Monthly archive

September 2019

Excel_Article_V5_REV2_EDITED_090519 (FOR DISTRO)

in Voices from the Fleet

At The Salty Herald, we get feedback from the fleet all the time. Occasionally, people send me drafts that are just flat better than anything I could ever write. I usually delete these and tell them to stick to their day job. In this rare case, I decided to let Lieutenant Blake Herzinger give us his thoughts on that magical spreadsheet software, Microsoft Excel. Enjoy!

So you’re headed to staff duty or your first department head ride, but you don’t know how to use Excel? Not to worry, neither does anyone else! The slick “planning tool” N4 is using to calculate the end of year budget? N4 didn’t make it, he found it on the share drive. At least two of the cells are totally wrong, and we’re just going to buy a bunch of new office chairs and some reference pubs with any money left in September anyway. That communications stoplight chart N6 displays every brief? He figured out conditional formatting and earned himself a NAM. Good news, Admiral, NIPR just went from RED to ORANGE!

You’re probably asking what all this means to you, the new staff hero. Here it is: you need to use Excel so you can put minimal effort into products that will make you look like you know what you’re talking about, without inviting more taskers. No good deed goes unpunished . . . don’t overachieve! Excel is the perfect tool for ensuring mediocre results in nearly any enterprise—but where it really shines is as DoD’s all-purpose substitute for any kind of actual planning, budgeting, tracking, or management tools. Remember: I said you need to use Excel, not learn how to use it.

Need to develop a tracking system for an entire department’s travel and leave plans? Throw it into Excel—bonus points if the user has to scroll down awkwardly to roll through everybody’s name during staff briefs. Pro Tip: make sure the calendar extends all the way to the end of the FY, it forces a lateral scroll into the mix that will confound the poor petty officer assigned to click through the staff brief. CoS will love it.

Need to make a budget with no training? No problem. Slap that bad boy into some cells. Spend weeks of your time plugging in functions and “huge data” (big data is for civilians). Make sure you have plenty of sheets there at the bottom so it’s impossible to see all the pertinent information at one time, and that any attempt to print a useful hard-copy comes out in absolutely useless quarters that need to be taped together. Don’t fret, if some enterprising young lieutenant comes along behind you and tries to adjust the print area, the font size will be reduced below the spectrum of human vision.

Project management? Easy day, you did your MBA on shore duty, right? How hard can it be to isolate some key performance indicators and measures of effectiveness? Can you believe that people outside the Navy actually get paid to do project management full time?! What they do with specialized software and hundreds of hours of training, you’re doing with MS Office and no training at all! With Excel, you’ll be doing **PROMOTE NOW** work for million-dollar programs in no time. If your numbers aren’t right, just make the cells greenish-yellow and tell the boss “you’re on glide slope” or “we’re moving the chains.” Read your boss. You’re a staff officer. Picking the right euphemism for “we suck” is like 90 percent of your job.

Whatever high-value tool you develop during your years on the staff, make sure you drill down and bury it five levels deep in the share drive when you save this beast. You’ll need to name it something easy to reference, like YOURNAME_FY_BUDGET_PLAN_N5_V2_EDITED.xlsx. Don’t delete any drafts or previous version either, who knows when someone might want to use an outdated version of your brainchild.

Don’t let a lack of experience or training stop you from shaking up the status quo on the staff. Remember, innovation and disruption are the name of this game, and you are a game changer! Your enterprising creativity, technical acumen, and steadfast devotion to duty reflected credit up . . . oh wait, that’s your NAM write-up. Anyway . . . BZ!

The Low-Water Mark

in Rants

This post originally appeared on the USNI Blog here.

I was doing pretty well. Doing my goat yoga. Thinking positively about our culture. Seeing an upward trend. New CNO. New outlook on life. Future so bright I had to wear shades . . . that sorta thing.

Then I read that the Navy is convening a Board of Inquiry for Commander Bryce Benson, commanding officer (CO) of the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) during the 2017 collision, to make him “show cause” as to why the he shouldn’t be kicked out the Navy. Here we go again . . .

My positive outlook

Ok, as you know, I’m a millennial, so I offer my unsolicited opinion on all sorts of random topics and I wield a questioning attitude like a dachshund wields a roman candle in his teeth. So eventually I’m going to go too far. Well, this seems as good a hill as any to die on. Plus I’ve had about five kombuchas so I’m feeling extra salty.

