WASHINGTON (NNS) -- Those who know say it's the best-kept secret in the Navy. But duty in the forward deployed naval forces (FDNF) is not something the Navy wants to keep under wraps.
The bottom line is that serving on the tip of the spear is a proven way to supercharge your career. There's better advancement, unique deployment schedules and good family life in exotic places - with plenty to see and do.
But most importantly, it's critical duty and essential to national security. It's where the Navy needs you.
"We cannot complete this mission without our officers and enlisted stepping up to take on these critical and rewarding overseas opportunities," said Vice Adm. John B. Nowell, Jr., the Navy's top uniformed personnel officer.
"That's exactly what orders to Japan, Guam, Italy, and Spain are - opportunities to see the world, earn more money, advance more quickly – and most importantly, serve your Navy in accomplishing this global mission."
It's become a forward deployed cliché that getting Sailors to initially sign up for the duty is the hardest part. That's because once they've experienced it, they don't want to leave.
"I've seen it a lot with my Sailors that once they get here, so many of them want to stay," said Master Chief Machinist's Mate (SW/AW) Damian Kelly, who just wrapped up a tour onboard the Yokosuka, Japan-based command ship USS Blue Ridge – his fifth FDNF tour overall and his fourth in Japan.
In fact, the Navy's own recent survey data backs up Kelly's observations. Those polls show nearly 70 percent of those currently on forward deployed tours in Japan are considering follow-on tours in the region. Thirty-eight percent of those say that level of interest is very high.
Kelly joined the Navy in 1991. He didn't discover life in the FDNF until nine years later. Now, in the 20 years since, he's spent 14 forward deployed. Two of those years were spent in Gaeta, Italy and the rest has been duty in Japan.
Twice, he's peppered those overseas tours with shore tours at Great Lakes, teaching the Navy's next generation -- something he also encourages his Sailors to do.
"It's a recipe for success in the Navy as both kinds of duty are proven to enhance your career," he said. "So many Sailors just get comfortable with duty in CONUS fleet concentration areas and don't want to venture out of that comfort zone. That was me until I discovered there's something better."
The fact that Kelly has managed to advance to E9 and forge a 30-year career in the Navy is due in large part to his taking hard to fill billets in the FDNF.
His picture, however, wasn't always rosy. Making first class petty officer in 2001 while forward deployed to Gaeta, Italy, Kelly's timing seemed totally off. The Navy was in the middle of a drawdown and his rating -- MM -- was losing billets as the Navy reduced its steam-powered ships.
"I was a first class for eight years and failed to select to chief five times before I made it in 2009," Kelly said. "I truly thought I would be retiring a first-class and had even bought a home in Wisconsin to prepare."
Though he put on his anchors in Great Lakes, his days of struggle were over. Advancement to both senior and master chief came on his first time in front of each board. His edge was serving in the FDNF.
Navy statistics show that over the last seven years, Sailors serving in FDNF's Japan-based units advance at higher rates than the rest of the Navy to every rank from E4 to E9. It's a theme that is starting to also emerge on board the four Rota, Spain-based destroyers, too.
For those based in Japan, over the past seven years, with only two exceptions advancement opportunity has been consistently higher than in the rest of the Navy.
Here's a look at the FDNF-J’s seven-year averages:
E4 – an average of 10.7 percentage points higher than the rest of the Navy.
E5 – an average of 6.2 percentage points higher.
E6 – an average of 2.3 percentage points higher.
E7 – an average of 4.4 percentage points higher.
E8 – an average of 5.3 percentage points higher.
E9 – an average of 3.2 percentage points higher.
Long-term data doesn't exist, yet, for the forward deployed forces in Europe. That said, a similar trend seemed to be emerging, starting with last fall's petty officer advancement cycles.
Onboard those Rota-based destroyers, FDNF Europe Sailors advanced to E-4 at a rate of 86 percent, compared to 22 percent, Navy-wide. At E-5 and E-6, these forward deployed Sailors advanced at rates of 30 percent and 21.7 percent, respectively, compared to 16 and seven percent, Navy-wide.
Beyond promotions, there are also financial benefits to FDNF assignments as many billets in the FDNF also qualify sailors for extra pays, such as Special Duty Assignment Pay, Sea Duty Incentive Pay, as well as Assignment Incentive Pay.
Also, there's Overseas Cost of Living Allowance (COLA), which is a tax-free allowance offered at all FDNF locations. It is designed to offset the higher overseas prices of goods and services, providing Sailors with the same purchasing power they would enjoy with their regular salaries in the United States.
Another plus for the duty in Kelly's book is the tight-knit forward deployed community combined with the culture of the host country that he's experienced in Japan.
"I can't think of anywhere else that is as safe as this place to the point where I'm a little nervous when I go back to the States," he said. "It's kind of like a bubble to raise your kids in over here."
With the Department of Defense Schools, his kids, he said, have gotten a good education, and there's less of the social stress on them that he's seen in schools' back home.
"I think it's because they all have grown up in the military and have at least one military parent -- they are all used to moving, and those common experiences bring them together," Kelly said.
Besides, he said, their kids have been able to see a lot of the world that their stateside peers can only dream of.
"We all learned to snowboard together over here," he said. "There's so much to go and see while you are here -- and the mass transit system is incredible, so it's pretty easy to get there -- my kids are better-rounded because of the different culture they've got to experience over here."