On social media, the life of an undesignated sailor has been described as miserable, menial or even a mistake.
One sailor, writing in a U.S. Naval Institute publication in 2017, said that he and his undesignated shipmates were "ordered with all the purpose of the cuckoo in a clock" and that they were treated like spare parts that were unnecessary to their ship.
Wilfredo Barrera, a seaman from the destroyer USS Donald Cook, was told he would be "the dog of the Navy" as an undesignated sailor. He was among the more than 70 sailors with no assigned job, or rate, who gathered at naval bases in Jacksonville and Mayport in Florida in February with hopes of shaking off the undesignated title and finding a place in the service.
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"There's definitely a hierarchy," Barrera said as he explained that undesignated sailors are given some of the least desirable jobs on the ship.
Sailors can't continue in the Navy without a rate. If a sailor doesn't find a job by the time they finish their first tour, they're separated from the service.
Among the many traditions, quirks and peculiarities that come with naval service, the Navy's practice of naming undesignated sailors stands out for its direct and potentially negative impact. It also carries a stereotype that the sailors are nothing but disgruntled special warfare dropouts or unmotivated slackers.
It has been linked to poor treatment of former Navy SEAL candidates, who fail to complete the difficult training and then drift with no clear job in the service. Brandon Caserta, a former candidate, took his own life after dropping out of the training and being ridiculed as a "BUD/S dud."
An undesignated sailor, Ryan Mays, was charged by the Navy but acquitted during trial of setting a fire that gutted the warship USS Bonhomme Richard in San Diego in 2020. Prosecutors had claimed he was angry and vengeful about being assigned to deck duty after washing out of the SEAL pipeline, according to court documents from the case.
But the Navy may finally be changing.
The service is reforming its practices and adding more guidelines to help get undesignated sailors paired with jobs. Data provided by the Navy shows that programs set up in the wake of Caserta's death have been making an impact -- undesignated former SEAL candidates dropped by more than half from 2020 to 2021 and appear to have declined even more steeply last year.
Now, officials say that they are close to an inflection point where they can flip the script and turn undesignated sailors from a cautionary tale to a recruiting talking point.
Around 2013, the Navy started to reform and codify the way it deals with its undesignated sailors. It moved away from an approach that put all of the responsibility on the sailor to pass an advancement exam to gain entrance or petition the Navy's personnel management bureaucracy to let them into a community of their choice. This effort became known as the Professional Apprenticeship Career Track -- or PACT -- program.
Among the several changes the PACT program brought about was a more codified and streamlined way for sailors to choose and move into jobs. The program also put a firm time limit on how long sailors could stay undesignated. That, in turn, puts pressure on leaders to engage with the sailors on the major decision that will define their time in the service.
Military.com attended two days of a Navy job fair at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Florida, for the designated sailors on Feb. 1 and 2 -- one of the gatherings the service hopes will ease them into new jobs -- and spoke with almost a dozen attendees about how they came to lose their rates and what they hoped to get out of the event.
The sailors confirmed what is already commonly known in the fleet: Undesignated life is far from easy. Many described having to work long hours at physically demanding jobs like chipping rust, painting large swaths of the ship, cooking and serving food, or any other number of low-skill tasks that a ship demands.
A sailor from the destroyer USS Jason Dunham remarked that they "always joke about how the two hardest working rates on the ship are engineering and 'un-des' seaman."
Ships rely on the roughly 7,000 undesignated sailors -- about 2.5% of all enlisted personnel -- to do the often difficult, dirty jobs, according to Rear Adm. Wayne Baze, the deputy chief of naval personnel, who spoke to Military.com in an interview.
"Almost a third of the work that's going on is not of a specialized nature," Baze said.
Part of the reason the Navy has set up its ships and squadrons that way -- completely unlike any other branch -- is because "we always have a wide range of both specialized and non-specialized tasks that have to get done daily," he said.
Even accounts from official Navy public relations, like this profile of an undesignated sailor turned officer, hint at the difficult life undesignated sailors live.
"Being 'undes' was a quick wakeup call," Ensign Marcia Villavicencio said in the post, before adding that the experience "for sure toughened me up."
A sailor's rate is a key part of their identity on a ship and in the service. Yet, for decades, young sailors could find themselves without one.
Sailors can become undesignated in one of two main ways. They either come into the service but fail to complete the necessary training to achieve that job -- the most common reason -- or they elect to come in without one at the outset.
Attendees at the Mayport conference described losing jobs after dropping out of an initial school after boot camp over grades or they didn't make it through a high-intensity special warfare school. A small handful had other issues, such as a clearance investigation that didn't go through or being chosen to come in without a job in exchange for getting to boot camp faster.
Much of the public attention to undesignated sailors has focused on a relatively small subset: sailors who become undesignated after failing the high-intensity training to become a Navy SEAL.