Let’s recap:

  • Last month, the Commander of Naval Special Warfare (NSW) admitted publicly “we have a problem” after a series of discipline-related incidents involving SEALs, going on to say they “have failed to maintain good order and discipline, and as a result and for good reason, our NSW culture is being questioned.” Excellent!
  • Two weeks ago: “Departing top admiral acknowledges Navy’s struggle with character issues”. Good!
  • This week, at the Naval Aviation Tailhook Convention, the moderator asked a panel of eight junior aviators whether they thought their community was ready for a high-end fight. They all answered “No.” At least the junior part of that community is willing to say something!
  • Submariners? Well, who the heck knows. There’s a reason they’re called the silent service. Well played, bubbleheads.

Meanwhile, the surface force quickly issued a comprehensive review two years ago, then almost as quickly declared “mission accomplished” and went back to focusing public comments on great power competition. It seems like Navy leaders are talking more to Congress than sailors. It’s hard to listen to our leaders tell us we’re facing serious threats for the first time in decades, when the last few years show us we have more work to do on the basics. I guess “we need to practice our basic shiphandling, navigation, and unit self-defense” just doesn’t open up congressional pocketbooks. For example, how goes the Readiness Reform and Oversight Council (RROC)? And why was it formed in the first place if the events of 2017 were isolated incidents? A steady drumbeat of comments on the RROC’s work would instill confidence in sailors, Congress, and the American people that we are committed to improving on a fundamental, cultural level and earning the title of “World’s Best Surface Navy.”

Culture is the bedrock of any organization. We KNOW this. Yet, here we are, on the heels of the darkest four years in recent memory for our Navy, and we are more focused on defending the Navy’s “good name” and going after a single person who (I will concede) fell short royally but, more importantly, stood up to the Navy when our leaders drug his “good name” through the mud injudiciously. I mean that literally—the Navy dropped all charges against Benson when leaders realized they had tainted the court martial process so badly with public comments of condemnation that Benson could no longer receive a fair trial. The whole process was such an embarrassing farce that the whole Navy justice system is now under review. The Eddie Gallagher case didn’t help. (Spoiler alert: its broken)

Remember that Commander Alfredo Sanchez, the CO of the USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) at the time of the collision that killed ten sailors, received a no basis ruling in his “show cause” Board of Inquiry. In other words, the Navy didn’t kick him out. The big difference between Sanchez and Benson is that Sanchez didn’t fight back. He pleaded guilty and the Navy retained him. On the other hand, Benson took the extraordinary measure of issuing a public rebuttal to his SECNAV Letter of Censure. That’s egg in the Navy’s eye, for sure, but it doesn’t make him any more guilty. To what end does the Navy seek this officer’s separation? What signals and strategic impacts are we creating, especially if the board finds in Benson’s favor?

To cut straight to the point, HOW does the Navy see this Board of Inquiry as anything other than retribution? We already took him to court-martial and failed to find him guilty. What is constructive about pursuing his administrative separation? SECNAV said he dropped legal charges in “the best interest of the Navy, the families of the Fitzgerald sailors, and the procedural rights of the accused officers.” Yet, here we are again in the headlines. Perhaps we’re still convinced that his ship’s collision, and the other three in 2017, were individual problems and not part of a systemic issue. Despite the National Transportation Safety Board report. Despite the ProPublica investigation. Despite Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin’s article. Despite what ANY officer serving in Seventh Fleet in 2017 will tell you!!! Sure, ok, just a bad apple.

Um, but what about Fat Leonard? What about all those senior officers and admirals that compromised their ethics for personal gain? What about the Farsi Island Incident of 2016, and the following investigation that condemned the widespread lack of adequate training in riverine squadrons (the first one, that is)? What about the USS Nitze (DDG-94) not detecting cruise missiles that Houthi rebels shot at her formation in the Red Sea in 2016? What about rising suicidesSexual assaultsBody fat?

My point in asking these questions is to demonstrate that we have a cultural problem. It will not be solved overnight, or even in the term of one CNO. It will take just as long to solve as it took to develop, and we can look back several decades to find its origins. We have to embrace the fact that we have a deep-rooted problem and set ourselves on a course to fix it. Retribution, and a rapid review process to get all our “stoplights to green,” will not help. We can be elite, but we have to be willing to admit that, right now, we are not.

