Navy's chief petty officers 'keep a crew going'
By Matthew I. Pinzur, Times-Union staff writerGUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - They are a separate class in the Navy, throwbacks to an age when sailors were still salty, barking orders and telling dirty mermaid tales during greasy 18-hour workdays. They have more years at sea than their clean cut superiors, and ruthlessly initiate their new members before admitting them to the sea's oldest fraternity. Even as the military changes around them, they gather in their private clubhouses and cling to the Navy's oldest traditions.
They are the chief petty officers, and they are the point at which orders become actions. ''They're the old, wily seamen you need to keep a crew going,'' said Cdr. Mark Baulch, captain of the USS Robert G. Bradley. The chiefs are the most senior of the Navy's enlisted personnel, often a ship's most seasoned sailors, boasting at least a decade of work near the bottom of the chain of command. It is their responsibility to ensure that decisions, tactics and strategies devised by the command staff are put into action. Each supervises a division or department, commanding sometimes dozens of the sailors who tighten the bolts, listen to the sonar and cook the food.
''We're the link between the wardroom and the rest of the guys,'' said Danny McVay, a division chief on the Bradley, a guided missile frigate based at Mayport Naval Station. The Bradley was in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on Aug. 28 to begin a four-month deployment focusing on counter-drug operations. The ship relieved the USS Boone, also a guided missile frigate from Mayport. An estimated 4,100 sailors - including more than 100 stationed in Jacksonville - will join the chiefs' tight-knit family Sept. 17, ending two months of intense training and good-natured abuse. The ceremony is traditionally held on Sept. 16, but that would conflict with a service-wide promotion exam this year.
''When you get pinned and they read the chief's creed, it's the most emotional time in a Navy career,'' said Butch Fortner, chief for the helicopter detachment that left Jacksonville in late August with the Bradley. ''I've seen grown men cry on their knees because it means so much to them.'' At the same time, they have the unwritten responsibility to teach the ways of shipboard life to the junior officers, men and women, whose experience is often built upon books, not boats.
''If you leave it to the junior officers, it all goes to hell in a hand-basket because they don't have the experience,'' said J.B. Morrow, the Bradley's 38-year-old electronics chief. That gap between rank and expertise sometimes leads to friction with young officers.
''Sometimes you get one or two with a pompous attitude, but they learn that it's sink or swim,'' said McVay, 32, a California native who has been in the Navy for 13 years. ''They can take our experience and swim or ignore it and sink.''
But most officers speak with reverence of the chiefs who batted them through their first cruises, telling larger-than-life stories of seamen who knew their ships like a mother knows her child. ''I could not have done without it,'' Baulch said. ''I came out of college and I needed a stabilizing hand from someone who had been out in the streets of life.''
In the wardroom, commissioned officers are expected to wear standard uniforms and ask the senior officer's permission before sitting down to a meal. The chief petty officers' mess, one deck below, is a three-room fraternity house called the goat locker, home to their sleeping quarters, dining room and den. Morrow sits in grease-stained coveralls. Next to him, Chief Vinny Lulli, a 34-year-old New Yorker, has his coveralls dangling around his waist, lounging in a white T-shirt and slippers. The sign outside the door reminds outsiders to knock, remove their hat and wait to be invited in. The sign inside the door reminds the chiefs that what they say, hear and see inside is never to be discussed elsewhere.
The sailors are clearly more reticent to interrupt the chiefs' dinner than the officers', standing behind the threshold of the goat locker door and turning their eyes to the floor before speaking. It is emblematic of the special place chiefs hold on the ship, constantly looked to for guidance and instruction. ''The chiefs are always the technical experts because they've been around the Navy a long time,'' said Aloysius Nelson, the Bradley's Jamaican born senior chief. ''The day you pin those anchors on, you might not be one minute smarter than you were in a blue shirt, but they expect you to know everything.''
They are reminded of that burden in the Chief's Creed, their hallowed constitution, which is read publicly to each upon promotion. ''Ask the Chief is a household phrase, both in and out of the Navy,'' it reads. ''You are now the Chief.'' Before they can earn the coveted anchor-shaped rank pin, however, sailors must endure an arduous selection process and an initiation reminiscent of college fraternities. Eligible enlisted sailors with a rank of First Class Petty Officer (E-6) can take the promotion exam every January. A panel of 75 chiefs and officers selects a panel of the sailors who pass the test, which is then approved by the chief of naval operations in July.
From that day until their mid-September pinning, the ''chiefs-select'' are at the mercy of the other chiefs. They are put through calisthenics before sunrise and serve meals in the goat locker. At any time they are subject to the whims of their superiors. The three selectees on the Bradley had to stop serving chicken nuggets and mashed potatoes one night to serenade their seniors with Anchors Aweigh. The tradition of initiation is as old as the position itself, and is explained in loving detail in the chief's creed. ''There was no intent, and no desire, to demean you nor to insult you,'' it reads. ''You were subjected to humiliation to prove to you that humility is a good, a great, a necessary attribute, which cannot mar you. In fact, it strengthens you and, in your future as a Chief Petty Officer, you will be cause to suffer indignities, to experience humiliation far beyond those imposed upon you today.''
''If you don't go through initiation, you're not a chief,'' said Nelson. ''If you can't handle the pressure there, you won't be able to handle pressure out in the fleet.'' Even the sailors now enduring the initiation will swear by its importance. Joe Elswick said he was dumbfounded when he was accepted into initiation last July after 17 years in the Navy.
''I wanted to know what the temperature was when hell froze over,'' he said. ''I just thought that after 17 years they'd stopped looking at me.'' And even though some days he said it seemed he could do no right in the eyes of his chiefs, he never regretted entering the training. ''I thought I knew a lot about being a chief before I was picked,'' said Elswick, 36, who spent most of his initiation aboard the USS Boone. ''I've learned more in the last two months than in the last 17 years.''The chiefs also bring stability to their ship, usually remaining with a single vessel far longer than the officers' 18 to 20 month stints. They learn the strange peccadilloes of their ship and its sailors. ''If a sailor needs help, an officer can tell them how to do it,'' said McVay, whose father, uncles and brothers are all Navy sailors. ''A chief will show them.''But as much as they bring stability to the Navy, they lament many of the military's recent changes, which they see as attempts to become more socially acceptable and politically correct. ''It used to be, 'Work hard, play real hard,' '' McVay said. ''You can't do that anymore - you have to be careful.'' Despite the changes, unity remains strong in the chiefs' mess, they agreed - to each other, to the Navy and to the United States. ''We do it for the 13 bars and 50 stars that fly from the mast,'' said Tim Flournoy, the recruiting-poster command master chief of the Boone. ''I want my daughter to enjoy the same freedom I did, and that's why I'm on this ship.''