If you can’t fight a fire, you’re not going to be a sailor

Saturday, April 18th, 2020

Discussions about reforming Navy boot camp began in 2016, but they picked up urgency following a pair of deadly collisions at sea in 2017:

Officers and administrators have rewritten 60% of boot camp’s two-month curriculum, tightening standards and emphasizing fundamentals like firefighting, damage control such as plugging leaks and day-to-day equipment repairs, and standing watch.

“If you can’t fight a fire, you’re not going to be a sailor,” says Rear Adm. Jamie Sands, the Navy SEAL who was tapped in spring 2019 to command several training programs, including boot camp. “We’ll remediate you, we’ll try to get you there, but if you can’t get there, you can’t be a sailor.” Adm. Sands keeps a copy of the Navy’s report on his desk at all times to remind him that when the service sends poorly trained sailors out to sea, lives are lost.


Recruits now receive 177 hours of hands-on learning during their eight weeks, up from 160 hours in 2017. Classroom instruction fell, as elements were removed, condensed or pushed to subsequent training periods.

In each of the 13 barracks that house recruits at Great Lakes, “we literally tore out computer labs, removed all the desks and turned them into ship decks to practice basic war-fighting competencies,” says Adm. Sands.

Commanders, who lead boot-camp divisions of around 88 recruits and are responsible for their performance, now assess their divisions’ weaknesses and use blocks of time once devoted to online learning to have their recruits drill skills like patching pipes or tying knots to anchor and moor a ship.


Recruits spend two days inside the U.S.S. Marlinspike, a facility at Great Lakes containing a life-size replica of the deck of a surface ship and a classroom outfitted with ropes and bollards, the posts to which ships are tied. There, recruits practice tying lines, relaying orders, getting a ship under way and bringing it back to port. The only thing missing is water.

U.S.S. Marlinspike

To graduate, recruits must pass an all-night test called “battle stations,” proving their skills in an environment designed to look and feel like the deck and hull of a warship. As water floods through a burst pipe, they must identify and repair the leak and move boxes of ammunition to dry storage. In another area, an explosion is followed by smoke and alarms; dummies stand in for sailors with injuries, some fatal. The recruits put out fires and extract the wounded.

Battle stations used to be more of an exercise with coaching from instructors; it is now an evaluation of skills, and failure just before the finish line isn’t uncommon, officers say. On rare occasions, commanders fail entire divisions if recruits don’t display teamwork. Some who fail get one chance to retake the test with another division; others are discharged.


  1. McChuck says:

    If this were actually true, there would be no women entering naval service.

    Only one in twenty men can’t pass the physical tests.

    Only one in twenty women can.

  2. Freddo says:

    Perhaps all the diversity training was not as mission critical as various political leadership made it out to be.

  3. Albion says:

    They always say fire at sea is a sailor’s worst enemy.

  4. Silence Dogood says:

    I heartily endorse the changes. I served in the Navy, went to boot camp at “Great Mistakes,” and clearly remember USS MARLINESPIKE. Having been both through combat and a fire at sea, realistic training that combines the two would have been welcome.

    An after the fact recommendation, I admit.

    So long as the potential for failure exists, and its consequences enforced, then this training will prove effective at preparing Sailors for emergencies.

    This reform’s effectiveness will weaken over time, but for now, it can only help.

  5. Christopher says:

    “Advanced civilization moves everything online, forgets basic skills like sailing ships, fighting fires, stopping pandemics, canning food.”

  6. Hoyos says:

    Navy has brilliant idea…teach sailors to actually sail.

  7. Kirk says:

    If they’re actually embracing accountability and high standards, well… I’m impressed.

    Based on experience, however? I rather doubt they’re actually shitcanning the unfit the way they should be. The female graduation rates alone tell us they probably aren’t. Friend of mine was a Navy Chief; it was his despair that the brass had thrown out the standards when it came to damage control, and that there were so many on board who could not hack the basic tasks like moving pumps and other damage control equipment. He made a dire prediction that we’d start losing ships because of crap like putting females who didn’t have the upper body strength to do things like lift up pumps and haul hoselines into key damage control positions.

    So, if they’re actually doing this sort of thing, and discharging the incapable and inept, all to the good. I somehow suspect that they really aren’t, however–If they were, we’d be hearing all about how the sexist Navy was destroying women’s careers. Which, I’ll note, we aren’t.

    If our military ever does embrace actual reform, that will be the first sign of it: Massive amounts of bitching by the females who think that the military is a sinecure for them to have cute little careers with, rather than a national defense force vital to the survival of this nation. Don’t hear that? There probably isn’t any real “reform” going on.

  8. Aretae says:

    I’m impressed by the idea, and also impressed by the criticisms of the heft of the idea I see here.

  9. TGWATY says:

    I went through Great Lakes training in 1987. My son went through summer of 2019. And I was astounded by the quality of the training they receive now. AND with the discipline and good attitudes they imparted. My son was genuinely inspired by his division commanders. This was a far cry from 1980s bootcamp, which really existed only to stress us and weed out the people who shouldn’t be there. What training we got was merely formality.

  10. Kirk says:

    The question of “Is this quality military training…?” is one that has historically only been answered by the harsh reality of war.

    Me? I look at the attrition/washout rate. If there is one…

    Not everyone is suited to military life, or will be able to function well under duress. The training is meant to weed those men and women out, mentally and physically. The recruiters, I’m sad to say, will take anything with a pulse that can pass the qualification gates, so don’t look to that as a sieve. Initial Entry Training should be a place where that winnowing takes place, a metaphoric Lantern of Diogenes. When you look at the passage rates, you can get a fair idea if it is actually doing the job. Absent that, you get to wait until later in the serviceman’s career, by which point you’re also going to start losing other people who relied on that weak link.

    It is an ugly thing, but I would rather take the approach that you’re better off weeding them out early on, before they fail and take others with them.

    Honestly can’t appraise the current Army or Navy training, but I remain ever suspicious of anything like that which does not include a significant rejection rate. There has to be consequence for failure, accountability for performance–And, if soldier or sailor does not perform to standard, standards can not be relaxed in favor of passing them deeper into the system. High passage rates indicate low standards, especially with today’s couch potato recruiting grounds.

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  12. Linda S. Fox says:

    It occurs to me that some professions don’t receive that useful training.
    - Cops – they learn to fire a gun and use the various crowd-control mechanisms, but never really practice working as a team, on using non-violent ways of diffusing conflict, or otherwise managing the work they will be doing most of their time on the job.
    - Teachers – what to do when a fight breaks out (and, more importantly, recognizing pre-fight behavior, and preventing the fight from happening), how to triage the classes – who can work independently, who is just NOT going to put the effort in, and who are the group that needs most of your time, as they will benefit from your help. How to use the school rules effectively (for example, writing a discipline referral that gets acted on), and managing classroom behavior/hallway behavior. Would be useful for principals, too.

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