In the U.S. Navy, the Chief’s Mess is the cornerstone of every unit. It’s the vital link between the lower enlisted and the higher echelons of the command. In order to make it into the mess, a sailor must be selected for the rank of chief petty officer out of their peer group and undergo the chief’s season, or what is currently called the chief’s initiation. 

Ever since the U.S. military was established, there has been a need for a link between the enlisted and the officer ranks. Junior enlisted don’t have the experience, but non-commissioned officers do. In the Navy, that transition into leadership is achieved during the season because of the senior NCOs that host the informal training.

“I think it’s extremely important. I hope it never goes away. I think it’s changed a lot over the years,” said Chief Petty Officer Blake Midnight, who has served in the Navy for the past 17 years and counting. “Gone are the days putting sailors through things without a lesson behind them. Pretty much everything now is done with a purpose, to do some training or there’s some sort of benefit gained out of every evolution.”

How a sailor becomes a chief

For anyone outside of the Navy, trying to understand rates, ratings, and rank in the fleet is no simple task. You almost have to serve in the Navy to have a strong understanding of how it all works. 

Chief petty officers have a lot of influence in the Navy, but with great power comes great responsibility. Achieving E-7 is the first step of a journey that could someday lead to becoming the master chief petty officer of the Navy, the equivalent of the sergeant major of the army. 

Petty officers must have a top score on the enlisted Navy-wide advancement exam after meeting all the requirements to make them eligible for promotion to Chief Petty Officer. Then, they attend a board of chiefs from their rate, some from outside their rate, and an officer chairing the board. 

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Earning your promotion is very competitive, and selects are picked by their own peer group. If they are selected, a sailor will receive their chief petty officer rank. But, to be recognized as a chief by their fellow sailors, they must go through the chief’s season, also called chief’s initiation. It’s a six-week introduction to the chief’s mess and has roots going back to the 1800s.

Sometimes, chiefs don’t make it and aren’t accepted into the chief’s mess, which can inhibit career progression. Though mistakes have been made in the past with hazing, some of the rumors around the season are exaggerated or fabricated. 

“I think it’s important to recognize that there’s always gonna be a lot of emotion around this season,” Midnight said. “The way the Navy is structured with its customs and traditions, achieving chief petty officer is a very big deal to us.”

But, hazing has happened and has left “a bad taste” in the mindset of many sailors. But, Midnight said everything a select is tasked with during today’s chief’s season has a lesson to learn from it, whether it’s prioritizing an impossible list of tasks or making hard decisions that are balanced for mission success and keeping their sailors happy. 

For Midnight, undergoing the informal training is important.  

“It’s just kind of overwhelming, and that’s the idea behind it. It’s stressful because it’s not really possible to get everything done,” Midnight said. “So, the lesson there is to prioritize what has to be done and just do your best. I think it’s I think it’s a vital part of the transition from E-6 to an E-7 or a petty officer to a chief petty officer.”

A Navy combat cameraman filming diving preparation.
Chief Petty Officer Blake Midnight, assigned to Expeditionary Combat Camera, documents equipment preparations before a dive when he was a Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class. (U.S. Navy Photo/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Kevin Outzen)

The chief’s season explained

Retired Senior Chief Petty Officer Jayme Pastoric served in the Navy for 24 years. He saw the transition from informal training that bordered on hazing to more professional but equally difficult initiation training. 

“I think that people became more professional during and after the GWOT. I think a lot of that shenanigans shit that was going on prior to the GWOT started to go away after sailors decided, ‘this isn’t how we win,’” Pastoric said. “We can’t just screw around with these folks. Then tell them, ‘Hey, go and lead sailors at war,’ and think that shit was gonna work out.”

The Navy has made strides to better balance home life and work during the season. Before, sailors would be stuck at work for weeks on end, creating family issues or excessive drinking. Today’s ‘selects’ are given tasks and training scenarios that help mold them into leaders. 

The goal behind the training is that every task and every evolution has a purpose. Midnight and Pastoric said selects earn their welcome into the chief’s mess, but it’s a fine line. If the chiefs put new selects through hell, the selects have no reason to want to be accepted into the mess. 

“It’s very important that a mess has the discipline to evolve during the six-week season along with a select so that when it comes time for acceptance, that person feels good about being accepted,” Midnight said. “They’re not like, ‘Yeah, I’m accepted by a bunch of assholes,’ instead, they know, ‘these are my brothers and sisters now, I made it.’”

Retired Senior Chief Petty Officer Jayme Pastoric after his pinning ceremony
Retired Senior Chief Petty Officer Jayme Pastoric after his pinning ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Jayme Pastoric)

Not all seasons are the same

Most training in the U.S. military has been funded, reviewed, and approved as a formal scope of training, but not the chief’s season. It’s not a Navy-wide standard, but an age-old tradition unique to the senior leadership facilitating it. 

“Every individual command, collaboration command, airwing, special warfare unit or ship — they have their own unique traditions and unique ceremonies for their chief season,” Pastoric said. “I would say some of the consistency across the different commands is the goals. I think the goals would be to create an environment for learning, for growth, a safe environment for failure, and the ability to learn from that failure.”

The chief petty officers that host their command’s season don’t necessarily see each other every day and can lose touch with the other chiefs. But, they must evolve with every iteration of their chief’s season. Selects are determined to make it into the mess, but it’s also a time for everyone to network and grow as a team. 

Pastoric didn’t have the typical season experience. He spent a large majority of his season time in Beirut conducting joint diving operations with the Lebanese military. Only one of Pastoric’s chiefs was with him after he learned he was selected.

“Instead of getting beat like my friends were, I was in Lebanon, doing diving operations,” Pastoric said. “So when I came back like halfway or even three-fourths way through the season, ‘A.’ I didn’t know what was going on. And ‘B.’ everybody was like, depressed and bummed and not having a good time. I was coming back tan and happy.” 

Members of the Lebanese navy and divers from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit One, Company 1-5 conduct diving operations from  Jounieh Naval Base, Lebanon on Aug. 8, 2012. (Photo courtesy of Jayme Pastoric)
Members of the Lebanese Navy and divers from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit One, Company 1-5 conduct diving operations from Jounieh Naval Base, Lebanon on Aug. 8, 2012. (Photo courtesy of Jayme Pastoric)

But when he finished up his joint dive operations, he noticed a change among his fellow chiefs. They were better at working together and more creative with their problem-solving. It’s not about being the “top dog” in their rating but about experiencing failure and overcoming adversity. 

When a sailor has climbed the ranks and is selected as a chief petty officer, it can go to their head. When you fail the impossible tasks given during the season, it’s humbling. 

“I think that’s the main point of it. You need to humble yourself to know that you’re going to be the person in charge of a bunch of sailors, and you’re gonna have to take the heat for when they screw up,” Pastoric said. ”You better humble yourself real quick because not only is it your fault that they fail, but you got to take it on the chin because you’re their leader and show that you’re not going to let that shit roll downhill.” 

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