Editor’ Note: Lieutenant Koonce’s paper Won The Naval Submarine League Essay Contest for Submarine Officer’s. Advanced Class 98070.
Poor junior office accession and retention is a much-overdone topic but one I feel I must address because it is important to the future of our Submarine· Force. That we have a problem cannot be disputed. The mere fact that I was able to find almost a dozen articles in Proceedings magazine over the last 12 months is a clear sign for concern. I spent my shore tour on the staff of an NROTC unit, where I saw Navy-wide submarine accessions fall short of the goal. Now I am at Submarine Officers’ Advanced Course (SOAC) at a period when an entire class (April 1999) has been canceled due to a shortage of students. Many people before me have brought up reasons why the problem exists. I would like to take a different route and discuss the reasons people choose to make the Submarine Force their career rather than trying to pinpoint the elusive single reason junior officers are leaving and midshipmen are choosing other paths. After all, every submariner could list for you a hundred reasons not to be in this profession. I am going to discuss why we join and why we stay and what we need to do to improve our current situation.
In order to understand why I think we make the choice to join and then stay in submarines, I must explain what I call the Us versus Them Gap. This is the natural gap between subgroups in our profession. The gaps mark career transition points and are easy to identify. One of these gaps is the gap between midshipmen and active duty personnel. Another gap is if the junior officer to department head/senior officer gap. There are natural differences between the groups on either side of these gaps. I believe understanding these gaps is the key to accession and retention.
I am sure you can all look back on your careers and see your transition across one of these gaps. It happens at different times for different people. The timing is irrelevant. What matters most is that it happens, otherwise the person shows up as another negative statistic on a BuPers chart. Why is it so important to identify this process? Well, my theory is that these transitions occur not by chance but because someone bridges the gap by taking an officer under his wing. Think back in your career. Are there not one or more individuals who were crucial in your choice to stay Navy? Sure, there were lots of people and lots of excuses for you to write that letter of resignation, but you didn’t, or at least you never sent it in. Many officers I have talked to say they never really made the decision to stay in; they just never made the decision to get out. But if you dig a little deeper, there always seems to be some sort of mentor or personal hero in their background. It is quite common to hear sea stories at SOAC of how great someone’s Commanding Officer was or what a great guy the Navigator was. What effect do these personal heroes have that is so important?
To answer that question, we must step back and look at the bigger picture. The question that comes to mind is: “Why would anyone want a job where they spend weeks at a time away from their family, hundreds of feet under the ocean surface, in a steel tube with a bunch of overworked, underpaid, smelly guys” Good question! And probably one you have tried to answer before. It’s not easy, is it? The answer is certainly not because of the money. Not that we are all poor, but I think if you calculate the hourly pay of an ensign, it’s about equal to what the french fry dude at a McDonald’s makes. Don’t take this wrong, I never turn down a raise and I applaud the recent pay increase talk coming from Washington, especially for our mid-grade enlisted men. But throwing more money at this problem won’t fix it.
Guys who are smart enough to run nuclear reactors and drive submarines can make about as much as they want to in the civilian world. I know this first hand because at the university where I spent my shore tour, I watched several former submariners earn six figure salaries after completing their MBAs. Many others would argue that the key reason people stay is for the great retirement plan. And it is nice to be able to retire after 20 years at 40 (or maybe 50) percent of base pay. But if you do some simple net present value calculations (I have to somehow justify my high priced MBA), you will soon see that if money is what matters, you are better off leaving the Navy and socking away a bunch of that six figure salary in your 401k. The short point to that long, drawn out discussion is that it’s not the money or the good retirement plan
that is the key to the retention and accession, issue. Money has never and will never be the primary motivator for naval officers.
