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Ray Mabus, Longest-Serving Navy Secretary Since World War I, to Retire

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus

The secretary of the Navy will retire within the next year after nearly eight years in office, he confirmed Tuesday to a congressional panel.

Addressing the House Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on defense for an annual hearing on the sea service budget, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the hearing would be his eighth and last before the committee.

Mabus, 67, has held the office since May 19, 2009 -- serving 2,478 days in office under four different defense secretaries. He did not say during the hearing when exactly he planned to step down.

The last Navy secretary to serve as long as Mabus was Josephus Daniels, who served 2,922 days under President Woodrow Wilson from 1913 to 1921.

"For me, leading the Department of the Navy is the greatest honor of my life," Mabus said.

"I couldn't be more proud of our sailors, our Marines and our civilians. I'm also proud of the many steps we've taken and the changes we've made to try to ensure ... the Navy and the Marine Corps in the future remains the greatest expeditionary fighting force the world has ever known."

The former Democratic governor of Mississippi, Mabus forged a reputation in the Navy as a maverick who prioritized social changes and environmental issues and did not shy away from unilateral actions, controversial decisions and conflict with service counterparts.

Soon after assuming his current post, Mabus announced the creation of a "Great Green Fleet" as part of a series of ambitious energy-saving initiatives for the Marine Corps and the Navy that included the goal to get the department to source half of its energy from alternative sources by 2020.

A 2012 debut of the concept at the Rim of the Pacific exercise stoked furor in Congress when it was discovered that the Navy had spent $12 million for biofuels that cost around $26 per gallon. The exercise resulted in new legislation requiring that bulk purchases of alternative fuels be competitively priced. This year, the Great Green Fleet finally launched on a beef-fat fuel blend that cost $2.05 per gallon.

Mabus also made waves with a series of moves aimed at tearing down gender barriers within the Navy and Marine Corps.

He spearheaded a number of controversial uniform changes aimed at making male and female sailors look at similar as possible. Last October, the Navy rolled out a sweeping list of phased uniform updates that included unisex dress covers, female "crackerjack" dress blues, and a new women's version of the dress whites uniform. This year, the Naval Academy will do away with women's skirts for graduation in favor of pants uniforms.

The Marine Corps is also adopting a gender-neutral version of its dress blues uniform.

"In the Navy and in the Marine Corps, we are moving towards uniforms that don't divide us as male or female, but rather unite us as sailors or Marines," Mabus said, according to Navy Times reports from the time.

In recent months, the issue of women serving in combat has highlighted a widening rift between Mabus and Marine Corps leadership. The Marines were the only service to request an exception to a Pentagon-wide mandate opening previously closed combat jobs to women, citing a Marine Corps study that showed teams and squads with women were more injury-prone and performed slower and less accurately than all-male teams.

Mabus publicly disparaged the study, accusing the Marine Corps of presupposing a negative outcome for women and of failing to recruit physically capable women to participate in the research.

Later, he ordered the Marine Corps to make job titles gender-neutral and train genders together in boot camp, sounding a warning note to Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller not to "unreasonably delay or prevent the execution of a policy imperative."

The memo reportedly stoked a heated conflict between the two men. Ultimately, Neller presented Mabus with a brief on how the Marines were currently training recruits, rather than a plan to further gender-integrate training, according to congressional testimony and sources with knowledge of the briefing.

The drawbacks of Mabus' tendency to effect unilateral change without coordinating with other military leaders can best be seen, perhaps, in the series of evolutions that have taken place regarding maternity leave for Marines and sailors.

Last July, Mabus announced he was tripling maternity leave for the department of the Navy from six weeks to 18, citing a desire to retain more female service members and acknowledge the needs of military families.

But at the end of January, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced he was implementing a 12-week maternity leave policy for all the services -- a six-week increase for the Army and the Air Force, but a six-week cut for the Navy and Marine Corps, except for currently pregnant sailors and Marines, who will be honored under the old policy.

In testimony Tuesday, Mabus declined to criticize the Pentagon and its rebuff to his policy change, but maintained his support for an 18-week maternity leave offering.

"We lose twice as many women as men between about the six-year mark to the 12-year mark in both services. In a dual-military couple, almost always, it's the women that leave," he said. "If we keep that nine-year sailor, we don't have to replace that sailor with a brand-new recruit."

Amid controversy and conflict, Mabus has many supporters in Congress who approve of his progressive policies and ability to affect change.

At the hearing, Defense Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican from New Jersey, saluted Mabus for his years at the helm of the Navy.

"There's a cake in your future...celebrating your eight years of service and dedication to our nation," he said.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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