Navy separation process leaves sailors in the dark
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 7, 2012
SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — In his first 2 1/2 years in the Navy, Aeron Crouch jumped three ranks to second-class petty officer and appeared to be a rising star among the forward-deployed in the Pacific. He was a leader - motivated, tenacious, always improving and asking for more, tougher, responsibilities.
His superiors use words like “excellent” and “genius” when describing the decorated 27-year-old sailor. Yet the Navy says he’s no longer wanted.
A bloated defense budget and the sluggish economic climate of the country have forced the Navy to downsize, and Crouch was one of 3,000 hand-picked sailors to get caught in the crossfire.
As the 8-year-veteran heads for the door, he is not only stung by the rejection and the daunting prospect of landing a scarce stateside job while overseas, but also by the news that he will never know why he was selected for separation through the force-trimming process known as the Enlisted Retention Board.
“I want to know why I got picked,” he said from behind the operations desk in Sasebo last month. “I worked hard. I did everything I was told to be good in the Navy... I take pride in what I do. For my own self-improvement, what did I do that didn’t put me above the rest?”
His feelings of betrayal are shared by others.
Petty Officer First Class Vilaihan Vongkoth of the USS Essex, a single father of two, was also chosen for separation.
Vongkoth had already made it through one force-cutting measure. Like all sailors up for re-enlistment, he had to prove his worth under a program called Perform to Serve. Under the program, the Navy determines who is a valued employee and, therefore, worthy of re-enlistment.
After making it through, Vongkoth signed up for six more years of duty, was sent to school, and got new orders to Sasebo.
“I thought I was already set,” Vongkoth said. “Then, I get a message saying I was not selected for retention. It’s a big shock for me still.”
As the two men prepare to head back to two of the states hardest hit by the recession -- Crouch to Florida and Vongkoth to California -- they will likely never find closure: No records of the ERB deliberations are kept, according to Lt. Laura Stegherr, deputy public affairs officer for the Chief of Naval Personnel.
“During the board, only the votes of board members were recorded and no transcriptions were made of board proceedings,” Stegherr wrote in an email response to Stars and Stripes. “[Board members] cannot disclose specifics of the board’s deliberations, and the specific discussions and proceedings that take place during these boards are strictly confidential and may not be disclosed at any time.”
The board’s decisions seem to defy logic, sailors at Sasebo Naval Base said.
Many said they personally know sailors who went before the ERB with failed weigh-ins, fewer commendations, less valuable specialty school training - and were retained. Stegherr declined to comment as to how the integrity of the process could be maintained without records of the deliberations.
Crouch and Vongkoth criticized the Navy for acting like a careless corporation, using them during a time of war, only to hand out pink slips when the going got rough.
Crouch stands to receive a severance of several thousand dollars but he said it won’t go far as he tries to start a new life.
Vongkoth, 32, could fare a little better. Due to a provision included in the National Defense Authorization Act that was signed into law Dec. 31, Vongkoth could still receive retirement benefits that would have been due at 20 years of active service, including medical and commissary privileges, and a reduced monthly stipend - if he agrees to forgo his severance. However, he has to apply for the benefits, and there is no guarantee he will be approved. The sailor just made the Sept. 1 cut off and will hit 15 years of active service in June.
Crouch’s commanding officer, Capt. Charles Rock, said he was shocked when he was informed the former training supervisor and combat systems team trainer off the USS Wayne E. Meyer was chosen by the ERB.
“He is one of those dependable sailors, always doing great work, the kind of guy you rely on day in and day out,” Rock said, adding that Crouch might never get an answer to his questions, because he has “no distinguishing flaw.”
Rock also was tasked with passing along the message to Vongkoth that he was selected for separation, because he arrived for duty at the base shortly before results of the ERB were released in November, and the Essex was at sea at the time.
Rock and Capt. David Fluker, Vongkoth’s commanding officer onboard the Essex, said the Navy had to make some tough decisions with the ERB, because the longer a sailor has stayed in and the more he or she advances, the more vetting is done, leaving sailors with very few flaws for elimination.
Fluker lost eight out of about 1,000 sailors on his ship.
“It’s so ultra-competitive” at that level, Fluker said. “The range is so tight.”
Fluker said he had faith in the board’s fairness and its ability to spot signals and indicators to use in placing some sailors above others.
“It’s an extremely rigorous process,” he said.
Due in part to low attrition, the Enlisted Retention Board was announced in April to trim the force to meet congressionally mandated strength quotas, Navy officials said at the time. The board reviewed 16,000 sailors in pay grades E-4 to E-8 in 31 overmanned ratings, and by fall, chose about 3,000 for separation.
According to Navy directives, sailors were to be flagged for separation due to substandard or declining performance, detachment for cause, revocation of security clearance, disciplinary problems, running afoul of the law, or -- if for no other reason -- to reach quota. Neither Crouch nor Vongkoth fit any of those categories except the last one.