'BUD/S Duds' Are Disappearing
For years, sailors have reportedly killed themselves after failing to progress in the Navy's training pipeline to become special warfare operators. In 2018, Caserta's story spurred action.
Caserta was an undesignated airman pushing to become an aircrew aviation electrician's mate. He told friends he felt forced to choose from a limited selection of jobs after leaving SEAL training. Adding to the disappointment was the leadership at his new squadron who mocked the young sailor, calling him a "BUD/S dud," and failed to support his efforts to find a new rate.
Caserta eventually died by suicide; in his note, he specifically faulted the Navy's system of sending dropouts undesignated to the fleet. In the note, he asked his parents to "go after the re-rate process" that put him in a job and the command that tormented him.
Late in 2022, The New York Times also profiled sailors who dropped out of the SEAL training pipeline only to end up on ships doing the unsung and grueling work that undesignated sailors are often tasked with accomplishing.
Sean Sutherland, a 26-year-old sailor from the Jason Dunham, was an undesignated seaman who attended the February job fair after dropping out of one of the Navy's special warfare programs.
"My biggest fear was that, I'm 26 [and] I'm gonna be the lowest man on the totem pole; it's gonna suck," he said, but added that his experience was fairly positive.
He told Military.com that one of the sailors in his class had recently graduated from North Carolina State University with a chemical engineering degree and became an undesignated sailor on the USS Nimitz.
But cases like Sutherland's are becoming increasingly rare.
The Navy had 591 sailors move from the SEAL rate in 2020. Of those sailors, 179 went to the fleet as undesignated. The next year, that number fell to 86 sailors out of 713.
Last year, the Navy reported that only three sailors out of 320 went directly to the fleet without a rate -- potentially a major decrease -- though the data for that year is incomplete.
The numbers also suggest that dropouts from the special warfare program are a small fraction of the overall undesignated population of roughly 7,000.
Naval Special Warfare Command attributed this drop to several factors. In 2019, then-chief of naval personnel, Vice Adm. John Nowell, approved a pilot program that made it easier for BUD/S dropouts to get into other jobs in the Navy. Then, in 2020 the command also rebranded its old "X-division" -- the holding unit for disenrolled students -- to "Phoenix Division." The rebrand was part of a greater focus on counseling students who didn't make the cut to highlight the "positive transition" to another Navy rating, spokeswoman Lt. Teresa Meadows said in an email.
Some social media posts also suggest some sailors choose to go undesignated despite being offered another job because of requirements like additional service time commitment.
The program, which was recently expanded, aims to get dropouts to take jobs in rates that are similar to the SEALs -- like Navy diver or explosive ordnance disposal -- or have opportunities to support operators in future billets.
Data provided by the Navy shows aviation rescue swimmer, explosive ordnance disposal technician, and master-at-arms to be some of the most popular choices.
Meadows said that the number of dropouts from 2020 and 2021 showed a "sharp increase" in undesignated assignments for dropouts, a spike that was largely because the Navy closed its training schools due to COVID. Sailors were sent to the fleet undesignated when the courses were shut down. Meadows said the 2022 figures -- just three undesignated sailors -- "are on track and in alignment" with Nowell's plan, which stipulated students get sent undesignated to the fleet only if they had disciplinary issues.
Still, Baze acknowledged that leaders have a role to play in making sure the sailors who do make it to the fleet as undesignated are successful. He said that if a sailor has it "in their minds their dream was killed," then it's the responsibility of "both officer and chief leadership to take that lad or lass under their wings and help them to find a new path."
Baze said that, when he commanded the amphibious assault ship USS America, he made a point of letting his undesignated sailors work with a variety of departments. "I wanted them to be exposed to different conditions and different mentors, no matter what they initially signed on," he said.
Many sailors whom Military.com spoke to at the job fair, as well as previous reporting, have highlighted how much power specific officers or chief petty officers have in influencing the day-to-day life of the sailors under their command.
Caserta's story is a particularly powerful example of the damage that unsupportive leadership can cause, too.
Job Fair Tears of Joy
Since 2013, all undesignated sailors -- from SEAL drops who don't choose a rate to those who volunteered to enlist that way -- are automatically entered into the PACT program.
Under the PACT program, sailors are assigned to a command for two years and, after their first year, they are able to start negotiations for a new rate. To help speed these negotiations along, officers and senior leaders from the Navy's Bureau of Personnel also conduct job fairs like the one Military.com attended. The fairs put the entire bureaucracy into one room and shorten negotiations that normally take days or weeks into just hours.
Jacob Fields, a career counselor aboard a destroyer in Mayport, told Military.com that the program has made it easier for sailors to meet them amid busy work schedules.
One of the key figures behind that part of the program is Randy Miller, a retired master chief petty officer whose passion for the work of matching sailors with jobs is apparent from the moment you start speaking with him.