I’ll end with a bit of anonymous feedback I received from the fleet last week, before the news broke about Commander Benson’s Board of Inquiry:

Really there is still a culture that breeds a fear of failure. One screw up, one mistake, one missed milestone and your career is over. There is no path to redemption, no recourse or correction. Too many in critical leadership positions are concerned with meeting the milestone and making it through their job instead of developing future generations and creating a path to excellence. No one is perfect and no one is good at everything right away. Mistakes will happen, it shouldn’t be the end, we should be able to learn and grow and develop.

I’m not defending Commander Benson’s actions in command of the Fitzgerald, but we tried and failed to hold him accountable for the collision. I can’t say the same for those Navy leaders who cultivated a culture that would put such unprepared people on watch that night. Let’s leave Commander Benson in the past or, even better, maybe even learn from him without absolving him of his share of the burden. Let’s learn from NSW and admit we have a problem before it gets worse. Then, let’s look forward and let the last four years be our Navy’s low-water mark.

Definitely Do NOT #BoycottBates!

in Haterade

This post originally appeared on the USNI Blog here.

Millennials in the Navy really are needy. They want their spouses to be able to pursue their own career. They complain about having to go into debt to cover bills while their pay is delayed for months on end (start a Gofundme, snowflake!). They expect their shoes to not explode.

Seriously! They complained in their millennial way by sharing pictures with the hashtag #batesblowout whenever the outer soles of their Bates uniform shoes crumbled to tiny bits with no notice. Relax, people. It happened to me at a wedding. The whole process only took like five minutes. Besides, now I had flats! Boom . . . fashion! You don’t see me starting a hashtag on the internet to whine about it.

Now, some whiny millennial is going after the good, hard-working people of Bates Footwearwith the hashtag #BoycottBates!

Can you believe it? It’s not like Bates can help it! It’s not like they are the only shoe company in the world whose shoes randomly, catastrophically fall apart!!! C’mon millennials, have some respect for well-established business practices that rarely have been challenged! #BoycottBates is absolutely inappropriate.

The nice customer service employees at Bates have politely explained there’s nothing they can do about this phenomenon. In response to a frustrated (probably millennial) customer, they said, “We understand your frustration, however, footwear is made to be worn and when rubber, and polyurethane, is stored for a lengthy period of time, it will break down. It is a natural process called hydrolysis and something that the industry is working to address.” See? Science! Their R&D budget is probably why that particular brown leather shoe costs $165. And it only has a two-star rating because of all your negative reviews! I feel so bad for them amid all this #BoycottBates nonsense!

Also, #BoycottBates puts a lot of undue pressure on the Navy Exchange! What would happen to their sales numbers if you #BoycottBates? It’s not as if there is some other company that could supply them with black, white, and brown leather oxfords!

Oh, well, I mean, there is Dr. Martens, who makes black and white leather shoes that are almost exact replicas of Bates Oxfords, except they’re made with Goodyear rubber in the outer soles. Psssh. You’d think they would use rubber from a company that has a reputation for making long-lasting products under stressful conditions!

Oh, and their shoes cost 25 percent less than Bates, probably because they are an evil British company and they don’t have to employ a massive customer service department to deal with your #BoycottBates social media campaign! Besides, Dr. Martens doesn’t make brown shoes! I’m sure it’s not cost-effective for the Navy Exchange to contract with Dr. Martens to add brown leather to their line of shoes and supply the entire U.S. Navy with less expensive, more durable uniform footwear. It’s probably not even possible, and it most certainly involves a lot of hard work.

No, I think it’s best to support Bates Footwear and the Navy Exchange in doing things the way they’ve always been done. Whatever you do, definitely do NOT #BoycottBates!

A Breach of Faith: The Navy Must Fix the Way it Pays Mobilizing Reservists

in Voices from the Fleet

This article is written by guest author Lieutenant Blake Herzinger, and originally appeared on CDR Salamander’s blog here.

The US Navy Reserve is failing its deploying Sailors by sending them forward into harm’s way with administrative burdens that damage financial standing, negatively impact their families at home, and detract from readiness. These problems begin at the outset of reserve mobilization and continue through to the day upon which reservists are demobilized and sent home and, in some cases, beyond. Intervention is required if the Navy Reserve is to execute its stated vision of providing transparent and seamless administrative systems in support of its deployed force.

