Navy separation process leaves sailors in the dark
By Matthew M. Burke Stars and Stripes
Published: February 7, 2012
SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — In his first 2 1/2 years in the Navy, Aeron Crouch jumped three ranks to second-class petty officer and appeared to be a rising star among the forward-deployed in the Pacific. He was a leader - motivated, tenacious, always improving and asking for more, tougher, responsibilities.
His superiors use words like “excellent” and “genius” when describing the decorated 27-year-old sailor. Yet the Navy says he’s no longer wanted.
A bloated defense budget and the sluggish economic climate of the country have forced the Navy to downsize, and Crouch was one of 3,000 hand-picked sailors to get caught in the crossfire.
As the 8-year-veteran heads for the door, he is not only stung by the rejection and the daunting prospect of landing a scarce stateside job while overseas, but also by the news that he will never know why he was selected for separation through the force-trimming process known as the Enlisted Retention Board.
“I want to know why I got picked,” he said from behind the operations desk in Sasebo last month. “I worked hard. I did everything I was told to be good in the Navy... I take pride in what I do. For my own self-improvement, what did I do that didn’t put me above the rest?”
His feelings of betrayal are shared by others.
Petty Officer First Class Vilaihan Vongkoth of the USS Essex, a single father of two, was also chosen for separation.
Vongkoth had already made it through one force-cutting measure. Like all sailors up for re-enlistment, he had to prove his worth under a program called Perform to Serve. Under the program, the Navy determines who is a valued employee and, therefore, worthy of re-enlistment.
After making it through, Vongkoth signed up for six more years of duty, was sent to school, and got new orders to Sasebo.
“I thought I was already set,” Vongkoth said. “Then, I get a message saying I was not selected for retention. It’s a big shock for me still.”
SUBHEAD -- No chance for closure
As the two men prepare to head back to two of the states hardest hit by the recession -- Crouch to Florida and Vongkoth to California -- they will likely never find closure: No records of the ERB deliberations are kept, according to Lt. Laura Stegherr, deputy public affairs officer for the Chief of Naval Personnel.
“During the board, only the votes of board members were recorded and no transcriptions were made of board proceedings,” Stegherr wrote in an email response to Stars and Stripes. “[Board members] cannot disclose specifics of the board’s deliberations, and the specific discussions and proceedings that take place during these boards are strictly confidential and may not be disclosed at any time.”
The board’s decisions seem to defy logic, sailors at Sasebo Naval Base said.