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Hampered By The Pandemic, The Navy Is Trying To Persuade Sailors To Stay A Little Longer

Sailors have their temperatures taken as they prepare to board the USS Theodore Roosevelt May 1, 2020 after an off-ship quarantine in Guam.
Nathan Carpenter
U.S. Navy
Sailors have their temperatures taken as they prepare to board the USS Theodore Roosevelt May 1, 2020 after an off-ship quarantine in Guam.

Military recruiting and training has slowed down because of the pandemic. So the Navy is trying other ways to maintain the size of the force.

The Navy is encouraging sailors who were getting ready to leave the service to instead stay on for a few more months.

It's part of an effort to maintain the size of the force, as leadership grapples with the effects of 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 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 it discovered cases of COVID-19. A military-wide "stop movement" order also has made it difficult to fill vacancies by shuffling sailors from one duty station to another.

At the same time, sailors 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. If they've got their paper in and they continue to want to execute their departure, then we will make that happen."

But the Navy is trying to persuade 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. Nowell said that can help relieve the Navy's manpower issues, while providing troops with continued income in a turbulent economy.

"For the sailor there is a lot of uncertainty and there is a lot of churn out there right now," he said. "It's a win, win both ways I think."

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.

In recent months, the Pentagon has reportedly looked at a so-called stop loss order, but has made no  formal proposal. Instead, the Navy is offering bonuses in medicine and other vital areas.

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

Senior Chief Petty Officer Kenneth Taylor is among those considering staying on beyond his planned retirement date. He's on board the aircraft carrier USS Truman off the North Carolina coast. The ship has remained at sea as part of the Navy's plan to isolate ships from the spread of the coronavirus.

"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.

Taylor concedes those potential jobs with airlines would probably be on hold anyway. He said his wife told him about the Navy's program.

"She told me if it's applicable to you, just do it," Taylor 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, counselors are continuing to process paperwork for sailors scheduled to leave the service.

"We have junior sailors that were transitioning out, ready to go to college," said Chief Counselor John Cedeno. "We have sailors that are retiring that were ready to go back to their families and start the new chapter of their lives."

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."

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2020 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC

As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.
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