Most US Navy Reserve Sailors are familiar with a certain degree of extra administrative burden that is not felt as strongly by active duty Sailors. Reservists must learn the administrative system intimately and be prepared to shoulder responsibility for requirements that would be handled by personnel and pay departments in the fleet. It is a common joke that serving as a Selected Reservist (SELRES, or drilling reservist) is like having a second full time job for which you are paid one weekend a month. Reservists, in my experience, accept that responsibility with good humor and understanding in most situations. 

When a reserve member is mobilized, however, the issues commonly snowball to an unacceptable level beginning on the day they report to the Expeditionary Combat Readiness Center in Norfolk, Virginia. During the first morning, reservists are told that “due to 1’s and 0’s issues” their allowance for lodging is not the US Navy’s official rate for their geographic location. Instead it is a lower total, set as part of the Integrated Lodging Program Pilot (ILPP). Most reservists will have made their lodging reservations months in advance and, due to Norfolk being a fleet concentration area, many will have been forced to obtain Certificates of Non-Availability (an official document certifying that DoD lodging was unavailable and authorizing the sailor to make arrangements elsewhere) and make reservations in non-DoD lodging, oftentimes at a higher rate than otherwise allowable. The gathered Sailors are informed that their CNA’s will not be honored due to incompatibility between the Navy’s travel management system and the new program. In layman’s terms, this means any sailor in lodging above the ILPP limit, even if unable to obtain any other DoD-approved lodging, will personally bear the cost of any overage and will not be reimbursed during the travel claim process. A large number of deployers leave at lunch on the first day to find new lodging. Those that are unsuccessful in finding lodging within a reasonable distance are left with the bill, regardless of their rank.

In the same morning, Sailors are informed that their travel claims (the document detailing all costs incurred by the sailor from the time they leave home until they reach their gaining deployed command) will not be reconciled within the Congressionally-mandated timeline of 30 days. These travel claims include air travel (procured at inordinately high rates via the DoD’s contracted travel service), weeks of lodging, and per diem allowances totaling several thousands of dollars. Most of these costs are incurred on each sailor’s Government Travel Credit Card (GTCC). For those unfamiliar, every member is required to apply for and employ a GTCC for any travel expenses incurred during duty status, and those cards are linked to each member’s personal credit rating. Members are advised that travel claims may take three to six months to be serviced but that the issue is “receiving flag-level attention.” Many members, to avoid late penalties and damage to personal credit, use their personal savings to settle the government’s bill or place the mobilization-related bills on personal credit cards – a direct violation of DoD policy and putting members at risk of disciplinary action. The issue, at best, depletes members’ savings or, at worst, negatively impacts members’ credit ratings, as the navy fails to reimburse Sailors for costs it has directed them to incur without an effective method of repayment. As a currently-deployed reservist, my detachment recently relieved a group of Sailors that had at least one sailor de-mobilizing (going home) after 270 days deployed whose travel claim still had not been reconciled. With three weeks to go until re-entering the civilian sphere, that sailor was still bearing a burden of thousands of dollars without any sign of resolution.

Pay issues, a problem not unfamiliar to both active duty and reserve Sailors, becomes a nightmare for mobilizing reservists. When Sailors are mobilized, they pass through multiple commands via intermediate stops (I-stops) delineated in their mobilization orders. Their Navy Operational Support Centers (NOSC’s) at home release them administratively and the fleet picks them up in a process that begins at ECRC. The administrative personnel at ECRC work hard, but are faced with processing dozens, sometimes over 100, Sailors each week. Each sailor is warned during their first week of mobilization that they will likely experience pay issues. While it is appropriate to warn deployers of this, it’s simply unacceptable and the warning of “pay issues” does not remotely approach an accurate description. More apt would be a warning that Sailors cannot rely on their employer, the US Navy, to compensate them sufficiently to pay their bills for a period of time that may be counted in months. 

