One promotion, one advancement

I was not at the Las Vegas Hilton from Sept. 5-7, 1991, and after signing a form attesting to that fact in the presence of a witness who also signed the form, I was promoted to Lieutenant, Supply Corps, U.S. Navy in 1993.

There was quite a delay between signature and promotion, however, because my name and the form had to be forwarded first to the Navy’s personnel section and then — along with the name and form of every other officer selected for promotion in that cycle — to Congress.

Congress wasn’t too happy with the Navy around that time, and the extra scrutiny of officers selected for promotion reflected this fact. Requiring me to swear I wasn’t at the Vegas Hilton wasn’t an arbitrary move, either.

On those dates and in that place, the Tailhook Association held its 35th annual convention. This was years before the “What Happens In Vegas, Stays in Vegas” marketing campaign, but even so there is no way what happened there would not become public and in doing so tarnish the reputations of the Navy and a lot of officers.

“At the 35th Annual Tailhook Symposium (September 5 to 7, 1991) at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel, 83 women and 7 men were assaulted during the three-day aviators’ convention, according to a report by the Inspector General of the Department of Defense (DOD) … (keep reading)”

I won’t rehash the actual events in this forum, but readers unaware or fuzzy of the details are invited to follow the link above to read an investigation of the event conducted for the PBS show Frontline.

*  *  *  *

Even though my only involvement with Naval aviation was limited to being the Helicopter Control Officer on the flight deck of USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51), in the post-Tailhook Navy any and all officers were tarnished by Tailhook. The Navy’s initial investigation was less than thorough, and the service misunderstood the gravity of the situation when officers who were at Tailhook were selected for promotion during the next cycle.

Those selection lists are generated within the Navy but require Congressional approval, which is normally a formality. But when the post-Tailhook list was cross-checked for names of officers who were at the convention, what had been a formality became a roadblock. Promotions were frozen for everyone on the list not just the uncovered few, creating many problems and quite a bit of fear, frustration and anger.

How bad was it? My department head on the Burke wasn’t there in 1991 but had attended past Tailhook conventions while assigned to an aviation unit. Around this time he was trying to get a special duty assignment and as a prank I told him the Bureau of Personnel called needing confirmation that he hadn’t been at the last convention. His jaw dropped and he went white, and it was quite some time before he forgave me when he found out I was kidding.

A year or so later when I was selected for promotion the Navy had a system it hoped would forestall Congress: the sworn statement about not being in Vegas on those dates. I’m not sure what would happen to an officer who admitted to being in Vegas for Tailhook; the majority did not participate in the assaults but were tainted by those who did.

I wasn’t there and so I pinned on my Lieutenant’s bars when my time came to do so. Eventually all the villains were rooted out, and probably a few of the innocents, and by the time I was selected for promotion to Lieutenant Commander there was no place or event I needed to confirm I hadn’t been at or to.

*  *  *  *

Promotion, or advancement as it known for enlisted personnel, is perhaps the touchiest subject in the Navy. Promotion means more pay, more responsibility, more respect and new job opportunities.

Every promotion/advancement cycle resulted in equal parts joy and heartbreak, especially for the more senior paygrades determined by selection boards. I often had to turn from congratulating one Sailor to console the next in line, usually fumbling for an explanation why this one was “picked up” and that one wasn’t.

Bitterness and jealousy soured more than a few friendships as a result of the promotion/advancement process. For officers one of criteria considered good for promotion was competition amongst peers — being singled out on performance reviews as “the number x of xx Lieutenants” at a command. My tour as an instructor at Navy Supply Corps School, where I served with about 20 other Lieutenants, was among my least favorite in large part because of the cutthroat atmosphere that existed in my peer group.

*  *  *  *

The Navy is an “up or out” organization. Enlisted Sailors are limited by years of service in paygrade; if they don’t advance they face at worst discharge or reassignment into an occupational field with a greater chance of advancement.

Once eligible by serving a minimum time in grade — called being “in zone” — officers in theory had three chances at being promoted to the next level by a selection board. I say “in theory” because the reality was not being selected the first time eligible was generally a career-ender. On rare occasions an officer was picked up the second time around, and in fact I know one who was, but those cases involved extraordinary circumstances.

