U.S. NAVY CHIEF PETTY OFFICER SOFT EPAULETS

There’s probably no rate or rank in any branch of United States Armed Forces that invokes as much discussion, debate, and respect as the Navy’s Chief Petty Officer, or CPO. Part of the reason is the unique, dual role of the CPO. Like all Petty Officers, a CPO serves in a rating, the Naval version the Military Occupational Specialty codes used in the Army and Marines. It takes a Sailor fifteen years on average to reach the rate of CPO, which means CPOs have a vast amount of sheer technical expertise.

But as they acquired that veritable library of technical knowledge, they were also given administrative, managerial, and supervisory duties as they climbed from Petty Officer, Third Class all the way to CPO. Intimately familiar with the nuts-and-bolts shipboard operations and also having proven they can manage Sailors, CPOs are tasked with the training of newly commissioned junior officers. One indication of the great respect that comes with the rate of CPO is the fact that they wear uniforms identical to those of commissioned officers save for the rank insignia.

Before the establishment of the paygrades of E8 (Senior CPO) and E9 (Master CPO) in 1958, it was not uncommon for CPOs to serve for 30 years or even longer. Today, a CPO who hasn’t been promoted to the Senior CPO rate after two dozen years of service is faced with mandatory requirement. (Beyond the Senior CPO and Master CPO rates, the Navy created a Command Master Chief Petty Officer rate in 1995, and twenty years later added the rate of Command Senior Chief Petty Officer.)

Over the years, the Chief Petty Officer has become a legendary fixture aboard Navy ships. If Sailors have any question, the direction for finding an answer is always the same: “Ask the Chief.” Chief Petty Officers have their own shipboard areas—dubbed “Goat Lockers”—that are off-limits not only to enlisted personnel, but also to officers. This is particularly fitting, because CPOs are universally regarded as the indispensable and invaluable link between enlisted personnel carrying out vital, specific ship functions and the officers who oversee the ship’s operations and are responsible for its safety, well-being, and performance.

Besides requisite amounts of service time, high scores on evaluations, and passing exmas to earn NEC qualifications related to their rating, CPOs must also appear before a review board made up of Senior and Master CPOs. These seasoned Sailors have extremely high standards, which makes the promotion from Petty Officer, First Class to CPO one of the most noteworthy in any Sailor’s career.
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