YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan -- One month after being cast out of the Navy because his career field was overmanned, the Recruit Training Command called Robert Van back with a plea -- come back, we don't have enough sailors like you. But there was a catch -- Van's contract would only be guaranteed for two years, which would leave him looking for another job about three years short of his 20-year retirement eligibility. Van was one of nearly 3,000 sailors laid off, or in Navy parlance, "involuntarily separated," as a result of the former Enlisted Retention Board's mandate to thin the ranks in 31 overmanned job fields by September 2012. Yet, less than a year later, the Navy found itself thousands of sailors below its congressionally mandated strength, so it boosted recruiting by 6,000 sailors per year and shelled out incentive pay to make up in an attempt to make up for the shortage, especially in undermanned sea rates. The seemingly contradictory actions left former sailors -- and at least one congressman -- to question whether the service made a mistake in cutting so many experienced sailors in the first place. Perhaps in an effort to right the ship, so to speak, the Navy is now offering some sailors a chance to put the uniform back on. What it isn't doing, however, is offering sailors like Van -- who by service evaluation standards was among the best at what he did -- a chance to come back on a permanent basis. "Oh yeah, I'd come back," said Van, who was a firearms instructor at the Navy's boot camp prior to being separated. "It was always my goal to make chief. But I don't want to quit the job I have now, which is treating me well, just to tell them to call me back in two more years." Stars and Stripes spoke with several former sailors separated by the board, some of whom shared personnel evaluations that showed them rated among the Navy's best. The stories they told portrayed multiple disconnects between Navy personnel decisions made in Washington and the realities aboard ships and in recruiting offices. The most glaring disconnect revolved around a message from "Big Navy" to sailors in overmanned rates to consider changing to less crowded job fields. In 2011, high sailor retention resulting from the poorly performing economy had nearly halted promotions in several areas. For example, among 1,307 operations specialists in the E-5 pay grade, only 22 were promoted that year. What sailors didn't know at the time of that message was that switching jobs might have been the only way to save their careers. Multiple sailors who spoke with Stars and Stripes said they were told their jobs were safe, and they didn't need to worry about the upcoming retention board. The Navy in Washington is concerned with worldwide balance, their commands told them. At the ship level, however, supervisors are most concerned about having the best sailors available to them in their areas of expertise, so that their departments run best. "My command told me, ‘Don't even worry about it, they're looking for bad sailors,'" Van said of his 2011 command aboard the USS George Washington, where he served as the engineering department's leading petty officer. "I never thought once about [ERB]." Shawn Raymond, also a former USS George Washington sailor who learned he would be separated just after Thanksgiving 2011, heard a similar story. "My chain of command always said, ‘You're a good sailor, we need you in this rate. Don't worry about the ERB,'" recalled Raymond, whose last evaluation placed him among the top 20 percent in his job field aboard the aircraft carrier. Raymond now works as a civilian contractor in Yokosuka's shipyard. It's a living, but he said it barely pays enough to support his wife and children. "I'd go back to [active duty], I'm ready," said Raymond, who is now in the Navy's Individual Ready Reserve. "I'm always ready." To make matters worse, by the time sailors were notified they have been selected for separation through ERB, the Navy had already closed the hatch on any chance of them switching career fields. The Chief of Naval Personnel's office declined a Stars and Stripes request to speak with a senior officer about the service's personnel strategy. However, Navy public affairs officials issued a statement explaining the ERB and reiterating the possibilities for ERB-affected sailors to rejoin. "Former Sailors who are interested in returning to Active Duty can meet with a recruiter to discuss active-duty prospects," spokeswoman Lt. Hayley Sims stated. "Force balance remains critical; we continue to match potential recruits, even those who have previously served in the Navy, with Navy job requirements." Sailors who were laid off by the retention board received RE-R1 honorable discharges, meaning that in theory, they should be able to re-enlist with a recruiter. However, some sailors say this is yet another case of the disconnect between official policy and on-the-ground truth. Multiple sailors said most recruiters assume that because they were involuntarily separated, they must have done something wrong. Van said a recruiter in the Chicago area wouldn't even give him a look. "Do you know what the recruiter told me?" Van asked. "'Yeah, you were ERB'ed, so we can't really talk to you.' My wife called another recruiter in Kenosha on my behalf and was told the same thing. It put her in tears." Raymond periodically receives emails that advertise opportunities to rejoin, but they often carry restrictions. He recently inquired about an active duty billet in Washington D.C., only to be rejected because he did not live in the area. Raymond said he would have gladly moved, as he had done for the Navy throughout his career. Meanwhile, the Navy continues to work its at-sea sailor deficit, which was around 7,000 at the start of the fiscal year, according to a transcript of Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert's May 7 congressional testimony. It will reach its goals of 95 percent manning and a 90 percent "fit" in terms of expertise by October, Greenert said, by adding new recruits and offering re-enlistment bonuses in undermanned areas. Rep. Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican who represents many sailors in the Hampton Roads area, wrote a letter to Greenert on May 9, asking him to consider re-enlisting the ERB-separated sailors and saving money on the recruiting increase. Rigell wrote that after speaking with some of the sailors, he learned they "were given poor advice" about their careers. "Some could have cross-rated, but were told to stay in their rates and that ERB would not affect them due to the quality of their records," Rigell wrote. "By re-enlisting former sailors who were solid performers the Navy would not have to spend the money and resources needed for basic training. Rather, it could focus on getting these sailors into their new rates and producing for the Navy." Greenert has not yet responded to the letter, a spokeswoman with Rigell's office said Friday. Even if the Navy suddenly reversed course and tried to get the ERB-affected sailors back, it would find that some of the most talented have no desire to return. "As far as Congress trying to hire me back, the answer is ‘No' in a heartbeat," said Aeron Crouch, whom Stars and Stripes first interviewed as a sailor at Sasebo Naval Base, Japan, in 2012. At the time, Crouch's commanding officer, Capt. Charles Rock, said he was shocked that "the kind of guy you rely on day-in and day-out," as he called Crouch, was being separated. Crouch said he likely would have retired in the Navy. Instead, he is using his GI Bill benefits to attend the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, where he is working toward bachelor degrees in both business administration and marine sciences. Crouch, 28, looks back on his Navy career as a good experience, though he still wishes that the separation process were more transparent. No transcripts were made of ERB deliberations, and the sailors chosen will probably never know why they lost their jobs. "In a way, I am thankful for the boot in the ass to get my life together, or started, rather," Crouch said. "It's just the way they did it that leaves a sour taste in my mouth."
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