Sailors’ Time at Sea Heading Skyward

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Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kenneth Abbate

The John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group crossing the Pacific Ocean last week

Wars come and go in cycles, and so does everything that accompanies them. The U.S. public wanted war after 9/11, but now they are exhausted. Weapons wax and wane from complex (F-111) to simple (F-16) to complex again (F-35). And military personnel policies are as regular (and regularly screwed up) as the tides. Ever-lengthening deployments at sea are the latest example.

Take the optimum amount of time a warship should remain at sea. After sailors fled the fleet in droves a generation ago as deployments rose above six months’ duration, the Navy said it had learned its lesson. There were several years where you couldn’t talk to a senior Navy officer without being told the importance of capping sea tours at six months:

— “Our goal of a six months’ maximum deployment away from families and at least a year between deployments, is one which we know works at both the operational level — keeping adequate numbers of ships and aircraft forward deployed — and at the home-front level — keeping family separation at an acceptable level,” Admiral Frank Bowman, chief of naval personnel, said in 1995.

— “We normally deploy for six months, and that is always the most significant quality of life issue for any sailor, any young man or woman,” Admiral Thomas Lopez, the top warfare requirements officer, said in 1996. “To alleviate any stress, I think the key is to keep that commitment to our sailors and wherever we can and we’ve done that on a few occasions bring them back a few days sooner.”

— “We learned a valuable lesson in the ’70’s when we reached a hollow force by keeping our people deployed for long periods of time eight, nine, 10 and sometimes 11-month deployments,” Navy Secretary John Dalton said in 1998. “They expect to deploy but we’ve learned through experience that six months is the right period of time.”

But now the Navy is planning for 11 eight-month cruises over the coming two years, Navy Times reports . The length has been slowly increasing since 9/11. “This is a change in policy,” retired Vice Admiral Lou Crenshaw, a former deputy chief of naval operations, told the independent newspaper. “It was a sacred rule that it was six months portal-to-portal and barring some type of operational contingency, we just didn’t break that rule.”

Down on the deckplates, sailors believe they know what’s going on. “I think this is an attrition tool,” one posted. “If people leave the Navy voluntarily, they don’t get a dime when they leave. This saves millions of dollars.”

“You’re either going to have a bunch of worn out sailors, or you’d better have the addition of some kickass liberty ports!,” another said. “Of course, with today’s politically correct `let’s go out on liberty, with your liberty buddy, and go visit the library’ approach,’ letting off the steam necessary to put up with the additional sea time is going to be difficult, at best.”

But all troops aren’t grumbling: “I’m pretty sure that a lot of the Soldiers and Marines who are living in FOB’s in the rural mountains of Afghanistan who are being shot at, wounded, and killed on a weekly basis would trade places in a second with a shipboard sailor who is on a ship getting 3 hot meals a day, hot showers, AC, Holiday Routines, and not living in fear of when the next mortar round or ambush is coming in….” Platoon Daddy posted.

But, just like the tides, you can rest assured the longer tours will hurt retention. That will force the Navy back to the six-month cap, force it to pay sailors more, or lower its enlistment standards. Most likely, the service will end up doing all three.