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Navy’s civilian fleet offers former sailors 2nd chance to serve

Patrick Picker and Lashawnta Jenkins pose aboard the USNS Fall River in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, March 8, 2017. The former servicemembers work for as civilian mariners for the Navy's Military Sealift Command.

ERIK SLAVIN/STARS AND STRIPES

By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 28, 2017

HAMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka — Lashawnta Jenkins left the Navy after seven years and soon regretted her choice.

“I was young, thought I was in love — so wrong,” she said. “So I got out of the military. For years I beat myself up saying I shouldn’t have.”

Two years ago, Jenkins found a new way to serve on a Navy ship, swapping her uniform for a Duckmen of Louisiana shirt.

Jenkins is one of about 7,000 civilians working for Military Sealift Command, a fleet with a $3 billion annual budget and more daily missions than many of the world’s active-duty sea services.

The command’s broad mission portfolio includes transporting supplies and people, detecting missile launches and gathering intelligence. These civilians work all over the world in peace and wartime, often alongside servicemembers.

For several of the servicemembers aboard the USNS Fall River for the Pacific Partnership humanitarian exercise in South Asia, this the first time they’d ever heard of the unheralded command or met its civilian mariners.

While many come from Merchant Marine programs, commercial shipping or unrelated backgrounds, more than 40 percent of the command’s afloat civilians were in the military.

Their reasons for signing up vary, but for several, it’s a second chance at a life they missed.

“I loved being out on the water,” said Patrick Picker, chief steward aboard Fall River and a 13-year Navy veteran. “It was a good opportunity for me to get back what I’d lost.”

Leaving the Navy was a culture shock, particularly in the Navy-dominated Virginia Beach area, where the cost of living without the service’s housing and shopping benefits remains high.

Picker discovered the sealift command at a job fair and found that he lived close to the command’s Norfolk-area “pool,” where civilian mariners wait for assignments. The command maintains another pool in San Diego.

Civilian mariners say there are trade-offs in working for the afloat Navy’s civilian side. The federal government benefits for direct hires are generous by civilian company standards, but fall short of the free active-duty health care and retirement pension still available after 20 years of service.

Some also spoke of a disconnect between the afloat mariners and the command’s shore staff.

If mariners don’t speak up, they can’t always rely on staff to find them a job, which means lost income.

Ship deployments are supposed to last four months, which is shorter than most underway periods on Navy ships. However, that can be extended, sometimes for several weeks, if detailers don’t find other mariners to relieve them. That can lead to less time with family and many of the same difficulties associated with military life.

“If I’m having a rough day, I just remember how I felt when I got the phone call that I got this job and it always put things back in perspective,” Jenkins said. “Oh god, I was so happy.”

The ships themselves retain the Navy’s structure. People know who is in charge of the department they need to go to for answers — a structure that commercial companies don’t all have, Jenkins said.

One of the big plusses is the additional personal freedom and lack of extra duty, mariners said. The master, a ship’s commanding officer, isn’t going to impose a curfew or restrict anyone’s personal life.

“It’s not like ‘standby to standby’ or anything like that,” Picker said. “When you’re off work, you’re done.”

If they do have to work late to execute a mission, mariners are eligible for overtime on top of their base pay.

An able seaman performing deckhand duties earns a starting base salary of about $40,000.

Special skills in communications, electric and other fields rate higher starting salaries, while top ship officers can clear well over $100,000, plus overtime and bonus pay. Many prior service sailors qualify for an advanced merchant mariner rating.

The military’s “up or out” promotion mentality isn’t part of the civilian culture. There are opportunities to advance for people motivated to do it, but those who really like their jobs can keep doing them, Picker said.

“I’ve seen people, all they want to do is to be a day worker, and that’s fine,” he said. “That’s their right and there’s no pressure for them to do anything other than what they really want to do.”

Mariners can request a ship, though they don’t have final say over where they end up. The types of ships vary considerably.

For example, the Fall River is an aluminum-hulled, fast expeditionary transport shuttling Marines, sailors and soldiers between Singapore, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Malaysia and Vietnam. A mariner’s next assignment could come on an oiler in the Atlantic or a tugboat closer to home.

The banter with servicemembers on many of these ships is a bonus for mariners like Picker, who talked about his experiences while sitting next to a Navy lieutenant at the mess.

“Now that I’m a civilian, I get to give the khakis a bunch of grief that I couldn’t as an enlisted folk,” he said.

slavin.erik@stripes.com
Twitter: @eslavin_stripes

A view from the bridge of the USNS Fall River while moored at Hambantota's port in Sri Lanka, March 8, 2017. The servicemembers embarked are being transported primarily by civilian mariners working for the Navy's Military Sealift Command.
ERIK SLAVIN/STARS AND STRIPES

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