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Sailors to brass: Ditch the dirtbags - give everyone else more freedom

Jul. 29, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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While sailors may be fond of Navy traditions, they say there's one conventional leadership tactic that absolutely has to go: Punishing everyone for the misdeeds of a few lousy shipmates.

While sailors may be fond of Navy traditions, they say there's one conventional leadership tactic that absolutely has to go: Punishing everyone for the misdeeds of a few lousy shipmates.

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While sailors may be fond of Navy traditions, they say there’s one conventional leadership tactic that absolutely has to go: Punishing everyone for the misdeeds of a few lousy shipmates.

Sailors say mass punishment is both unfair and ineffective and — due to a number of recent leadership steps — has turned their beloved Navy into a nanny state of sorts.

Many complain of new burdens, such as even more sexual assault prevention training, and having to blow into an “alcohol detection device” when showing up to work. Good sailors point out they’d never assault anyone or show up to work drunk — it’s the dirtbags who do that. So rather than punish everyone for their actions, sailors say, why not just make public examples of the screw-ups and throw them out?

“In 18 years, I haven’t sexually assaulted anyone, but I am forced to attend ridiculous kindergarten-style force-fed training on how to not sexually assault my shipmates,” one sailor told Navy Times. “Hold rule-breakers accountable and leave the rest of the fleet alone!” More than 100 sailors responding to Navy Times on the topic of collective punishment voiced similar concerns.

This may have worked in the old days, sailors say, because junior enlisted had more power back then to, let’s say, “rein in” shoddy shipmates. But with an official intolerance of incentive physical training and hazing, sailors say they have limited resources to self-correct and police their own.

Perhaps the most public examples of mass punishment in the past year have been the treatment of sailors in 7th Fleet — particularly in Japan, where run-ins with locals have often put sailors on lockdown.

Liberty restrictions were put in place last fall, including an alcohol crackdown and buddy policy implemented by Vice Adm. Scott Swift, the commander of 7th Fleet. Despite these efforts, sailors in the area have continued to make headlines for sexual harassment, assault and theft.

Even Swift, in a July 22 interview, acknowledged that problem sailors are the minority in 7th Fleet, but that everyone is having to endure some pain.

“I’ve always been very pleased with the performance of 7th Fleet sailors. I’ve stated many times that they aren’t the problem, that they are the solution,” Swift said. “The challenge that we have is that there’s always a few sailors, a few individuals in any organization, that are challenged in complying with the rules and regulations that we hold ourselves to.”

'Treated like a child'

Early in his Navy career, Hospital Corpsman 1st Class (SW) Mark Nelson enjoyed exploring ports in the Pacific, often traveling alone and staying at obscure hotels where he could meet locals, something he said enriched his experiences.

“As long as I didn’t do anything really stupid (meaning: get arrested) and made it back reasonably sober for duty and ship’s movement, I was a free man,” Nelson told Navy Times.

He took a break in service, rejoined as a reservist in 2007, and has since traveled to some of the same ports, including Guam, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines. His experience, however, has been different.

“I am now treated like a child who’s merely one alcoholic beverage away from becoming a serial rapist. What the hell has happened to my Navy?!” he said via email.

Nelson’s frustration is shared by many readers who claim the service is becoming too politically correct. They say being treated like a child encourages sailors to act like children, and that mass punishments are morale-crushing.

“Last Christmas, I was on lockdown because some lance corporal I’ve never met was caught drinking and driving,” wrote a petty officer attached to a Marine unit in Okinawa. “I outrank him, and I’m not allowed to have a car. Does that seem fair?”

Another sailor cited examples like this as a reason not to re-enlist.

“I refuse to be held accountable for the actions of a fellow adult who has been read the same laws under the [Uniform Code of Military Justice] as myself,” wrote the interior communications electrician third class aboard the carrier John C. Stennis.

Some argued that tightening the rules in 7th Fleet has only exacerbated the problem.

“We treat grown men and women like teenagers and ground them,” wrote a petty officer second class aboard the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard. Limiting liberty hours, for example, encourages sailors to pound more beers in the window they have, which leads to binge drinking and further incidents, he reasoned.

And no amount of rule changes are going to stop dirtbags, anyway, sailors said.

“The dumb folks are always going to do what the dumb folks do,” as Nelson bluntly put it.

Problems overseas

One horrible incident last year sparked outrage in Japan and put a spotlight on sailor behavior overseas that remains shining today.

Two U.S. sailors raped a Japanese woman Oct. 16 in Okinawa. That incident led to a public outcry. Both men would be found guilty, one sentenced to 10 years and the other to nine years in a Japanese prison.

“Just the magnitude of that event was just so shocking to everybody, it really galvanized everyone that something needed to be done,” Swift said.

U.S. Forces Japan liberty rules, most recently updated May 29, order no drinking off base between midnight and 5 a.m. for any sailor, liberty buddies for petty officers second class and below between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. and a curfew for this same group from midnight to 5 a.m. Sailors in Okinawa have it worse: They cannot purchase or consume any alcohol off base other than two drinks at a restaurant for dinner between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., unless they have permission from a flag officer. Seventh Fleet sailors still require a liberty buddy, though it’s up to individual commands to set the guidance. Their curfews mirror USFJ policy.