This practice of allowing known pay issues to languish would result in immediate dismissal for the parties responsible in any enterprise outside the DoD. For those that would rebut this allegation with the fact that the US Navy will eventually make those Sailors whole via backpay, that point is acknowledged but who pays Sailors’ bills in the interim? I have rented lodging my entire adult life and have yet to encounter the landlord that accepts IOU’s for months on end, nor the utility company that provides power on the promise of reimbursement, nor the grocery store that offers food on credit. Approaching our fifth month of deployment, my small detachment of five has one sailor being paid correctly. In the last pay period, I received $0.30 as my housing allowance for a month. My rent, for an average apartment – admittedly in one of the most expensive cities in the world, is over $3,000 (well-within the allowable limit for the locale). My Sailors come to me with concerns that they will be unable to support their wives at home or pay their mortgages. We’ve been told that the Personnel Support Detachment responsible for our unit is below 50% manning but they’re hiring and training the required staff to get our issues sorted out. If the DoN is paying those employees half of what they agreed to in their contracts, it is no wonder that they lack the necessary manpower to execute the required tasks. The one thing PSD has definitely accounted for are debts, any overages or incorrect allowances have been withdrawn within one pay period. These are not isolated incidents. Other reservists report their final paychecks were held by the Defense Finance and Accounting Service for 100 days beyond their re-deployment dates, exponentially multiplying the stress of re-integration at home. It is not only egregiously wrong, it degrades personal and unit readiness. Members are being plucked from their homes and workplaces and placed into a position of financial instability, draining personal savings and causing insecurity in families. Sailors’ minds are understandably divided between their deployed duties abroad and ensuring their loved ones are not put out into the street at home.

What if I can’t pay my bill because I haven’t received my reimbursement?

– Cardholders are responsible for paying their monthly billing statement in-full, excluding any disputed transactions, by the due date indicated on the statement. Unpaid accounts are considered past due at 30 days beyond the billing date, and delinquent at 60 days beyond the billing date. Cardholders are responsible for payment regardless of the status of their travel reimbursements. If your due date is approaching and you’ve yet to receive reimbursement, please contact your travel approving official immediately.

– Defense Travel Management Office GTCC Frequently Asked Questions

As a starting-out proposition, reserve mobilization should be entirely funded via centrally-billed account (CBA) aligned to the Expeditionary Combat Readiness Center. It is inappropriate to force members to incur expenses via GTCC without a timely expectation of repayment. This issue is not anecdotal, nor confined to one small detachment. It is endemic and at this point has been reduced from a crisis to a planning consideration.

With regards to travel claims, I propose a mobilization stand-down until the timeline for reimbursement can be brought back within the 30 day requirement set forth by Congress. During the stand-down, an impartial third party should be engaged to conduct a thorough review of policies and business rules that allowed this vast backlog of debts to Sailors. While this is an extreme response, perhaps that extremity might offer motivation to self-assess rapidly and institute solutions, rather than simply briefing our deployers that they might not be repaid until after their 9-12 month deployments conclude.

In terms of fixing the pay system, it is past time to modernize. I know all Sailors reading this will be familiar with handwriting checking account information into a poorly-copied, off-center reproduction of the Navy’s electronic funds transfer form. I am also confident that most Sailors reading this have faced the issue of incorrect pay and fixes that take months to effect. Looking at Navy pay programs and websites is akin to taking a guided tour of the internet of the 1990’s. There are effective, modern solutions to paying personnel. Navy leadership need to choose one and implement it, preferably before the private sector jumps forward another generation in technology and leaves us even further behind.

If the language in this article seems impassioned, or perhaps accusatory, I suppose that is the case. The DoD owes better to its Sailors, and especially those it deploys into harm’s way. It is not enough to tell them that flag level officers are aware of their problems when those problems are damaging their personal credit, depleting their savings, and distressing their families. When we talk about personal sacrifice, are we acknowledging that in addition to leaving spouses and children, missing births and first days of school, and doing dangerous jobs in dangerous places, we’re asking Sailors to do those things without being adequately paid? As Claude Berube detailed for War on the Rocks earlier this year, the USNR has been plugging gaps in our force with reservists for the duration of the Global War on Terror, nearly two decades, but we’re still incapable of getting the right paycheck to those Sailors?

The Navy Reserve’s website proudly proclaims “Our Strength is our People…Every Sailor Matters.” The Expeditionary Combat Readiness Center’s motto is “Nauta Primoris…Sailors First.” It is hard to reconcile those proclamations with the accepted standard. I have no doubt that the staff of the ECRC are dedicated to their mission and doing their best, but they are hamstrung by a system that is not optimized to support a deployed reserve force. As a service, we must do right by our reservist deployers. Assume responsibility for the financial outlay of deploying Sailors, stand down mobilizations until Sailors are being reimbursed within the required timeline, and modernize our pay system to let Sailors focus on the jobs they are deployed to execute. To continue to fail in addressing this known issue is not just a readiness issue, but a breach of faith.

Lieutenant Blake Herzinger is an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, deployed to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, whose landlord won’t accept flag level attention in lieu of rent. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of his civilian employer, the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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