MCPONs past and present talk CPO evolution
Mid-September is arguably the most important time of the year to a U.S. Navy chief petty officer. This is when newly accepted chiefs are frocked during a time-honored pinning ceremony, when their plain khaki uniforms are transformed by the coveted fouled anchors.
These ceremonies, which are held worldwide regardless of where the chiefs are stationed, are the culmination of the final piece of CPO 365. Although this process has changed names many times since the Navy's inception of the chief petty officer rank in 1893 the purpose has remained unchanged: to prepare first class Sailors to be the chief.
The role of a Sailor has changed drastically over the past decades. In order to respond to ever-changing duties, chiefs determined that Sailors needed to start training immediately upon selection to first class petty officer (FCPO). The training expanded from a six-week crash course to a year-long program geared toward constant and consistent preparation. CPO 365 was born, a program that then- Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON) Rick West implemented three years ago.
"CPO 365 was developed for a few reasons," said West. "First and foremost, it was brought forward to ensure our first class petty officers were more ready to enter the CPO Mess and to bring them alongside our CPOs early to gain the knowledge, skills and abilities to be successful. We continue to put a lot of responsibility on our first classes and CPOs and we need to ensure they are trained and updated on continuing bases."
The program was initially a three-phase training process that excluded FCPOs from participating in the second phase if they didn't pass their rating exam and then excluded them from participating in the third phase if they weren't selected for chief. It has now evolved into a two-phase process that allows all FCPOs to continue their training whether or not they were selected.
When the E-7 results are released, FCPOs who are selected are allowed to start a series of specialized training sessions, in addition to the regular CPO 365 events, to help prepare them for their transition to chief. Despite criticisms of the many changes, CPO 365 is a step in the right direction.
"At this particular point of time in our history, I believe CPO 365 provides us with the best training opportunity," said current MCPON Michael Stevens "However, I am also confident that in time CPO 365 will also change because that's what we do, we constantly evolve. I'll be a retired MCPON years from now and there will be a new name, a new process and new way of doing business to train our chiefs. I'll trust that it was put in place because the times that our future Sailors will serve necessitate that."
West, who retired as the 12th MCPON in 2012, said "I made CPO in 1988. From where we were then to where we are now, we are absolutely moving in the right direction. Could it be better? You bet. It will continue to evolve as our great Navy moves forward and the collective mess combines their inputs."
Despite the negatives, CPO 365 is designed to continue to deliver quality chiefs to the fleet. This process is built by chiefs, run by chiefs and truly focused on Sailor development. One of its main purposes is to put newly selected E-7s in direct contact with seasoned chiefs. This allows an expedited development of the new CPOs as well as a chance for them to interact with their mess and grow comfortable with their selection.
"We are in a new era in with regard to training new chiefs," said retired MCPON Jim Herdt. "It's important for chiefs who were brought up in another process to not condemn or measure them. They are different, much like I was different from the chiefs who trained me.
"Most people think that we have this process so chiefs can prepare CPO selects to join the Chiefs Mess. I believe that it's more than that," said Herdt, who served as the Navy's 9th MCPON. "This timeframe is set aside so chiefs worldwide are able to rededicate themselves and remind themselves of what being a chief is really about. It's like having a booster shot of 'Chief' every year."
MCPON Herdt stated that without this process, we would be more like our sister services and have three separate senior enlisted ratings with no continuity between them.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Mary Ferguson was granted permission to go through CPO 365 while stationed at Fort Meade, Md., in 2011. After her first request was denied, MCPON West finally granted her the ability to participate, but only after she filed the correct forms and requests through her chain of command, wrote a point paper about how this process would benefit both her and the Army, and attended CPO 365 in its entirety. She was able to convince her Army leadership that participating in CPO 365 would make her a better Soldier.
"Prior to [CPO 365] I had attended three different NCO education courses in the Army, each approximately three to six weeks in length. All of those were at academies with dedicated instructors. All of my normal missions completely halted while I attended those academies," said Ferguson. "I had one, maybe two NCOs training me in each course, and those instructors were also completely pulled from doing their usual missions in the Army. I walked away from [CPO 365] with a great deal more from a Mess that continued to handle its daily missions, as did I. There is nothing like the power of the Mess to train itself, take care of troops, and make things happen."
One thing leaders need to understand is this is not supposed to be taking folks out of their commands all the time, said West.
"This is about providing a venue and an opportunity to bring quality training sessions to the particular group - a building block," said West. "The sad thing is you can make FCPO and not receive any other formal classroom training on leadership. This is another way to invest in the growth of our enlisted leaders."
"I loved CPO 365. I loved what it put me through personally, and I loved what I saw it do to my brothers and sisters. I do agree that it should be a 365-day process. I think a mixture of the two is great. Having that lead off time to cover Navy programs and procedures really helped. The whole process was so foreign to me, because it is so unlike anything we go through in the Army. But it was one of the best experiences of my life. I love the Army, and I've made some amazing lifelong friendships in the Army, been through some incredibly things with some folks, but nothing, absolutely nothing compares to that moment when somebody hears those words, "Welcome to the Mess!" ... it's monumental, it's motivating on a whole other level," said Ferguson.
MCPON Herdt noted that arguably we are making better chiefs today than we ever have in the past.
"Today's chief petty officers are no doubt taking the high road with their training. They have the ability to be innovative and aren't afraid of change," said Herdt. "I'm so proud of today's chiefs. They don't understand how truly good they are at what they do. Their pride in appearance and physique and their leadership skill has never been better than it is today."
Chief Hospital Corpsman Joe Santos, U.S Pacific Fleet's Sailor of the Year and a newly promoted chief, noted that a lot of information gained during Phase II can't be learned in a classroom setting.
"An academy setting would truly take away from the importance of what it means to be called 'The Chief,'" Santos said. "Growing up in the Navy, I've always heard that chiefs are not born, chiefs are made by other chiefs, and I firmly believe the experience gained from Phase II prepares your mind to think, act and perform as a chief. You learn from each and every chief petty officer regardless of pay grade or whether they are active, retired or reserve."
"CPO 365 is about our moment in history more than it is about my belief that this is the absolute right way to do it," Stevens said. "I believe it's the right way to do it today, but I certainly can't speak for the future."
The Chiefs Mess has come a long way since its inception in 1893. No matter what the process is called today, U.S. Navy chiefs will continue to train their own and prepare them for the trials and tribulations of being and carrying the title "chief petty officer."
"I think CPO 365 has been hugely successful, mostly due to the many CPOs who have embraced the concept and moved it forward," said West. "Of those groups that have embraced the concept you can see those messes flourish. I say embrace the brilliance of the past to forge the future. We simply can't be looking backward when it comes to training our Sailors. We have to determine what we can do and move forward at All Ahead Flank."