Perhaps unfairly, sailors in Japan are facing more scrutiny than anywhere else in the Navy. The Navy on July 22 posted online a list of all general and summary courts-martial across the service. The data show that Japan is not the only place where dirtbags are serving. But these cases don’t receive the media attention like in Japan. Cases such as a sailor stealing an elderly woman’s purse and throwing a basketball at her face on July 15 — 20 minutes from the naval base — get media attention overseas and at home.

Rule defenders

Despite what sailors say, USFJ officials said tougher liberty rules are making a difference.

In the first half of 2012, U.S. forces accounted for 1.5 percent of all crime on Okinawa, said Air Force Lt. Col. David Honchul, a spokesman for U.S. Forces Japan. However, in the first half of 2013, that rate dropped to below 1 percent.

Officials from 7th Fleet, however, declined to say whether the latest round of liberty rules was having a positive effect.

“Since the policy is only two months old, and since there are numerous factors in each case ... it would be impossible to provide an accurate correlation at this time,” said Cmdr. William Marks, a 7th Fleet spokesman, in a statement.

Honchul noted that it is much worse for those who commit the crimes.

“Let’s keep in perspective what’s really punishment,” Honchul wrote, noting that those who misbehave on liberty may face nonjudicial punishment or a court sentence. “While it may be an inconvenience, it does not stop people from being able to enjoy their time in Japan.”

Swift said sailors in Japan generally behave at least as well as those in the U.S.

“If you look statistically at the number of incidents that occur, it’s well within the standard in Japan or back in the States,” Swift said.

Based on “informal research,” sailors in Japan have about 9 percent fewer liberty incidents than those in the broader Pacific Fleet, 7th Fleet officials reported.

In a Navy Times letter to the editor last year, Aviation Maintenance Administrationman 2nd Class Carmen Lovett defended the liberty rules.

“If a sailor messes up, regardless of how small or large the incident, he should get punished — but so should everyone else,” the administrationman wrote in the letter. “We are as strong as our weakest links, and if those links fail, whose fault was it, really? So many people could be to blame, including the individual.”

One Seabee second class said that while sailors may not want to live under the Navy’s restrictions, the saying “one team, one fight” should certainly extend to off-duty hours.

“If the ‘responsible’ sailor refuses or fails to control their friends, they are just as guilty as the perpetrator,” the Seabee wrote. “Once liberty issues stop, or slow greatly, ease the restrictions. Until then, keep the leash on — and tight.”

Correcting the individual

If collective punishment isn’t the solution, what is? Sailors say the Navy needs to target bad shipmates, punish them to the fullest extent and make an example of them.

“Individuals should be administratively separated. It’s that easy,” wrote one master-at-arms first class. “There are plenty more people waiting to join.”

Nelson, the Reserve corpsman, said that harsh punishments will encourage sailors to behave.

“When you send a couple of sailors to mast and throw the book at them, it gets everyone’s attention,” Nelson wrote. “On the other hand, when you punish everyone for the actions of one, all it does is cause resentment and disrespect for the chain of command.”

Some suggested that captain’s mast be opened to let the crew know what will happen to them if they commit a similar offense.

In the defense of 7th Fleet leadership, they are taking additional steps to punish individuals. In a June 12 message to his sailors, Swift wrote that “individuals are being held ... accountable.”

A few examples:

■ A frocked chief trespassed in a Japanese neighborhood that was off limits. He was held in Japanese custody for about 20 days before being released, the message said. He faced an admiral’s mast, where he was found guilty of five violations of the UCMJ, reduced in rank to a petty officer second class and sentenced to forfeit $1,366.80 of his pay for two months.

■ A petty officer third class took photographs looking up a Japanese woman’s skirt at the Tokyo train station without her consent. He was fined 300,000 yen, or more than $3,000, in Japanese summary court, and is still facing possible NJP.

■ An E-3 was found guilty of aggravated assault and assault consummated by a battery at a special court-martial. He was sentenced to reduction in rank to E-1, 10 months of confinement and a bad-conduct discharge.

Sailors in 7th Fleet caught for misbehavior also face corrective “remediation plans.” These plans include a review of policies and a sailor’s behavior.

Swift also formed an “operational planning team” made of junior enlisted personnel who met for four days and presented findings to the admiral, Marks said. Navy Times is seeking additional feedback on the junior sailor suggestions.

The petty officer aboard the Bonhomme Richard said his service may need a stronger screening process for people who will be homeported overseas.

Some readers went so far as to argue for authority to haze.

“As the Navy bears down on hazing, it makes it hard to police those among us who can’t seem to follow simple rules on liberty,” wrote the interior communications electrician third class on the carrier John C. Stennis. “We should not be punished as a whole as there is nothing we can do.”

And though sailors may not like it, the curfew set up for U.S. Forces Japan could stick around for a while.

“We aren’t going to speculate on what actions may or may not be taken,” Honchul cautioned. “While there are no changes currently planned, that does not mean it won’t happen in the future.”

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