In a decision the Navy Times called “a tectonic shift in the Navy’s personnel system,” the service recently abandoned the time-honored tradition of referring to enlisted sailors by their rating, or job title, as well as their rank.
Ratings such as Gunner’s Mate, Boatswain’s Mate, and Quartermaster have a lineage going back hundreds of years to the Continental Navy and the British Royal Navy. Even more recently established rates, such as Information Systems Technician Second Class (IT2) or Electronics Technician Third Class (ET3), give many sailors reason to be proud of their naval heritage.
“When you’re a Boatswain’s Mate, it comes with a lot of pride because of what you do,” Schoanna Smith, a sailor stationed aboard the USS Mustin in Yokosuka, Japan, told Stars and Stripes. “Why can’t we be noticed as Boatswain’s Mates? Not everyone does the same job. … I feel it’s like saying all the rates are the same, which they aren’t.”
The move to eliminate the rating system follows Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’ decision in January to eliminate use of the word “man” in any Navy or Marine Corps job titles. The Marines have removed “man” from 19 occupational titles but were, as yet, unable to find suitable gender-neutral terms for “rifleman” or “mortarman.”
Rather than undertake the tedious task of creating gender-neutral terms for dozens of ratings, including “Yeoman” or “Hospital Corpsman,” the Navy went further than the Marines and scrapped the entire rating system, opting instead for a rank and job classification system similar to those used by the Army and Air Force.
From now on, sailors in the lowest pay grades of E-1 to E-3 will simply be called “seamen,” a term for which Mabus acknowledged he could find no good gender-neutral substitute. Pay grades E-4 to E-6 “will be called ‘Petty Officer Third/Second/First Class’ as appropriate, and senior enlisted pay grades of E-7 through E-9 will be called ‘Chief, Senior Chief, or Master Chief’ depending on their pay grade,” according to a Sept. 29 message to all Navy personnel.
The history of the Navy’s complex enlisted classification system goes back to the Royal Navy of the 18th century, when it was rare for a sailor to change ships, according to the U.S. Naval Institute, “and knowing what job a sailor performed aboard was the most important identifier.”
The power of such an historic tradition showed as many sailors voiced frustration with the change.
“Respectfully this is the stupidest decision ever,” wrote one commenter on the Navy Times Facebook page.
The day of the announcement, someone started a petition at whitehouse.gov asking President Barack Obama to overturn the policy.
“One by one, current leadership continues to erode the very things that set the Navy apart from the other services,” the petition states. As of Oct. 5, the petition had garnered nearly 61,000 signatures of the 100,000 needed by Oct. 29 to win a response from the White House.
— by Michael Cochrane