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CHIPS Articles: A Conversation with Vice Adm. John G. Cotton

A Conversation with Vice Adm. John G. Cotton
Chief of Navy Reserve, Commander Navy Reserve Force
By CHIPS Magazine - January-March 2008
Vice Admiral Cotton graduated from the U. S. Naval Academy in June 1973 with a degree in aerospace engineering. Earning his wings in October 1974, he became his family's third generation pilot as his father is a naval aviator and his grandfather flew with the Lafayette Flying Corps in World War I.

He became a commercial airline pilot and a Navy Reservist in 1980. Following Senate confirmation in October 2003, Admiral Cotton took a leave of absence from American Airlines to serve as Chief of Navy Reserve and Commander, Navy Reserve Force.

After hearing Vice Adm. Cotton address a large defense conference about the challenges and solutions to recruiting the future force, CHIPS asked him to share his vision for the Navy Reserve with our readers in a series of conversations.

CHIPS: You gave some astonishing statistics about the number of young adults that are ineligible for military service because of drug use, poor education, physical health and criminal activity. What are your thoughts about how to attract the relatively small pool of young adults from which industry is also recruiting?

Vice Adm. Cotton: We have done research on the 17-24 year-old recruiting market, and 72 percent are not qualified or propensed to serve in the military. Along with America's employers, we are all targeting the same 28 percent of qualified young adults.

I also read an article a few weeks ago that contained some disturbing predictions about our future. Out of 100 eighth-graders in the United States, 68 will graduate from high school, and out of the same 100, only 18 will graduate from college. And of those 18, only two will graduate with a technical degree.

However, in spite of these challenges, we still manage to attract and retain very high quality people. We are meeting our recruiting goals, both active and reserve, and effectively manning the fleet. We are constantly studying new initiatives and opportunities to recruit the right people for the right jobs.

Instead of being concerned with age restrictions and other limitations of the past, we focus on finding specific skill sets and high moral standards. For example, you recently published an article about a new Navy Reserve officer, Lt. Jim Reilly, who is an astronaut and flew a mission in space at age 45.

Our current paradigm suggests you must be able to retire with a pension by age 62. Because such rules were written 50 years ago, we cannot hire a 43 year-old Microsoft certified computer technician because he is 'too old' I don't think that's the case, and if talented people want to serve with us in the Navy Reserve, we must make every effort to enable them to serve and REserve.

Instead of a 20-year career with perfect attendance, we are going to build a continuum of service where you might serve in the Navy for four, six or eight years, transition to the civilian sector with an 'off-ramp' to the Reserve Component (RC), with options to return via an 'on-ramp' back to active service. We are going to change our benefits and our compensation so that the Navy will be a viable choice for someone if they want to come back, accelerate their life, and be part of something bigger than themselves.

CHIPS: I read about the USNS Comfort's humanitarian mission to Latin America and the comments of the volunteers about how rewarding their experiences were. Many of the volunteers were baby boomers eager for adventure and to do something that makes a difference.

Vice Adm. Cotton: I remind people that we never retire. We all serve until the last breath we take and especially (like you said) the boomers who have financial means and want to give back because they are thankful for what they have. Many people call Comfort and Mercy the most powerful ships in the world because they sail to heal. Just the sight of one of these ships, painted white with a large red cross, pulling into port, gives hope to people.

For example, during Comfort's deployment to El Salvador, nurses from Bethesda Naval Medical Center experienced a surprise reunion when they encountered an Operation Iraqi Freedom Salvadoran veteran that they cared for months before.

Stories like this one have been showcased in several magazines, journals and newspapers because they illustrate the positive and lasting impact that humanitarian missions have on building international relationships.

CHIPS: One of the struggles in the Navy is in increasing bandwidth and providing the same sort of cutting-edge technology that young adults have at home.

Vice Adm. Cotton: That's a great point, but I will tell you that because network-centric warfare is rapidly developing and bandwidth is a limited resource, we must better prioritize our own use of it to maximize our effectiveness in the cyber-battlefield. Because our advanced platforms depend upon the ready use of bandwidth, commanders must be able to rapidly transmit bits of information both from the ground to the warfighter and from the warfighter to ground stations, directly to weapons, and now to unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs.

What this means to young adults is that they will in fact have access to the cutting-edge technology that they desire and will be using it in defense of our nation.

CHIPS: I've heard the Chief of Naval Research, Rear Admiral Bill Landay speak about the crisis in recruiting specifically for math and engineering skills. Do you think it requires a different approach to attract these young people?

Vice Adm. Cotton: I do. In the past, there was a never-ending supply of high school or college graduates that joined as enlisted personnel or officers. They would serve with perfect attendance for 20 to 30 years, and when they went on to do something else, there would be another person in the pipeline. I think we are going to have to evolve into a military service where we look for desirable skill sets rather than the continuous military service model that we have now, and more importantly, develop flexible policies and incentives designed to retain such capabilities.

