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Hampered By Coronavirus, Navy Tries To Convince Sailors To Stay A Little Longer

Hospital Corpsman Ethan Holder (left) takes a test sample from Cmdr. Andrew K...

Credit: Defense of Department

Above: Hospital Corpsman Ethan Holder (left) takes a test sample from Cmdr. Andrew Koy, at Naval Base San Diego, April 24, 2020.

The Navy is searching for ways to bolster its ranks, as leadership grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.

“In a normal year, we’ll bring in about 40,000 sailors and we have about 40,000 sailors go home,” said Vice Adm. John Newell, deputy chief of Naval Operations for Manpower, Personnel, Training and Education.

But this isn’t a normal year. Like with the other services, the Navy has suspended advancement exams. New recruit training was temporarily halted at boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Base outside of Chicago. In San Diego, and other places, the Navy closed classrooms after cases of COVID-19 were discovered. A military-wide stop movement order has even made it difficult to fill vacancies by shuffling sailors from one duty station to another. At the same time, people are still allowed to leave the Navy.

“The stop movement does not apply to people who are retiring or separating,” Newell said. “Those moves are considered mission essential.”

Reported by Steve Walsh

Many sailors are still choosing to do just that.

“If they’ve got their paperwork in and they continue to want to execute their departure, then we will make that happen,” he said. “But for the sailor there is a lot of uncertainty and there is a lot of churn out there right now.”

The Navy is trying to convince seasoned sailors to stay a little longer, at least during the crisis. Sailors are being given the unusual option of staying another six months, up to a year through April 2021, while the training pipeline is partly frozen, he said.

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“It’s a win, win both ways I think,” Nowell said.

The Navy could force sailors to stay. After Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration didn’t allow people to leave either active duty or the reserves, if their unit was about to be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. The Pentagon has reportedly looked at a so-called stop loss order in recent months but there hasn’t been a formal proposal. Instead, the Navy is offering bonuses in medicine and other vital areas.

Kenneth Taylor is a senior chief petty officer on board the aircraft carrier USS Truman. He works in aviation maintenance and was scheduled to retire.

“I actually had several job interviews scheduled but I had to cancel them because I wasn’t going to be home in time to make those interviews,” Taylor said.

The USS Truman is off the coast of North Carolina. The ship has remained at sea as part of the Navy’s plan to isolate ships from the spread of the coronavirus. Taylor concedes those potential job offers with airlines would probably be on hold anyway. His wife actually heard about the Navy’s program.

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“So she told me if it’s applicable to you, just do it,” he said. “Take the extra year and have a guaranteed job for another year. We’ll try to find something next year.”

At Naval Base San Diego, the counselors continue to process the paperwork for sailors leaving the Navy. They have to adjust to meeting with sailors via Zoom, said John Cedeno, chief counselor.

“We have junior sailors that were transitioning out,” he said. “Ready to go to college. We have sailors that are retiring that were ready to go back to their families.”

Sailors who are retiring with 20 or more years of service usually start processing their paperwork two years ahead of time, he said.

“Once you get to the end you’re kind of a little excited,” he said. “You’re kind of relieved that, ‘Hey my service is done. I’m ready to transition out.’ But now it’s like what am I transitioning into? And I think that causes a lot of stress, too.”

The Navy has invited recent retirees with medical backgrounds to come back. The Navy can’t get around the mandatory retirement age, but they are offering to retain some officers after they retire, Nowell said.

The hope is the new incentives will convince a few thousand sailors to tack on a few extra months to their enlistment, while the Navy figures out what it will take to get the military back to training new sailors at the pace they were, just a few months ago, he said.

Listen to this story by Steve Walsh.

This story is part of our American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration on in-depth military coverage with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Patriots Connection.

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Steve Walsh
Military Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover military and veterans issues for KPBS and American Homefront, a partnership of public radio stations and NPR. I cover issues ranging from delpoying troops along the California border to efforts to lower suicide rates among veterans.

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