After being “passed over” for promotion an officer could leave the service, request retirement if eligible, or request a continuation board to see if the Navy would allow them to continue serving in their present paygrade until eligible for retirement.

Officers “below zone” could also be selected for early promotion, but this was also rare and limited to the hottest of the hot-runners. Being picked early earmarked an officer who had big things in their future; word got around quickly and these officers often had to deal with resentment and jealousy.

Needless to say I was never an early select, and I retired before entering the zone for promotion to Commander.

*  *  *  *

Advancement for enlisted Sailors to Petty Officer Third, Second and First Class involves having a minimum time in service and paygrade, and taking an exam. An overall score is generated based on years in grade/in service, awards, performance evaluations and the results of the advancement exam.

Quotas based on projected manning needs are generated for each occupational specialty and paygrade (PO1, PO2, PO3), and the “passing score” is determined by counting down until the quota has been filled.

Selection to Chief Petty Officer also involved time in service/grade and an exam, but the final determination was by selection board. There was no pre-test for Senior and Master Chiefs, just service requirements and boards.

*  *  *  *

The senior enlisted Sailor in the Supply Department of Arleigh Burke throughout my time on the ship was Senior Chief Mess Specialist Donnie Wayne Holcomb. Senior Chief Holcomb was a Chief when we first met in the shipyard where Burke was being built, but he was selected for advancement shortly thereafter.

I relied greatly on Donnie and all the Chiefs in Supply for advice and support, and it was they who actually made the wheels turn. That’s not to say I didn’t have my frustrations with each of them — and surely they had theirs with me —but for the most part we got along well.

About a month and a half into Burke’s maiden deployment to the Mediterranean Sea, we were informed by Naval message that Donnie had been one of three Mess Specialists in the Navy selected for advancement to Master Chief Petty Officer.

He hadn’t expected to be selected for advancement — with a quota of three the odds were long ­— and Donnie was instead well along in planning for his retirement from the Navy after the ship’s deployment. In fact, he and his wife hadn’t even discussed the “what if” of him making Master Chief, which would require him to extend his Navy career by several years.

Donnie wasn’t sure what to do. He could refuse the selection and instead put in his request for retirement, but the the prestige and pay (including as a retiree) of a Master Chief was appealing. But what would his wife think? She had always supported him, but both were looking forward to finally spending time together after he retired.

*  *  *  *

I approached the ship’s Executive Officer to discuss Senior Chief Holcomb’s dilemma. Unlike today, there were no shipboard satellite phones or email available to Sailors, and the Navy didn’t want to wait for the mail to get a decision.

The XO, who is now an Admiral, came up with an interesting solution.

At that time the ship was conducting exercises off the French Riviera, but we had a port visit scheduled in a week and a half. For some reason or the other the Commanding Officer wasn’t happy with our charts for the approach to the port (the visit was subsequently cancelled) and he planned on sending the Navigator in a small boat to check things out.

The XO told me to grab Senior Chief Holcomb and shortly after that we were with the Navigator and a boat crew in one of the ship’s Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIB) headed towards the southern coast of France.

Donnie and I didn’t have time to plan, so we were both in our working uniforms including foul-weather jackets and ballcaps. The Senior Chief just barely remembered to grab his long-distance phone card but I realized I didn’t even have my wallet or military ID card as we were climbing out of the boat onto a stone pier in the middle of a French fishing village.

Standing in the town square, looking for a phone booth or open store, we came to the attention of the local gendarme and the thought entered my mind that we had entered another country, probably illegally, and the nearest consulate was a long ways away.

Fortunately the locals were friendly and not in the mood for an international incident, and after overcoming the language barrier a phone was located and the call placed. Mrs. Senior Chief was surprised but happy to become Mrs. Master Chief, and Donnie and I were back on the pier when the RHIB returned a half-hour later.

*  *  *  *

The next time Master Chief Holcomb and I took a trip together in France we ended up in a cheese warehouse with our hands up and guns pointed at us.

But that’s a sea story for another time.

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