What about quality of life issues? Helloooo?!? We are in the Navy. We are warriors. We are steely-eyed killers of the deep. We go to sea. We deploy for months at a time. We work hard because the job is challenging and submariners have always worked hard. Whoa! That was not very politically correct of me. Let me rephrase that. Being a submariner is an extremely challenging way of life and we must make every effort to alleviate any unnecessary hardship on our sailors. I hope that was better. Sincerely through, the bottom line is that quality of life is not the key. I don’t want to sound harsh. We must treat people with respect and dignity and we are getting better at that. What l mean to say is that taking a warship to sea and carrying out our mission in the interests of national security will never be easy. And besides, easy has never attracted the type of people we need to serve in the Navy. Perhaps a personal story would best illustrate my point. On January 16, 1999 I attended the inactivation ceremony for my first submarine USS NARWHAL (SSN 671). What I witnessed there attests to what I write. I have never attended a decommissioning or inactivation before but many senior officers were saying that they could not believe the tremendous turn out. Eleven out of the twelve former commanding officers attended. There were hundreds of former sailors in attendance spanning three decades of service. As you may imagine there were plenty of long speeches by senior officers and lots of sea stories, but throughout the day I didn’t hear about how good the pay was or how great retirement was now. I didn’t hear about the great quality of life while they went to sea to fight the Cold War. These former and current sailors talked of the privilege of serving their country, the camaraderie they enjoyed (and still enjoy), the challenges they faced and the victories they shared. They talked of sacrifices they and their families made and pride in having done their jobs well. My heart swelled with pride as I thought of how wonderful it was to share in this honorable profession. And looking back I realize that if it were not for two men in my wardroom on board that ship, I would have made the wrong decision (wrong for me) to leave the Navy. I would have moved back to the civilian world, for that was my plan during the first three years of my naval career because I just couldn’t make the pros outweigh the cons. But these two men personified honor for me. They became my personal heroes because they showed me the way across the gap. They gave me a future in the Submarine Force by taking a personal interest in my professional and personal development. They were not easy on me and they did not give me special treatment. They challenged me, gave me support and showed me that I could become better through hard work and personal sacrifice. I was not alone. Out of a core of nine junior officers from that wardroom who served with these men during a 1994 Mediterranean deployment, six are still in the Navy. Four are serving or will soon serve as department heads. I also know of three midshipmen who chose submarines as their future after summer cruises on our ship. That is a pretty good retention rate. I guess you could say they have crossed the gap. For those of you who want more statistical analysis see Lead On by Rear Admiral Dave Oliver, Jr. In this book he states that for a two year period he studied, 90 percent of the officer resignations were from 10 percent of the submarines. He concluded that the root cause was a poor commanding officer on these particular submarines. I agree, but also place blame on the department heads and executive officers of those boats. It is critical to observe that the personal leadership, which is required to retain and access good officers, will not come from our institutionalized Navy-wide programs like the Leadership Continuum or through the interactions of the officer and his detailer. It only comes from the personal relationships forged by senior officers towards their juniors.
The next question should be “what has changed to make retention and accession a problem now” . Well, the retention problem seems to start around my year group, 1991 . Surprise, surprise! The Cold War ended and our .Submarine Force (and the entire defense system) was put on a crash diet. I personally saw two excellent department heads leave the Navy when they failed to screen for executive officer. It was happening all around us. Men who had dedicated their adult lives to serving their country were being pushed out or having to take enormous pay cuts to stay in the Navy until retirement. The number of submarines was falling like crazy. Would there be any boats left for us to command? Budgets were tightening to extremes. Missions seemed to be Jess exciting, that is, if you could figure out what our mission was. Did I mention Tailhook, “Don’t’ ask, don’t tell” and the politically correct pendulum swing? Couple all this with an expanding economy in most of the 1990s and a generation known for having little desire to stay in one job for an entire career, and you get yourself a retention challenge. The issue has been somewhat masked due to the reduction in the personnel needed to man our reduced Submarine Force but it is showing its ugly face now that the number of submarines is leveling out. So, has our culture changed? Yes. Is it a different world now than during the Cold War? Yes! Is this still a noble profession? Yes! And that is the message we must communicate to future generations of naval officers.
The key to turning around retention and accession is bridging the gap for midshipmen and junior officers. This is not going to happen by some CNO instituted program. It can only happen if each one of us decides to make it happen in our small sphere of influence. We must tum the intangibles which we value such as honor, courage and commitment into reality in the personal relationships were build. In building these relationships we bridge the gap and we turn a hard job into an honorable profession. That’s it. I didn’t promise a grand revelation. As they say in all those incident reports, no new lessons learned here. The hard part is doing it. Think back on your last command. What legacy did you leave? I am not talking about all those great point papers you wrote or the fantastic new tickler system you created to keep everyone busy. The greatest legacy you leave is the one reflected in the people that follow in your footsteps because you took the time and made the effort to care about their future.