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Chief Petty Officer Sam Robinson, 33, serves as the president of the Naples area Chief Petty Officer Association. Making chief in the Navy is one of the most prestigious goals a sailor can achieve, he said.

Chief Petty Officer Sam Robinson, 33, serves as the president of the Naples area Chief Petty Officer Association. Making chief in the Navy is one of the most prestigious goals a sailor can achieve, he said. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)

NAPLES, Italy — For being 112 years old, Chief Petty Officer Sam Robinson looks pretty good.

OK, maybe Robinson isn’t 112 — but his rank is.

On Friday, chiefs around the world celebrated the rank’s 112 years of existence. A party at Naval Support Activity Naples closed down the base for half the day.

A promotion to E-7 is a “rather huge deal” in the Navy, said Robinson, president of the Naples area Chief Petty Officers Association. “It’s most definitely a leap.

“The chief is the person who takes care of the sailors, who trains the junior officers and takes care of everything,” said Robinson, who trains base security sailors. “They’re the technical experts who are praised for their managerial skills and ability to make things happen.”

No other service makes as big a deal out of making E-7 as the Navy, said David Winkler, a historian at the Naval Historical Foundation in Washington.

“Unlike other services, there is a significant difference, and it starts with the uniforms,” Winkler said. “Uniforms worn in the other services are rather similar for enlisted and officer ranks. … In the Navy, you have the enlisted up to the E-6 level in the traditional jumper suit, what we call the Cracker Jack uniform, and the Dixie Cup cap. When you make E-7, you switch that out to a uniform closer to what officers wear.”

Onboard ships, promotion to chief means nicer living quarters, and they even have their own mess where officers don’t enter unless invited. “That’s the place where just fellow chiefs get together, and frankly, is the nerve center of operations on ship,” Winkler said.

The chiefs are counted on; the Navy even has an adage: “Ask the chief.”

“They think you’re smarter when you make E-7,” Winkler quipped.

According to an account from the foundation’s Web site, www.navyhistory.org, the earliest example of the Navy using the term “chief” was during the Revolutionary War when cook’s mate Jacob Wasbie was promoted June 1, 1776, to “chief cook” while serving on the Alfred.

During a shuffling of ranks and rates in 1885, the Navy classed all enlisted personnel as first, second, or third class for petty officers, and as seaman first, second, or third class for non-petty officers. It was on April 1, 1893, that the Navy established the grade of chief petty officer.

Only in the Navy and Marine Corps, part of the Department of the Navy, do E-6s’ service records go before a promotion board and an arduous promotion process.

While making E-7, or gunnery sergeant, in the Marine Corps also is revered, it’s for slightly different reasons, one Marine said.

“When I was a young Marine, I thought the ‘gunny’ was the man. For one thing, you rarely saw him. When you did, it was because you screwed up,” said Gunnery Sgt. Glenn Holloway, stationed in Washington. “He ran the barracks, the company, the shop. His Marines loved him and feared him. His officers weren’t sure what to do with him — they were glad they had the gunny, but didn’t want to give him completely free reign.

“It’s like having a 2,000-horsepower motorcycle — it’s really cool, but you’re afraid to actually open the throttle all the way.”


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