MAYPORT, Fla. - As far as chiefs in this Navy home port are concerned, their ranks are filled with professionals who can meet the demands of an increasingly high-tech fleet - even if they have to teach themselves how to do it.
There's a growing demand for more of what chiefs historically have offered: great technical skills and the savvy needed to train and motivate junior officers equally as well as junior sailors.
Chiefs are still doing what chiefs have always done, said Master Chief Machinist's Mate (SW) Tim Flournoy, a 27-year veteran with tours aboard seven ships: "Leading. Training. Mentoring the troops. Bringing up tomorrow's sailor."
Flournoy just moved ashore from the guided missile frigate Boone to serve as command master chief of Naval Station Mayport. Even as he took a visitor on a tour of his former ship, Flournoy took time to talk for a few minutes with a sailor.
The rapport was instantaneous. The sailor hailed Flournoy with, "Hey, master chief."
Flournoy responded with a grin and a "how-goes-it," and soon the discussion turned to problems the young man is having with his car.
The master chief's attitude toward sailors is incisive: "If I look out for the troops," he said later, "the troops will look out for me."
The mission for Flournoy is clear: He's a full-time leader. For most chiefs, however, time spent mentoring must be mixed with pitting their technical expertise against an increasingly sophisticated, complex environment.
Some chiefs say the crush of technology, together with an ever-expanding list of administrative chores, is leaving them hard-pressed to spend time on the deckplates. Most get no formal schooling after they make E-7, forcing them to rely instead on on-the-job training or courses taken when they were more junior petty officers. As a result, critics say rapidly changing technology can quickly pass them by.
Not all chiefs buy that.
Master Chief Information Systems Technician (SW) Mitch Kilgore, 42, said he was a "proud fleet radioman" when that skill became IT in one of many dramatic changes meant to help the Navy harness the exploding field of information technology.
Kilgore, a detailer in Millington, Tenn., has spent untold hours learning to grasp technology that didn't exist when he signed on 24 years ago.
"The way technology's changing has really become a challenge for any chief," he said.
It can be as basic as helping a sailor manipulate the Internet to find a Navy home page or something far more complex. But "if a chief isn't able to help a sailor, the sailor is going to lose confidence in the chief. Technology is really pushing a lot of leadership issues."
So chiefs are doing what they must to acquire technological skills, Kilgore said.
It seems a far cry from Kilgore's 21st century rating to the classic Navy skill held by David Connor: boatswain's mate. Connor, 39, is a division leading chief aboard the Mayport-based guided missile cruiser Hue City.
Boatswain's mates paint ships. They maintain deck machinery and man refueling stations at sea. What would they need to know about computers? Plenty, as it turns out.
"I need it for correspondence," and for evaluations," Connor said. "Everybody communicates via e-mail now. So if you don't check e-mail, you're apt to miss something. I don't type well, but I get through it."
He's self-taught, he said. Like Kilgore, Connor saw a need and responded to it.
Chiefs have long had a reputation as mentors for junior officers. But several who talked with Navy Times agreed there are growing problems with that classic mission.
"I saw division officers and department heads who tried to run everything," said Master Chief Hospital Corpsman (SW) Ronald Scintella, 46, whose 25 Navy years include shipboard tours as an independent duty corpsman - often the only medical specialist aboard small ships.
Aboard ship, said Master Chief electronics Technician (SW/AW) Keith Rogers, 43, a facilitator at the Senior Enlisted Academy in Newport, R.I., "You have to have both the chiefs' mess and the wardroom working on all eight cylinders" to make a crew successful.
"The chief can make things run, but if the officers aren't there to set goals and run the command, the chiefs can only do so much," Rogers said. Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy James Herdt has a picture of chiefs "on the deckplates doing the jobs they've always done."
He argues they've got the technical know-how they need and they're filled with leadership savvy. One big reason: The latest crop of chiefs, 5,161 brand new ones just named by the fiscal 2001 E-7 selection board, is undergoing an intense indoctrination in formal leadership training the likes their predecessors never saw.