My daughter is a critical care nurse at a private hospital, and is also a lieutenant junior grade in the Navy Reserve. She provides operational support at Bethesda Naval Hospital in the ICU and cares for wounded warriors, and is always telling me, 'Dad, I want to do more by serving on the Comfort, at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, or go to Baghdad.'

Policy revisions, which would permit more frequent and shorter deployments, would increase an individual's propensity to serve, and at the same time, furnish the member with a resume-building experience.

CHIPS: Can you tell me about the role that the Reserve force is fulfilling in the war on terror?

Vice Adm. Cotton: Our Navy REserve Force enables our Sailors to serve at home and away, predictably and periodically. We are about 70,000 strong, and while about a third of them do the minimum (39 days of service per year), another third do 39 to 100 days a year, and the other 23,000 serve 100 to 365 days a year (including myself).

That's what we are doing in the Pentagon now, figuring out how to best utilize all of these good people, rely on their volunteerism and if necessary, call them up once involuntarily. After that, many come back because they like what we do.

The Navy Reserve prefers six- to seven-month deployments because it matches with the deployments of our great Marines and strike groups. We then come back for about five equal periods or about three years of rest or 'dwell' time, and then go do it again.

With our new Maritime Strategy, the Navy has been leading the way in several areas, one being civil affairs. After the shooting stops, we need people that can assist in nation-building. Our provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) are well-known in Afghan and Iraqi theaters for their ability to rebuild housing, schools and even dig wells in villages ravaged by terrorist fighting.

This is what we are going to be doing in the future and the civilian skill sets resident in the Reserve Force are ideal to carry out these essential functions. The challenge is in striking a balance to share these people with their families and their employers on a predictable and periodic basis as we surge them for the global war on terror.

We are rebuilding the riverine force that was first used in Vietnam. We now have three riverine squadrons, and although they are being employed using different tactics and equipment, they are having the same desired effect; securing waterways and access to key infrastructure.

We have had some great successes. Over 300 of our talented EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare officers (EWOs) have deployed with various Army units in Afghanistan and Iraq to teach the soldiers electronic warfare concepts. Their 'embedded' efforts enable the teams to defeat improvised explosive devices. These IED task forces have been augmented by Navy pilots and flight officers, and they have saved lives.

These are a few examples of the different ways that the Reservists fit in predictably, periodically and sometimes, on a moment's notice.

CHIPS: The Reserve force is more a part of the Navy than ever before. At one time, some Reservists felt that they were second-class citizens because they were not serving full-time on active duty.

Vice Adm. Cotton: If you recall our Navy history, we were established in 1915, but our modern Reserve Force was not started until 1953. After World War II, we had literally millions of talented and skilled warriors return home and helped build our great nation. In the periods after the Korean War and Desert Storm, we expected a peace dividend, so we weren't spending as much on the military force as we once did, and we were caught short.

We didn't have cell phones, we didn't have e-mail and we couldn't find people with the right skill sets, so as the Korean War was winding down, people looked at the threats from the Soviet Union and decided that we needed to build a large strategic reserve to serve in case we needed to pursue a large-scale war. We used that model well for 40 years.

Post 9/11, we remain vulnerable here at home, and we all realize that we might get hit again. We also know that among the first responders will be our Guardsmen and Reservists. They are essential to homeland defense and disaster assistance.

When the bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, the first responders were Reservists and emergency preparedness liaison officers. Just recently during Hurricane Dean, military assets were on the move. Along with local and state resources, the first people to take action are Reservists because they are already living in these communities, and with their many years of experience, they are the best prepared citizens to respond.

As we tell them often, today's busy Navy Reservists have three missions. Their primary job revolves around increasing and augmenting our Navy's warfighting capabilities. Requirements that are predictable and periodic can easily and affordably be filled by our ready RC Sailors. Second, Reservists will be key players both in homeland security and defense. By aligning our capabilities and shaping our force to support the missions of U.S. Northern Command, Reservists have the skills that will not only improve security at home, but will enable active forces to take the fight to the enemy and win the 'away' game.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, every Sailor acts as a service ambassador and recruiter in every town in America. The broad distribution of these Sailors provides a constant and visible reminder to citizens in every state, and especially in the nation's heartland, that the Navy is on watch, providing them with unmatched capabilities in the maritime domain, as well as educating and calling our young people to serve our nation. This affiliation with 'Main Street USA' and the fabric of our nation is something else that money cannot buy, and is a mission that the Navy Reserve embraces.

We have some cultural issues to work through as we integrate, and we are, but let's face it, our ID cards all say Navy and we are all Sailors serving in a more ready and capable Total Force. All Sailors serve 24/7/365 as we never 'turn off' honor, courage and commitment. Through the service we provide and the value at which we provide it, we [Navy Reserve] are not 'second-class citizens.' Quite the opposite, we are indispensable to the security of the United States.

