Navy's New MCPON Aims to Be a 'Problem Solver' Amid Suicides, Water Contamination

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy James Honea speaks with sailors.
Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy James Honea speaks with sailors and answers questions during an all-hands call at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, Dec. 14, 2022. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Anna Van Nuys)

The Navy's new top enlisted sailor said he wants to be a problem solver for the fleet in his first remarks to the press since taking office in September of last year.

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy James Honea came out with a clear message to reporters Tuesday at the Navy's annual Surface Naval Association conference, a gathering just minutes from the Pentagon in Virginia.

"Sailors can depend on that out of me ... removing the barriers that prevent them from having a safe and secure place to live and to work and execute their oath of enlistment," Honea said.

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"I do it because I'm passionate, and I care about our people," he added.

The MCPON took the top post in the wake of several incidents such as suicides among the crew of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and potable water contamination on Navy ships, which have exposed serious issues facing some of the service's most junior sailors.

Pay and personnel actions, as well as medical care, are also top concerns for sailors, according to the MCPON.

Honea, who has been in the Navy for 35 years and started his career as a boatswain's mate, comes across in person as a cheerleader for the service members he represents.

"The men and women that are serving in our Navy today are just as capable and willing to defend our way of life and fight for our nation than any generation that's come before them," Honea said. "I have just as much confidence in them that I've had in anyone else that I've ever served with."

The Navy experienced a raft of suicides that went undisclosed until reported on by media outlets. In the spring of 2022, revealed that the George Washington was experiencing a spate of suicides. Then, in the winter, another cluster was discovered at a maintenance center in Norfolk, Virginia.

Last fall, the Navy confirmed that two of its aircraft carriers had discovered contaminated drinking water while they were at sea.

The USS Nimitz had jet fuel in its water supply. Despite early reports that the matter was solved, reports of contamination persisted and accounts of illnesses trickled in. Then, it was discovered the USS Abraham Lincoln's bilges -- a shipboard drainage system -- had leaked into its water.

Both stories were first revealed by social media reports from sailors aboard the two ships.

Honea says that he heard some of these concerns from sailors once he took over the job in September and spent the next four months touring the fleet.

"I think we're pretty aware of some of the problems that are bothering our sailors," he said.

"The top two is timeliness of our pay and personnel actions and then access to quality medical care," Honea said, before adding that "both of those we should be able to execute to an expressed standard."

He said that is what he is now focused on, and those are the issues "you can hold me accountable for."

The backlog of pay and other administrative tasks has been another persistent issue for the Navy this year.

Honea is quick to point out that he "got a lot more good than ... bad" from his conversations with sailors and the Navy is "on a good path" but, nonetheless, "it hurts me that we're not as good as we think we ought to be."

Although Honea doesn't think he has a "unique approach" to solving some of the issues he's heard about, his hope is to use his influence -- one of the most powerful aspects of his new job -- to effect change.

"I don't expect to win everything, but I also don't expect that I'm going to find myself confounded or bitter or frustrated," he said.

"I've got a lot of fleet perspective, I've got a lot of time out in the fleet, and I can bring that to bear. ... I think that our policymakers, our decision-makers, and our lawmakers will understand that, respect that, and take that in."

Honea, the Navy's top chief petty officer, said he recognizes the role his fellow chiefs can have in effecting change in the Navy.

"You've got to protect them and keep them fueled up," he said, referring to the senior enlisted leaders. "You can't just drain them all out."

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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