"People that know me know that this is the most important thing I do ... take care of these youngsters," Miller said. "Their rate is their identity, and that's why I take it to heart."
The job fairs are a spectacle. Sailors shout out their new rates when they lock in orders. Master chiefs mingle about, often joking with each other and the junior sailors who are there picking new jobs. The people who work these events say that there can be tears and joy from sailors who finally find a job in the service.
The event in Mayport drew just over 70 sailors in two days, but a recent fair in Norfolk, Virginia, attracted more than 400 over four.
Barrera, the undesignated sailor who came straight from standing an early morning watch aboard his ship, said that getting a job means "you're not just a seaman -- you have a title to your name."
Perhaps the most remarkable thing to witness at these events is the advice that young and often uncertain sailors get from those much more seasoned.
For example, one sailor at the fair was debating between taking a more intense job -- cryptologist -- that would require him to wait at his command for about a year while his security clearance came through or take something less demanding and make the move right away. He had problems with his command, and he was worried that he'd get himself into trouble amid the wait.
One senior chief called up a cryptologist he knew and let the sailor talk to them. A master chief who also worked in the intelligence community told him about his own experiences. The message was: The wait is worth it.
He ended up going for it.
Other sailors weighed the possibility that a job they chose would take them too far from home, while some balked at jobs that came with additional service requirements. The leaders behind the program were there to offer sea stories, perspective and, in one instance, photos of Japan, to help sailors make their choices.
For Force Master Chief Christian Detje, the top enlisted leader at the Navy's Personnel Command, interactions like that are the magic of the program.
"It's an example of how much we care," Detje said, referring to the counseling the sailors receive from the senior enlisted.
Yet, underneath the pageantry and the genuinely positive progress for sailors, there is still a tension between those who are interested in getting a rate and ship leaders who need the labor.
Sutherland said that he has "heard horror stories where [commands] they'll keep you as long as they can because you're [a] body and they need you."
Fields says he's "gotten into more than my fair share of arguments'' over this disconnect. He says he's had success in getting sailors time from work to attend to their careers by framing it in terms of a benefit to the ship: Undesignated sailors could choose jobs needed aboard the ship and come right back.
Meanwhile, Baze has been pushing change from his level as well.
"Our people won't do anything with those sailors unless they've got command representation there with them," Baze said. "I'm doing that to say, 'Hey, COs and chiefs, I expect you to be a part of this kid's development.'"
Expanding the Program
As the Navy's experiment with a new kind of undesignated sailor experience heads into its second decade, leaders are seeing successes and promising growth.
Capt. Raymond Sudduth, one of the officers who helps oversee the entire community of enlisted sailors, hopes that they have dispelled old myths and stereotypes about the undesignated community.
"A lot of times, they feel that they might have been misled on joining and, in here, we want to dispel those rumors and let you know that, 'Hey, we care about what you want to do," he said in an interview with Military.com.
Miller said that the program is set to expand in the coming weeks. The plan is to set up a team "to reach out to every [undesignated] sailor personally, one on one, whether it's a Zoom call or on the phone and touch base" before they become eligible to negotiate for a rate.
For Baze, the result is clear. "The feedback that we get here at the bureau is very positive, and then it shows in their retention numbers," he said.
PACT sailor retention is 20% higher than that of sailors who enlist and stay at their original rate, according to Baze.
Looking ahead, he sees this program as something that can be "a big win for us on the recruiting side, on the retention side and, frankly, on job satisfaction."
There's an old recruiting trope that's floated around Navy circles for decades as either a joke or a cautionary tale about the recruiter who convinces a young recruit to sign up for the service as undesignated because they can "try all the jobs and pick the one they like."
Baze thinks that if the PACT program can be made robust enough and provide enough support, that old trope could be turned on its head -- and become something that sets the Navy apart from the other services at the recruiting center.
Typically, recruits choose a rate when they sign their enlistment contract and make the decision based only on their recruiter and a one-page "job card" that lists broad bullet points about the rate's responsibilities and a paragraph or two about the training pipeline. Quality-of-life details like how often sailors stay late aboard a ship or the reputation of the community they belong to are not listed.
"From a sort of selfish recruiting perspective, we're opening the doors for a larger demographic of folks to come in, especially those who really aren't sure or they're not mature enough yet in their lives to know what they want to do," Baze said.
Despite all the figures, goals and Navy ambitions for the future, for some sailors this entire program can be incredibly simple: They just want a chance to do a job they really want.
Logan Porter, a young sailor from the destroyer USS Thomas Hudner, was dead set on being an air traffic controller. However, he had been worried his previous school failures would bar that possibility.
After a few hours at the Mayport job fair, he was sitting behind a desk listening to the training path lying before him.
One master chief, walking by, overheard that the job came with a $70,000 bonus and shouted loudly, "Pay the man!"
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct Detje's first name.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.
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