Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy James Honea has some news for the enlisted fleet: he doesn’t really care too much either way about beards.

The 16th MCPON said he cares about his sailors and making sure they are trained up for any future fight that comes their way. He cares about their quality of life and making sure they develop as a sailor and a person.

But the big beard question often on the minds of sailors, and whether the entire male fleet should be able to rock facial hair? Not so much.

Honea sat down with Navy Times recently to talk about beards, recruiters, being a good chief and other issues.

When he enlisted in 1987, the Navy was just phasing out policies that allowed any sailor to sport a beard, he said.

“There were a lot of old timers that weren’t very happy,” Honea said Wednesday in his Pentagon office. “They didn’t have their beards any longer.”

He also noted how beards don’t fit in his MCPON priorities because they don’t fall in the buckets of combat competency, personal and professional development and quality of life.

“But if you can convince me that you having a beard makes you a better warfighter, I’m gonna give you two damn beards,” he added. “That’s how I feel about it.”

In March 2022, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro ordered a study to look at beards in the fleet, potential safety concerns — particularly with the fitting of gas masks, and whether the policy is affecting the service’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

That study remains underway, and officials have not signaled when its findings will be made public.

MCPON suggested he’s fine either way.

“I am not in a position, nor does it align with where my priorities are, to go run up a hill to go fight for everybody to get a beard, nor am I going to die in a ditch at the bottom of a hill to keep anybody from getting one,” Honea said, adding that he is interested in executing today’s standards and other priorities.

But despite spending 36 years in uniform, the thought of beards in his Navy doesn’t make him reflexively cringe.

“I am not so wed to any standard, or to anything that we have in the Navy, that I’m not open to change,” Honea said. “If it makes us a better combat team, I want to make that change now.”

At the same time, Honea worries about the Navy enacting random policies that emphasize the sailor as an individual over the unit as a whole.

“What I concern myself with is us having this drive toward individualism,” Honea said. “So, if this is just another expression of individualism that takes away from us as an organization, then that bothers me. That worries me, that we have such degradation of standards that we no longer have any standard.

“But if it’s an unnecessary standard, or if it’s a standard that detracts from our professionalism, it detracts from our ability to be combat effective, or detracts from somebody feeling completely included and part of the team, then I want to remove those barriers,” he added. “That’s where I’m focused.”

On recruiting

Navy Times spoke with Honea the day before news broke that Navy recruiters would be forced to work six-day weeks for the foreseeable future, part of the sea service’s latest effort to get a handle on the military’s recruiting crisis. On Friday, that decision was reversed by Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Rick Cheeseman.

MCPON said he is taking a fresh look at enlisted leadership in recruiting districts and talent acquisition groups to ensure recruiters have the best leaders to get the job done.

“What we’ve done is we’ve just assigned command master chiefs to those positions like we do any other position, and just hope that they’re good enough,” Honea said. “Well, maybe that’s not good enough. I want to be more purposeful and deliberate in deciding who’s going into those positions and give them all the tools they need to be as good and as effective as they possibly can be. So, that’s something we just decided on.”

On quality of life

Honea said he is encouraged by reforms that are rolling out that will seek to improve sailor quality of life when their ship is in maintenance, changes that came about following a spate of high-profile suicides among the crew of the aircraft carrier George Washington.

“I’ve served in an industrial environment, through a ship’s maintenance period, many, many different times, and it’s not a good environment and it’s not a good place to live,” he said, adding that he is “extremely excited” about changes that are coming.

He also said he does not buy the notion that, because older sailors endured such conditions, current junior sailors must do the same.

“I want us to judge that off a standard that passes my conscience and if I feel good about that decision, and that they’re living in the standard that they deserve,” Honea said.

“It’s disappointing to me whenever we have a failure and we’re not doing as well as we can,” he added. “But I’m really excited about the direction that we’re trying to go into … when I think about the changes that I’m starting to see take shape.”

On the importance of the chief’s mess

“The original embedded mental health professional in the United States Navy was the chief petty officer,” Honea said.

MCPON recalled how he had a great run of chiefs early in his career, enlisted leaders who he could go to with problems and who picked up when he was carrying a burden he might need to talk through.

At the same time, Honea noted that, while most chiefs are dedicated experts and leaders, some fail to live up to their charge.

“If we have a loss of confidence with our sailors, for them to bring their problems to our chief petty officers, I need to help fix that,” he said. “Every sailor in the Navy deserves to have a chief petty officer that they feel is fully invested in them and has their well-being in concern.”

“But also, I understand that not every sailor is going to have that connection with their chief,” Honea added. “And so, if it’s not your chief, go find another chief inside your command. There’s someone else there in that command that you do have that connection with and who does understand you, and you can create that kind of relationship. Whoever that is, go find that person within your command and have that relationship.”

Honea said he strives to be approachable and open with sailors, and his team has spent many hours helping them try to fix stubborn Navy problems.

“I feel strongly that if nobody else in this sailor’s life gives them confidence that the Navy cares about them, that they can come to the MCPON’s office,” he said. “That we’re going to care about them, and we’re going to help them solve what their problems are.”

Geoff is the editor of Navy Times, but he still loves writing stories. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at

In Other News
Load More