CHIPS: Can you talk more about the unique problems of the Reserve Force and shaping it for the future?

Vice Adm. Cotton: Overall, we are doing well. The Reserve Force works much like how big business operates today. You have a core of people that are there every day, the active component, but you surge at certain times with contractors or specialists that come in on 90-day contracts. That's where we come in. Most of our Reserve Sailors have fleet experience, so they fit in well. They also have important and relevant civilian skill sets and always bring a high degree of energy, attitude and enthusiasm.

That being said, we can do better in educating our top Sailors transitioning from the active component that continuing their careers in the Navy Reserve is rewarding and valuable. Through constant communication, we can help them realize that the Navy Reserve affords them the balance between life, work and service to country. The good news is, we are making tremendous strides in this regard and are also arming our recruiters with the tools necessary to retain our Navy veterans.

CHIPS: You talked about the need for nation-building and high-tech skills. Is it possible to recruit for such a variety of needs?

Vice Adm. Cotton: When someone walks into a recruiting center, it is our job to see how they can best serve. Provided they have energy, enthusiasm and are physically fit, we can guarantee them all the training they need to succeed in a field that excites them. Additionally, because so many options are available for our top performers, we can also allow them to change rates during service.

CHIPS: Admiral, thank you very much. Any closing comments?

Vice Adm. Cotton: We are all Americans, we all put on camouflage, and we all look the same. If you look at a Navy uniform, it says 'U.S. Navy'; if you look at an Army uniform, it says 'U.S. Army.' And it's the same for the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Marines and U.S. Defense Department civilians. What is the common operative word in all of these organizations?

It's 'US' or 'We the People.' The services may be divided by cultures, budgets and traditions, but they are working together extremely well toward a common goal of preserving our freedom and democracy. It doesn't matter what service you are from, it's about what you are doing with your individual talents during that 18-hour workday, seven days a week, especially while deployed.

People need to sometimes be reminded of why the pace of operations is so intense, and why we are engaged in global military operations. I think about it every single day in our Pentagon office on the fourth deck on the fourth corridor. This office was destroyed on 9/11, and American Airlines flight 77 hit the building right here. I knew the flight crew on the airplane and many people in the building that day. My good friend and mentor, retired Rear Adm. 'Bud' Flagg, was in the back of that airplane with his wife.

We remind people all the time that there are 192 countries in the world plus the Vatican, and that we are on the ground in about 130 of them helping others to build and be free. There are about 112 constitutions in the world, but there is only one that starts with the word 'We' and that's ours, 'We the people.' Everyone is free and equal here, and there is no other place like this. For 232 years, perhaps our greatest export to deserving nations has been our people in uniform. Our Sailors, Airmen, Soldiers and Marines are essential because they advocate for their freedom. We offer hope.

Highlights of COMFORT's Mission
• 98,658 patients treated
• 32,322 patients immunized
• 122,245 pharmaceuticals dispensed
• 24,242 pairs of glasses dispensed
• 1,170 surgeries performed
• 17,772 veterinary encounters
• 386,217 Total patient encounters

Today's Navy Reserve

Currently, the Navy Reserve represents 20 percent of the Navy's total assets. The Navy Reserve Force consists of the Ready Reserve, the Standby Reserve and the Retired Reserve, in total numbering nearly 700,000 men and women.


The Ready Reserve is made up of the Selected Reserve Forces and the Individual Ready Reserve.

Selected Reserve Forces

The Selected Reserve, or SELRES, is the Navy's primary source of immediate mobilization manpower and represents those Reservists who are paid, either as weekend drillers or who serve as Full Time Support (FTS) on active duty status in the training and administration of the Navy Reserve Force program.

Individual Ready Reserve

The Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) consists of those members of the Ready Reserve who are not in the Selected Reserve. Limitation of available pay billets, absence of drilling units within commuting distance, conflicting employment, and other factors prevent some Reservists from participating in the Selected Reserve.


The Standby Reserve consists of Reservists who have transferred from the Ready Reserve after fulfilling certain requirements established by law.


The Retired Reserve-Inactive consists of Reservists who are drawing retired pay or are qualified for retired pay upon reaching age 60.

– Jan. 3, 2008

Vice Adm. John G. Cotton
NORFOLK, Va. – Oct. 15, 2007 – Sailors man the rails as Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) pulls pierside into Norfolk Naval Station. Comfort is wrapping up a four-month humanitarian deployment to Latin America and the Caribbean providing medical treatment in 12 countries. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Lolita M. Lewis.
NAVAL SUPPORT ACTIVITY BAHRAIN – July 25, 2007 – Vice Adm. John G. Cotton, Commander of the Navy Reserve Force, answers a question posed during an all hands call at Naval Support Activity Bahrain. Cotton was in Bahrain as part of his sixth visit to the Fifth Fleet area of responsibility. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class David Hamilton.
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