lessons learned and applied them in the right way, and the training has evolved and gotten better and will continue to get better," he said.
Executing new orders
You can read Stevens' 13-page guidance at www.navytimes.com/mcpon/cpo365. In it, he spells out a list of unacceptable behavior. There is to be no:
■ Alcohol during any interactions between chiefs and first classes.
■ Inappropriate props.
■ Forced consumption of foods or liquids.
■ Physical abuse.
■ Cross-dressing or any other sexually explicit behavior.
■ And anything during selects' "final test" that would be "contrary to good order and discipline."
The final test is limited to a max of 18 hours, from 6 a.m. to 11:59 p.m., and will take place the day before the pinning ceremony. Past events have been known to go much longer.
Stevens is intentionally vague about what this final test should entail. He wants it to be a capstone event similar to the Battle Stations event that recruits go through in boot camp.
Though command master chiefs have asked him for more specifics, Stevens refused to mandate how they get that done, so long as they don't violate any rules or regulations. He said he wants to empower them to make decisions.
"I tell them that I have to leave room for them to interpret how to conduct this training," Stevens said. "If I try to tell them exactly the what, where, hows and whys of CPO 365, what I'd be doing is stifling their ability to provide the best quality of training they can.
"What I've done is establish a fence line, the boundaries they must stay within," Stevens said. "That fence line is in the guidance and it's non-negotiable."
What will work for the chief's mess onboard the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower, he said, may not work for a Seabee battalion that's forward-deployed in a war zone.
"There is no one-size-fits-all here as we have commands who are operating in different geographic locations, with different resources at their disposal," Stevens said. "They're limited only by the imagination. ... The individual messes work within those rules and provide a meaningful, tough and challenging but professional rite of passage."
And if commands step over the line, there will be accountability, Stevens said.
"Remove members from the events who are not following established guidelines and when necessary, hold them accountable," he wrote in his guidance. "It must be understood by all participants that the Final Test is strictly a professional training event. There is no room for conduct or actions contrary to good order and discipline."
After this year's pinning ceremonies, if he hears of any problems, he'll have the appropriate fleet master chief investigate and make any necessary "course corrections."
In previous years, those petty officers first class who didn't select for chief were left out of the training during the final weeks leading up to the pinning ceremonies.
"I didn't think that was the right thing to do, and I've said that when and where practical, all first classes should be included in the training," he said.
This, he said, is to keep the momentum of the year-round CPO 365 training.
"For some, making chief is all about timing," Stevens said. "If that timing is off and their rating is too heavily manned at E-7 and above, it can severely limit their ability to make chief."
But for others, it's simply a matter of the board making the decision that this person isn't ready yet to wear chief's anchors.
Regardless of the reason, Stevens said many first classes never make chief, and there's no shame in retiring as an E-6.
"We forget that our goal is really to make those first classes the best leading petty officers and work center supervisors we can," he said. "Those are very important positions in our Navy. If we do that well, a byproduct is these petty officers become chief petty officers, as well."
By maintaining the year-round training, these first classes would be better prepared when the chief cycle begins anew.
Not everyone agrees with this approach, however. There are a lot of sailors complaining that CPO 365 puts too much stress on already overworked sailors. Adding nonselects to the final weeks of training could complicate this further.
The Navy recently launched a website called Reducing Administrative Distractions, or RAD, in which sailors can submit ideas for trimming unnecessary tasks and vote on the best ideas. Out of 707 ideas, reducing the CPO 365 workload was ranked 24th as of July 12.
"CPO 365 has placed an enormous amount of administrative distractions from E-6 to E-9s," wrote the author of the RAD idea. "Although the program is designed to continue to grow and mature those petty officers first class to become chief petty officers, the additional administrative actions are a distraction and the time away from various training is not practical — especially when it is for training that should be practiced daily."
You can read additional comments and ideas at www.navyrad.ideascale.com.
Another sailor who wished to be kept anonymous said he believes MCPON's "intentions are good" with CPO 365, but that he feels the Navy's top enlisted sailor doesn't understand "what this is doing to [first class petty officers]."
"Now that CPO 365 has rolled out to the fleet, [first classes] are on edge year round due to CPO messes instituting their own interpretation of how CPO 365 should be facilitated," the sailor wrote. "I have found the so-called training is at times berating the [first classes], which I find unsat.
"Instead of your first classes being on edge for a month or so, and if selected, being overwhelmed during initiation for a few months, this apprehension is now 365 days a year."
Stevens said he's heard none of these complaints directly, and most of the comments he hears in the fleet are positive.
"If a sailor feels CPO 365 is causing them undue distraction or any other problems, that's not the design of the program, and I would encourage them to engage with their command and particularly their command master chief to resolve that problem," he said.
"Commands need to keep this training fresh and keep their first classes interested in the training because it's productive and they get something out of it. If anyone is simply repeating the same training they did last year over again the next year, no one benefits from that. It needs to be fresh and relevant to what the commands and individuals need to grow."
Not done yet
Stevens believes his adjustments to the chief-making process and CPO 365 were a "necessary rudder correction."
"They were changes we needed to make to ensure we were keeping in line with all applicable regulations and policies," he said. "I felt there was too much ambiguity."
Stevens said he believes this process won't ever be "done" and that it will continue to evolve with subsequent MCPONs.
"There will always be a need for us to grow and continue to evolve and make changes to our CPO training as our nation and Navy are in continuous change," he said. "I'll have my time on watch and, as the current MCPON, it's my job to ensure this training is in keeping with our core values and policies. And the next MCPON will have to do the same thing because they either have to get on this bus or get run over by it."