Crouch received three Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals, completed specialized training at expensive schools and got stellar evaluations.
“Did they just put names in a hat and say, ‘This guy?’ ” Crouch said. “That’s what it seems like. There’s a real lack of information.”
Vongkoth, who got out of another specialized hydraulics training school in September -- paid for by the military -- said he has a blemish-free record. Fluker declined to comment on the records of specific sailors. However, sailors in Sasebo said that being allowed to re-enlist after making it through Perform to Serve appears to back up Vongkoth’s claim.
Fluker and Rock said the Navy tried to use a scalpel with its cuts, but it didn’t make it any easier for either of them.
“I hope the ERB isn’t an enduring thing,” Rock said.
Fluker said he had seen similar cuts after the end of the Cold War, and that they weren’t as deliberate.
“Every sailor is critical, and you can never have enough,” Fluker said. “You hate to lose anyone, but in our job, no one is irreplaceable.”
Sailors have complained that the ERB process was convoluted and unfair.
Crouch and Vongkoth were preparing for moves to new duty stations while trying to get their personnel files updated and ready for board review. Crouch said his high operational tempo limited his time to consider switching jobs or work on getting his records in order – something that moves at a snail’s pace in the Navy.
The board added to confusion by pumping out directives exempting some sailors and including others. Crouch said that as more and more sailors were exempt from the process, he watched as his chances of being selected increased in his rate.
Despite all of this, based on his record, Crouch believed he was safe. The board’s precepts said they were targeting sailors with spotty records.
Vongkoth had made it through the scrutiny of Perform to Serve and figured there was no way he could be dismissed.
“How do I get approved for one and not the other?” he asked.
Crouch’s first reaction was disbelief, followed by anger. He had volunteered and served honorably during a time of war, and he was being cut loose.
“Try explaining that to your family,” Crouch said. “They’re like, ‘So you got fired?’ I’m like, ‘Well not really. Kind of. I got laid off.’ Nobody really understands unless you’ve been in the Navy or military.”
Crouch – under contract until 2014 -- has trouble hiding his dissatisfaction with the process and the fact that the Navy is breaching that contract.
“As it stands right now, I just wasted the last eight years of my life,” he said.
Crouch, Vongkoth and some sailors who were up for the board but were spared talked recently about the anxiety of facing cuts while working with a high-operational tempo -- believing they could be dismissed at any time.
“There’s no real security” in the Navy, Vongkoth said.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Erik Ledyard, who survived this year’s board, said while he can’t believe Crouch was chosen, he is glad he was not; his wife is pregnant.
Ledyard said he has started to make changes in case he is chosen later for separation, such as putting money aside and curbing spending. Despite Navy officials saying no ERB will be convened next year, he said he will surely face Perform to Serve soon.
Despite their frustration and anger, Crouch and Vongkoth said that the transition assistance program set up by the Navy to navigate separation has been very helpful. There are move-planning websites, calendars and checklists; workshops on resume writing; and job fairs. Crouch said it helps if sailors include their spouses each step of the way. Crouch and Vongkoth said that their commands have provided timely information and support.
Crouch said people feel bad for those singled out, but the sailors believe the Navy could have done more to explain the board process and its decisions.
As the days go by, Crouch said he gets more and more used to a future without the Navy, whether that will be working for a contractor or struggling to stay afloat while finishing his college degree. He worries about taking care of his wife, he said. He is due to receive severance from the Navy based on his pay rate and years of service – about $25,000 before taxes -- but will only have paid health insurance for 180 days.
Vongkoth said he feels lucky that he is one of nearly 300 sailors due for separation who will be considered to receive retirement benefits through the Temporary Early Retirement Authority. But as a single father with two children, he worries about finding full-time work. He said while he scours the state of California for a job, his kids will spend a lot of time with their grandparents.
While the men remain relatively positive, a cloud constantly looms overhead.
“I know I’ll be all right,” said Crouch, sounding a bit unsure. “I fancy myself as a fairly intelligent person. The question is, what am I going to do with my family when I get back to the States?”
“Can we live off the post 9/11 G.I. Bill? Maybe,” he said. “But I don’t know for how long.”
Petty Officer First Class Vilaihan Vongkoth of the USS Essex, a single father of two, was told he could reenlist in July after being scrutinized by perform to serve. He reenlisted for six years, was sent to an expensive training school, and given orders to report to Sasebo Naval Base in Japan. He arrived, and before the Essex, background, returned from deployment at sea, was told he had been selected by the enlisted retention board for separation from the Navy. The 14-year veteran has a blemish free record and said that the Navy was acting like a corporation by trying to get rid of him before he was due retirement benefits.
MATTHEW M. BURKE/STARS AND STRIP