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Guest Editorial: Hail to the Chief

Posted: September 15th, 2017 | Guest Editorial, Opinion & News | No Comments

Local Navy CPO selectees move gayly forward in their careers

By Morgan M. Hurley

On Sept. 15, 2017, nearly 2,000 Navy servicemembers recently selected to Chief Petty Officer (CPO) will get “pinned” at bases around the world — a reference to an anchor collar device affixed to their uniform and designated them as having advanced.

That moment is the culmination of nearly six weeks of training each have experienced, a method the Navy uses to prepare them for the weight their new duties will hold.

The participants of CPO Pride Day on Sept. 8 stand in ranks aboard the USS Midway Museum. (Photo by Bird’s Eye Aerial Drones, LLC)

While the E-7 rank is the same, becoming a Chief in the U.S. Navy is different than advancing to that level in any other military service, except the Coast Guard.

As a former CPO, I had the honor to participate in this year’s training process. On Aug. 26, 13 selectees from Commander, Littoral Combat Ship Squadron One (COMLCSRON ONE) were detailed to South Bark Dog Wash for the day. That may sound odd, but one of the owners, Donna Walker, is a retired CPO. [Note: I recently did a cover story on Walker and her business partner, “The South Park blueberry girls,” Vol. 8, Issue 17, or online at bit.ly/2wr4zfv].

Since the new selectees will soon be part of the “Chief Petty Officer Mess,” they are required to do lots of fundraising during their six-week tenure, so they join their local mess (a social club of sorts, within the rank) with a financial contribution under their belt. One aspect of the training, aside from further developing their military skills, is to ensure the selectees are more aware of their local community and volunteer opportunities; as a result, they “train” in various off-base locations.

Walker’s business, a dog wash with a retail store, offered the perfect location for this group of selectees to not only raise money but volunteer their time and receive training from the many retired “genuine” CPOs who converged on the scene that day. It was a fun day.

One of my favorite moments was when Sen. Toni G. Atkins randomly dropped by with her dog and we assembled the selectees to attention and had them sing “Anchors Aweigh” to her at the top of their lungs. Coming from a Navy family herself, Atkins beamed.

I spent a great deal of time with a number of the selectees that day, asking them questions about their careers, offering them tidbits of wisdom from my own experiences, making sure they showed the proper respect to the genuine Chiefs who arrived throughout the day, and signing their “charge books.” Selectees are required to carry their individual charge books the entire six weeks, never letting them out of their sight. Only genuine CPOs are allowed to sign them, otherwise there are “consequences” (these repercussions were much greater 20 years ago).

I made Chief in 1995, back when the Navy was still putting “selectees” through initiation, a process deemed as hazing compared to today’s standards, and was eventually done away with. Women were still often viewed as less capable than their male peers then, and the fallout from the Tailhook scandal of 1991, while a major motivator for policy change regarding the treatment of women, had only stirred the pot. It was also just a couple years after the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy had been put in place.

While it was still against the rules to be openly gay, I did push the envelope by including something very telling. While all charge books basically start out the same, selectees are instructed to personalize them with items that would describe “who we are.” I went to a craft store and found a small newspaper to identify my newspaper editor father; an artist’s pallet to identify my mother; and a sticker of cartoon character Ziggy, and one of a small but distinct rainbow, to identify myself. It was indeed a risk, but no one ever said a thing.

I had an inkling that one of the selectees I sat down with at South Bark was a lesbian and I struggled for a few minutes with how to bridge that gap; in the old days we’d just quickly drop the phrase “Are you family?” and if they didn’t catch on immediately, we’d just keep talking, never skipping a beat.

Suddenly I realized that I didn’t have to worry about how I would connect with her on that level, because it did not matter any more. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” had long been repealed, but since I retired in 2003, it was still new to me. She was probably very much out; and she was. We eventually came to that understanding naturally, as we began to talk about our careers. I shared that three investigations into my alleged sexuality caused me to leave active duty after seven years.

When I signed her charge book, I “charged” her to attend the LGBT Veterans Wall of Honor induction at the San Diego LGBT Community Center on Nov. 9. I hope to see her there.

Two weeks after that training session, I got to participate in another fun day, CPO Pride Day aboard the USS Midway Museum. A large number of the region’s selectees participated, which consisted of a formal program on the deck of the retired aircraft carrier and competitions between the selectee groups at nearby Ruocco Park.

Again, I was elated to see how many of my fellow genuine CPOs — and selectees — were openly gay. I was sure I saw some transgender CPOs, too.

I also saw female servicemembers with tattooed sleeves for the first time. Sure I had several tattoos, as did many women I served with, but they were always hidden, just like our secrets. Visible tattoos on male sailors was the norm for centuries until someone in charge a couple decades ago decided they were not consistent with military service. In 2016, however, the Navy reversed that restriction, and now allows sleeves on both men and women. It was awesome to see all these sailors be such a visual cross section of self-expression and authenticity.

I was truly inspired by CPO Pride Day. It was one big happy family; men, women, transgender sailors, whites, blacks, Latinos, Filipinos, Asians, openly gay and straight … it was a joy to see.

This told me that new CPOs being pinned today are joining a truly integrated mess and these Chiefs will be more open to the reality and expressions of their peers and subordinates than any of those before them. Congratulations, one and all.

—Morgan M. Hurley can be reached at morgan@sdcnn.com.

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