Tags: junior officer, requirement, retention, service
LT Anna Granville recently wrote what may become the junior officer blog article of the year over at Task and Purpose. Titled, â4 Reasons I Am Resigning My Commission as a Naval Officer,â it is succinct and powerful insight into why some high-performing officers decide to leave after their minimum service commitment. And it took some guts to write.
Her piece resonates with anyone who has ever been frustrated by the large, immovable object that is the Navy. A one-size-fits-all promotion process, long deployments and frustrating dealings with personnel officers, lack of diversity and lack of control are all enough to make even the most active junior officers (JOs) ask, âWhy isnât this changing?â And then, finally, âWhy am I still doing this?â
While there is no blanket explanation that can cover every departing, high-performing junior officer, we do have statistics from the 2014 Navy Retention Study and a number of competing anecdotes that suggest the Navy is losing some of its best officers too soon. An improving economy, a perceived erosion of trust, and a bureaucratic bog are tilting the retention seesaw in the wrong direction.
But there is a counter-narrative: junior officers can build the service we want. We can only do this, however, by staying in long enough to see real change pushed through. Every officer who can articulate essential changes that must be made to the service, yet leaves that service in disgust, erodes a vibrant young officer corps whose challenge is to prepare to lead a service with common sense and courage. We must achieve critical mass in order to transplant our grassroots dialogue of today into tomorrowâs occupants of Tingey House.
Why should we do this? Why stay in the service when the pull to leave is so strong? Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Admiral Bill Moran has been leading the way recently in championing a number of personnel issues and fixes. More work needs to be done, but the message is clear: positive, constructive debate can lead to tangible change.
What follows is not a point-for point refutation of LT Granvilleâs arguments. But for those contemplating life beyond the minimum service requirement, they are four reminders of how to retain your commission without losing your sanity:
1. You canât look to the system for validation. Should the Navy promote people who are better pilots, better division officers, better platoon leaders, faster? That would be nice. But in as large an institution, would that look more like the Goldwater-Nichols efforts to force attainment of âjointâ qualifications? I doubt the service needs more of that.
Itâs true that, sometimes, it will seem like there are few rewards for standing the mid-watch for the umpteenth time or pouring your heart and soul into your job as a division officer or tactical operator. There will always be some who feel like they have been left by the wayside. We all have a story about that guy or girl who got some great ranking or billet; have all rolled our eyes after the millionth time someone has told us âtiming is everything;â have all looked at our personnel record on NPC and wondered incredulously, âhow long until I make O-4?â
Many of the rewards of hard-work are not tangible, such as the safety of a country that continues to enjoy unadulterated freedom. But there are many ways to get rewarded for other efforts complementary to service. Pilots have it a bit easier with scoring and competition for the âTop Hookâ award. But everyone has access to forums such as USNIâs Proceedings, which pays authors per publication, and other Naval Institute essay contests which award thousands of dollars for literary achievement. Still others find fulfillment in volunteer work through the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, Semper Fi Fund, or Fisher House.
In the end, Joe Byerly says it best: â[While] Iâm extremely passionate about the military profession, it doesnât define me.â Those who look in the mirror and see only Ensign or Lieutenant or Commander have lost something of themselves. Donât forget to leave your own mark on the service and live with purpose.
2. Youâre pretty damn good at your job, right? Few people join the military to be âjust OKâ at what they do. At some point, many think, âIâm going to be the best.â Some want to be the best operators, some the best strategists, some the best leaders. If this thought has crossed your mind, and you believe that you are good at what you do, why would you leave the service and allow someone who isnât the best to take your place? You are part of a profession; you are allowed to take pride in that.
I know a lot of junior officers will roll their eyes here, and thatâs fine. A lot of them rolled their eyes before the lead up to moments like Operation Praying Mantis, the terrorist attacks of September 11th, and the recent rapid re-location of the George HW Bush Carrier Strike Group in response to extremists, too. Success in those trying times was due largely to the right people in the right positions. Cynicism may have plenty of reasons to the contrary, but without good people, we are nothing.
Luckily, the Navy is full of incredible officers and operators. Is your departure likely to cause systemic failure? Probably not. But this is the same logic people use when they say, âI wonât vote because Iâm just one person, and my vote doesnât matter.â Iâd hate to see what critical mass here looks like.
3. Diversity of perspective matters.* Certainly, there are those who believe that junior officers are best seen, and not heard; but those people are in the minority. And while it may sometimes feel like a tyranny of the minority, there is absolutely a place for constructive, positive, intellectual work in the Navy. Consider the Naval Institute one of the finest examples; then look to CIMSEC and across the military to The Bridge, War on the Rocks, Task and Purpose (where Granvilleâs piece was published), Defense Entrepreneurâs Forum, and so many other places.
James Fallows recently tried to peg the military as âanti-intellectual.â It was naval junior officers who stood up to him and said, âNot so fast.â The Naval War College and Postgraduate School remain highly sought-after institutions around the world. And the emergence of the Military Writers Guild is an encouraging sign that, as you are writing, thinking, and starting to âdo,â other people are going to have your back.
4. The only way to steer the boat is to keep your hand on the tiller. Ronald Reagan once said, âWhen youâre up to your neck in alligators, itâs easy to forget you came here to drain the swamp.â Ultimately, unless you are going to get out and pursue a career in elected office or the policy realm, you cannot effect change on tough issues until you are willing to endure the pain of seeing those changes through.
Too many junior officers depart the service in frustration with specific critiques, only to get lost in a new civilian career that is equally challenging and often stultifying. There are a few who lob in mortars from the valley, but the JO(ret) contingent is largely silent here on this blog and around the naval ânet.
Neale Donald Walsh once wrote, âWhatever you desire for yourself, give to another.â If you love your jobâand if youâre good at itâthen leaving the service because youâre too frustrated with its policies just means that those policies will likely endure, and the service will suffer. Your departure, while poignant, is not as impactful as your voice and your persistence.
There is no dishonor in changing careers. There is more than one way to serve the nation; we need good people on our warships and airplanes, but also in our hospitals, boardrooms, and classrooms, too. If this is where you find your passion, then thatâs where your country needs you.
But the only way for fighting lieutenants to become fighting admirals and generals is to persevere, to recognize the consequences of dissonance, and to continue the fight. You donât have to fight alone, and the longer we fight together, the better the future will be.
*Clearly, LT Granville speaks of gender diversity in her article. Statistically, while the Navy does employ fewer women than men, progress is being made that reflects and often exceeds private sector employment. More progress, though, is needed.