The days when sailors were brought into the chiefs' ranks on a sea of booze, common to traditional chiefs' initiations, are over. Contrary to popular belief, Herdt said, "Chiefs don't run the Navy," even if they do keep the Navy running. This revelation comes from a triple-warfare-qualified master chief who has been a member of the khaki community for 25 of his 33 years in uniform.
"So when we run up against an issue where things may not be right," Herdt said, "it isn't always just what's going on in the chiefs' mess. It's what's going on in the entire command."
Herdt agrees chiefs may need more formal training one day so they can cope with changes to skills they've had for years. Until then, he said, chiefs have the basics they need - and the experience - to keep up.
There's little doubt sailors think chiefs need something special to be technical experts and solid leaders.
Chiefs are as influential as ever, said Aviation Structural Mechanic 1st Class Mark Sedlock, 33, assigned to Fighter Squadron 101 at Naval Air Station Oceana, Va.
But Sedlock immediately contradicted himself.
"The Navy's changed," he said, "and chiefs have changed, too." Sedlock then touched on a lack of leadership cited by some critics of today's khaki community.
Many chiefs, he said, are "just punching tickets versus doing their jobs." Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class (AW) Frank Prall, 34, said the problem is too many chiefs make the same mistake many chiefs say officers often make: "They don't empower. They don't put [junior] people in charge. They micromanage."
Chiefs' reputations suffer as a result, said Aviation Electronics Technician 1st Class Blane Fike, 35. "The reason the chiefs don't have the authority is because they haven't empowered the first classes like they used to. So it's like everybody has gotten knocked down a rung," he said.
Yet all these sailors say there are great chiefs. They "stand up for their people," Sedlock said.
They're "somebody you can trust," Prall said.
All these sailors also agree that today's pace of operations and a smaller force might not provide the time it takes to be the kind of mentors chiefs are supposed to be. Or that chiefs don't have the time they need to see to the welfare of their sailors.
Fike recalled that, when he was a petty officer second class working long hours, his father died at the same time his wife was pregnant with twins. He said he felt pressure to maintain the pace, even as co-workers urged him to take time off. His senior chief stepped in, he said: "He had already filled out my leave chit. He said, 'We appreciate your effort. But go take 10 days off.' Fike said, "I'll never forget him for that."
Chief Aviation Electrician's Mate (AW) Michael Stanaland, 36, reeled off his notions of being a chief. "I ain't special," he said. "I graduated in the middle of my class at [basic skills] school. I'm five-nine. I wear a size nine shoe. I'm as average as you can get. But I like aeronautics, I like engineering and I like to apply engineering to airplanes."
All that makes Stanaland one of 10 chiefs in the key position of technical adviser to five aviation squadrons based at Naval Air Station Jacksonville in northeast Florida, near Mayport.
All the squadrons fly Seahawk helicopters, and Stanaland is "Mr. Fix-It" for them.
"If a squadron's got something they can't fix, they can't figure out what's going on with it, it's my job to support them," he said. "It may be calling an engineer. It may be putting on coveralls and helping them troubleshoot. It may be as simple as a phone call to tell them what to do."
He wants to take his technical expertise back to sea to take on a greater leadership role, he said.
He thinks he understands exactly how a modern chief is supposed to perform that role -- and it's not much different now than it has been for generations.
"I don't have the pizzazz to be an instructor or a facilitator," he said. But sailors "are going to learn from me. I can take these young kids in the shops, in the hangars, on the airplanes, and make them the best electricians that's ever walked through that door. I can do that, because I know about leadership. I know about motivation. I know about integrity.
"Leadership don't mean tellin' somebody, 'You do this.' [Aboard ship] it's very easy to tell this young third class, 'You pick that up, put it over there.' He's going to comply. There's nowhere for him to go. But if I can get him to pick that up, put it over there, and understand why he did it, the reason behind it, the next time that is there, he's going to move it on his own."