Why Navy Chiefs Are Different: A Quora Question

United States Navy Chief Insignia
U.S. Navy Chief’s Insignia

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

I’ve been on a roll lately in answering Quora questions. Either I’ve accidentally worked out the format for writing attention-catching answers, or just gotten lucky. Because most of my answers seem to be getting lots of views, upvotes, and comments.

My latest best-read answer was comparing Navy Chiefs to the comparable senior non-commissioned officers of the Army and Air Force.

The Quora Question

The specific question was: “Why are Navy Chiefs different from other service NCOs?” Having worn the Chief’s anchors for eleven of my twenty-two-year Navy career, I felt I was well qualified to give my answer.

Navy Chiefs are different because of the way the Navy (and Coast Guard) operate as compared to our land and air services. But this is not just the US Navy, it’s across other countries military services as well. Navy Chiefs carry a level of responsibility and accountability within the military which translates into a level of authority that doesn’t exist in land or air services.

I saw this while assigned to NATO Southern headquarters, Naples, Italy on my second to last tour of active duty. I made Senior Chief (E-8) just as I arrived there, and dealt with a number of my counterparts in the US Army and Air Force, as well as members of the UK Armed Forces and Italian Armed Forces.

One of my observations was that all people first starting out in the military, first couple of years service, tended to “act and think” the same. As people rose in the ranks of their respective services, their behaviors and actions tended to veer off into very specific patterns. I learned that I could identify a senior member of the Army, Navy, or Air Force in civilian clothes quite easily just by observing their behaviors and pattern of speech. It was an astonishing observation for me at the time. Since my retirement and working in government consulting I see the same patterns over and over again with military retirees.

Which leads to my observation that working requirements shape the person. Although Chiefs hold the same technical rank as those in the Army, Air Force (and Marine Corps), our behaviors are quite different due to the way ships operate and levels of responsibility and accountability.

An officer I once worked with, a Merchant Marine graduate, used to say “The sea is an unfair environment.” Which is completely true. When a ship goes to sea, it faces the same risks regardless of why it’s at sea. Training exercise, transit, or just testing something, the sea is the same. The ship’s crews are trained to work together keeping the ship operational. Within the Navy, and the Coast Guard (which has the same issues) the Chiefs are the core of the ship’s expertise. They are the ones training the junior sailors as well as the junior officers.

On my last seagoing command, arriving as a Senior Chief, I had 19 years active service with 10 years actual sea time on three different types of ships. The only officers who had anywhere near the same amount of sea time and years in service was our Executive officer and Commanding Officer. Out of a Chief’s mess of about 35 Chiefs, only four were more senior to me. I had 19 enlisted people assigned to me, and a young lieutenant who didn’t have anywhere near the sea experience I had. I was responsible for maintaining safe operation of several hundred pieces of electronic equipment, ship’s systems, that covered ship’s navigation, interior communications, radio communications, internal alarm and engineering plant monitoring systems, and some of the combat equipment that was directly relevant to us winning any combat engagement we might be involved with.

As an added note of interest, I reported aboard that ship at the ripe old age of 36.

It was my role to train both the enlisted people and the junior officers. This training wasn’t just academic exercises where everyone got to sit around and debrief afterwards drinking coffee. The training I provided literally made sure no one was killed doing stupid things, and that we got the ship back home under our own power. My word was law because if I was wrong, someone could get hurt/killed. As a side note, I was also training the younger enlisted sailors so they could one day become Chiefs themselves. More important, as a Senior Chief I was held far more accountable for my actions than the junior officers who were also nominally placed in leadership roles.

The levels of responsibility and accountability translated into a level of authority not written down anywhere, but was respected by every person within the Navy.

My observation was that my Army and Air Force counterparts (E-7, E-8, and E-9) did not have anywhere the same level of responsibility and accountability that Navy Chiefs (E-7), Senior Chiefs (E-8) and Master Chiefs (E-9) had. As another interesting observation; within the Air Force the title of “Chief” (Chief Master Sergeant) is given an E-9, and in the Army the title of “Chief” (Chief Warrant Officer) is a commissioned warrant officer.

Those people with the titles of “Chief” acted and commanded the comparable levels of authority that Navy Chiefs (E-7) held. I observed no one (position) in those two services with the comparable levels of authority that Navy Senior Chiefs or Master Chiefs held.

Yes, Navy Chiefs are different. Those who get to wear the Chief’s anchors are molded by their environment into becoming Chiefs. As a measure of how the Navy views Chiefs; our rank insignia is a fouled anchor, as an anchor fouled by its own chain can never be recovered. Once a person earns the rank of Chief, they will be a Chief forever.

Quora Answer

Bonus Commentary

It was while I wrote this answer that the double concepts of responsibility and accountability crystalized. There’s no question that Army and Air Force senior Non-commissioned officers have responsibility, and accountability. But not to the same level as a Navy Chief. I think a Marine Corp Gunnery Sergeant has comparable levels of responsibility and accountability. I dealt with a couple during my career and held the highest respect for them. But even among the Marines I dealt with, I sensed that they held Chiefs in at least equally high regard as Gunnery Sergeants.

The one thing I am most sincere about, is how I was molded into becoming a “Chief Forever.” As many years as I’ve been retired from Navy life, I still use the behaviors I learned as an active-duty Chief. When I attended the decommissioning of my last ship, the Port Royal (CG 73), the people I met up with who worked for me on that ship still addressed me as “Senior (Senior Chief).”

I have to admit, it felt good being addressed that way by people who I once served with.

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