Navy Dads

Moment of Truth

Eric Maisel, an 18-year-old Montana native, stood up to confess that he had been issued four traffic tickets--and not three as his Navy recruit forms indicated. Another youth, an 18-year-old Oregon native, his face riddled with acne, said he had stolen a tube of Clearasil four years ago.

One by one, 65 of 80 new recruits--just shorn--marched or stumbled forward in a recent exercise, ready to confess sins that ranged from occasional drug use to unpaid fines.

It was their final farewell to the civilian world. It was the Moment of Truth, a new exercise meant to screen Navy recruits who reach boot camp and to offer a chance to confess to past drug or excessive alcohol use, as well as crimes and medical ailments. Navy officials hope this exercise--being tried for the first time this year at training facilities across the nation--will reduce attrition in the 8-week boot camp and save money by sending home "inappropriate" youths instead of training them only to dismiss them later.

"Recruit, do not play with your future by keeping your mouth closed," ordered Master Chief Petty Officer Michael J. Crance, as he addressed fledgling recruits, all straining to sit up straight and keep their eyes open at 6:30 a.m. "If you have withheld information, tell us now."

Crance's script and delivery are compelling. He speaks deliberately, staring evenly at his audience of bleary-eyed young men. Word has spread around the base that any recruit who speaks one-on-one with Crance, a fatherly figure with piercing blue eyes, should bring a box of tissues and be prepared to use it.

Modeled after a Marine exercise, the screening effort--part bluff and bluster--is a last ditch attempt to catch all recruits who might have fudged on their applications, fibbed to their recruiters or just plain erred on the numerous forms. It's also an attempt to enhance recruiters' accountability since officials can find out almost immediately if they've been saddled with an inappropriate recruit, someone with a criminal or mentally troubled past.

"Attrition (from boot camp) is occurring within the first couple of days rather than several weeks into it," said Rear Adm. Henry C. McKinney, commander, Navy Recruiting Command in Washington. McKinney said he began the exercise in February as part of series of efforts to stem attrition, which has dropped from 15% to 9%.

The exercise also helps preserve a sense of a company and avoids disrupting the group, officials said.

"When you pull somebody out of the team, you're leaving a hole," said Capt. Bob Leonard of the Naval Recruiting Command. "It's not good for them and it's not good for him either."

For each group, the exercise is identical. Officers read from scripts to ensure that across the county, boot camp enrollees are experiencing the same shock, the same query, the same fatigue. And for "cuff monsters"--a nickname given to new recruits whose Navy-issue pants have not yet been hemmed--the experience can be grueling.

At San Diego's Recruit Training Command last week, a group had arrived the night before from all over the country. Most, like Maisel, had gotten no more than three hours sleep. Their civilian clothes had been replaced by a blue Navy sweat suit. They were ordered to call officers "sir" and told to line up.

Then they marched to the barber shop. Looking pale, bewildered and disheveled, they sat in the chairs as one of three barbers shaved their heads so close that the flesh beneath showed. Mounds of hair piled up on the floor and the youths were ordered back into formation to go upstairs to a small auditorium.

"This is the most dehumanizing thing that happens in boot camp," said Lt. (j.g.) Steve Schueler. "It's hell, they're exhausted. They don't know what's going on. And they're homesick."

In the auditorium, the youngsters are warned to stay awake and to sit up. But for many those two assignments are clearly tough ones. Then on a screen and verbally, they are admonished: "Warning, failure to disclose any information about your enlistment may be punishable by a $10,000 fine and/or five years in prison."

In an interview after the exercise, Capt. Leonard of the Washington-based Naval Recruiting Command, which polices and spot-checks the various boot camps, said that no fine had ever been levied against an individual.

But the bluff is effective. These young men have already been screened several times, by recruiters and others, before they get to boot camp. They have filled out multiple sets of forms meant to separate those who are ineligible for service in the Navy.

The group is asked to stand up and form lines if they have questions or confessions about several different issues, including police records, prior service, dependents, educational records, and medical ailments. Fifty youths immediately stand up.

"As long as you tell the truth, nothing is going to happen," Crance reminds them.


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