Revisiting 7th Fleet’s Liberty Policy…

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HOANG DINH NAM / AFP / Getty Images

The USS Blue Ridge, flagship of the Navy's 7th Fleet, at Danang, Vietnam, in 2012.

Last December, I weighed in on the liberty policies 7th Fleet imposed after several high-profile incidents in Japan:

While the Japanese are growing less tolerant of American shenanigans on its soil, and rightfully so, punishing all of 7th fleet, which consists of thousands of sailors and Marines, for the actions of a few is going overboard (pardon the pun).

I was recently asked if I stand by that assessment. I do.

In January, Vice Admiral Scott Swift, Commander 7th Fleet revised the policy, maintaining curfew and other restrictions only on those troops stationed in Japan and Korea. Other local commanders got to set their own liberty/alcohol standards, with permission from the boss.  I would venture that no one wants to have to explain a varying liberty policy, especially one more lax, to the boss than what the boss feels is appropriate.

Thus 7th Fleet is maintaining the status quo — while appearing to loosen the strings.

Sailors and Marines in Japan or Korea are not more likely to get into trouble than sailors or Marines in Camp Lejeune, N.C., or San Diego, Calif.  However, when one does get into trouble overseas, it is more likely to cause an international incident.  This is the crux of the situation in 7th Fleet: maintaining the good will of the host country, and not appearing to condone behavior that brings discredit on the United States or the people who are stationed in the host country.

I have no idea if sailors and Marines are given cultural awareness training, and if they are, how sensitized they are to the nuances of being a representative of the United States while ashore, whether in uniform or not.  But one thing is for sure: the more stringent policy has not lessened, to a noticeable extent, the behavior of those who would flout the rules. Nor has it stopped the specter of rape and sexual assault.

So, what to do about it?

That is the million dollar question, isn’t it? In the message revising the liberty policy, 7th Fleet encourages commanders to use the administrative tools already in place:   the liberty risk program, liberty cards, shore patrol, liberty buddy system, and the “right spirit” campaign, as well as promoting other liberty options, such as sports activities, tours and sightseeing, and maintaining standards of accountability for everyone in the chain of command.

It also instituted a requirement to successively punish the individual’s division after the first incident; the whole department after the second; and the entire unit after the third, with a mitigation plan in place after each incident  to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Hmm…seems like this system will not work if it a third incident is anticipated.

The idea of holding the chain of command responsible is a good one. The idea of using the buddy system is also a good one. But none of it will work if the message is not made loud and clear: Do not screw up while on liberty!

After I took command of USS Opportune, I was called into Admiral Paul David Miller’s office, commander of the U.S. Atlantic Command. What he told me was this: the only way to ensure the folks are doing what you expect is to get out there and see for yourself. He called it “management by walking around.”

He meant for it aboard ship, but I see it as a solution that might work just as well while on liberty, or while stationed overseas.  Shore patrol is a step in the right direction, but having senior personnel randomly visit known “hot spots” could very well help turn the tide.

Holding division officers and department heads accountable, as 7th Fleet suggests, is also a tool, but it is also imperative to have the chiefs, the first-class mess, and every petty officer out there understand the ramifications of liberty incidents, and work on a daily basis to stop them before they happen:

— Send the young sailors or Marines back to their unit if they appear to be over-imbibing.
— Stop arguments before they develop into a brawl.
— Intercept those who appear to be overstepping the rules regarding public displays of affection, or using foul or other inappropriate language in a public or private setting.

Really, the only way most of these behaviors can be stopped is to stop them before they happen, on the spot.

And that takes leadership — and the will to use one’s authority as a commissioned or non-commissioned officer — not the sledgehammer of restrictive liberty policies.