John Kerry's campaign representatives quote a few words from one of his best Navy fitness reports to support their misleading claim that Kerry's military evaluations were those of a top-flight officer. They carefully ignore the existence of several other reports that range from mediocre to substandard, thereby presenting an inaccurate picture of Kerry's service record.
There are also gaps in the documentation made public to date by the Kerry campaign, where no fitness reports are provided at all. Here we present an analysis of the available record.
An Introduction to Navy Fitness Reports
Navy officer fitness reports ("FITREPs") are of vital importance. Selection boards use them to promote the officer. Assignment officers use them to “sell” the officer into his or her next assignment. Only truly outstanding officers get the best jobs (or “billets”). Officers with adverse or spotty records are unsalable for anything but the most backwater assignments.
To read and understand FITREPs correctly, there are several crucial things to understand.
Dings and RAPs
First and foremost, a FITREP is a relative picture. You are not reading absolutes. If an officer is graded, say, as “outstanding,” it is meaningful only if he is ranked ahead of his contemporaries and the rest of the FITREP contains no glaring negatives.
Second, what matters most are marks or grades above and especially below the norm. Marks below the norm may fall under a very positive word (e.g., “excellent”) and appear positive to the casual reader, but no matter: any mark to the right of the norm is a strong, clear sign to both promotion boards and assignment officers (e.g., “detailers”) that there is a performance shortfall. A mark to the right is a “ding.” You don’t want a ding in your FITREP.
Third, what is not said in the narrative section is just as important as what is said. The truly superlative officer should be “RAPped,” meaning "Recommended for accelerated promotion." If Block 21 says only "Recommended for promotion" this is faint praise. It means that the officer should be considered for promotion along with the rest of his year group (all those commissioned in a given fiscal year constitute a “year group”). In the context of other marks and remarks, a “Recommended for promotion” mark means that the officer may just be average, called a “pack player.”
NOTE: An officer “Not Recommended for Promotion” is an officer in deep trouble. In a combat zone, failure to recommend for promotion may be indicative of problems in conduct, not just performance.
Key: Would His Commander Want Him to Command?
Fourth, if the officer is an Unrestricted Line Officer, he or she is in line for operational command (of a ship, an aviation squadron, etc.). Thus, one the most important marks on a FITREP for a line officer is “desirability for command,” referred to in the shorthand of selection boards and detailers as “command.” Thus, for a seagoing officer, a “ding in command” is big trouble. Likewise with the skill of “seamanship and ship handling”: a ship-driver “dinged in ship handling” is in big trouble.
As a footnote, line officers must win qualification as a Officer of the Deck for formation steaming [“OOD(F)”] that officer who stands watch on the bridge and is responsible for ship movement (and, frankly, everything that happens on that ship) while “formation steaming” or steaming in company with other ships. Officers must first qualify as OOD while in port [OOD(P) and subsequently for independent steaming [OOD(I)]. The quicker the climb to OOD(F) the better.
Also, Unrestricted Line Officers aboard ships (now called “Surface Warfare Officers”) must strive to be recommended for Navy Destroyer School which prepares the junior officer for his pivotal tour as a Lieutenant or Lieutenant (j.g.) -- a department head tour aboard a destroyer. A recommendation in a FITREP for Destroyer School is meaningful, however, if and only if the officer has qualified as OOD(F). The CO must qualify the officer as OOD for in-formation steaming; otherwise a Destroyer School recommendation is empty.
Thus, for the junior officer aboard ship, the number one performance goal is: qualify as OOD(F) and get recommended for Destroyer School. The unwritten rule is, don’t leave your first ship without the OOD(F) qualification.
Language and Other Signals
Fifth, FITREP language tends to be positive for officers who perform at a reasonably satisfactory level. That way, the FITREP tends to be a motivational tool to keep the officer on the right performance track. Thus, when COs feel the need to convey a signal to selection boards and detailers about performance that is lackluster, they will use code words. “Potential” is one of the key negative code words. Genuinely excellent officers should be performing; if they merely demonstrate “potential,” even “great potential,” this is read as a clear signal from the Commanding Officer that they are not performing.
Another signal is “trend of performance.” Unless it’s a “first report,” all good officers should be marked as “improving,” never “consistent” and certainly not “declining.”
Still another signal, particularly for line officers, is the broad categories of content in the narrative. A line officer’s FITREP should be glowing in praise of his or her ship handling and leadership abilities. Selection boards want to know how this officer performs on the bridge, not in some significantly less important collateral duty (e.g., public affairs officer). A CO who emphasizes performance in collateral duties is signaling that there is something lacking on the bridge.
Sixth, there can be no gaps. There must be one continuous thread of fitness reports in an officer’s jacket.
Seventh, it’s the operational tours that count. As long as the officer passes the school and stays out trouble, FITREPs from school commands don’t matter much.
Eighth, selection boards and detailers will examine the way the Commanding Officer grades his or her officers. Some of their considerations:
o They are looking for “good break-outs,” reports that clearly identify top-performers (called “water-walkers”) and distinguish them from “pack-plus” officers (above average performers) or “pack” officers (average). When a CO writes a “gift” FITREP (ranks everyone as top performers), boards and detailers tend to discount such “easy graders” and will look to a subsequent report for a clearer performance picture from another CO.
o Glowing, end-of-tour FITREPs are often viewed as “swan song” FITREPs (the officer is usually ranked 1 of 1) and don’t matter nearly as much as in-tour FITREPs when the officer is ranked with his or her peers. (Of course, if an officer is smacked in an end-of-tour report, you can be assured that boards sit up and pay close attention.)
What Do the Kerry FITREPs Really Say?
Knowing the above, what do the FITREPs selectively released by the Kerry campaign say about John Kerry as a junior officer in the U.S. Navy?
Kerry’s FITREPs are awash in dings, and some of the reports border on the adverse, particularly his combat FITREPs. The FITREPs convey significant performance problems and suggest problems in conduct, so much so that it is surprising that the campaign chose to release them. This may suggest that the FITREPs held from public view are even more adverse.
In what would customarily be an opportunity for a glowing “swan song” FITREP, the Commanding Officer of USS Gridley (DLG-21) tacitly blasts Kerry on his departure for Swift Boat duty by ranking him significantly below the norm in desirability for virtually every Navy assignment possible -– command, staff, whatever. He is a ship handler who is dinged in ship handling. He is in line for command, but his CO doesn’t want him near the bridge. He is slammed in all performance areas –- most notably and significantly in initiative and reliability. The “nice” narrative emphasizes performance in collateral duties, but in the grades and marks, the CO is telling the selection board and detailer loud and clear that this officer is lazy, unreliable and not suited for command. 3 SEP 68 (W.E. HARPER).
Another “swan song” opportunity is lost when Kerry departs a brief tour of duty as an Aide. Kerry is dinged in staff desirability, management and military bearing by Rear Admiral Walter Schlech (2 MAR 70 Schlech) while Kerry served as Schlech’s Aide. The Admiral makes considerable mention in the narrative section about Kerry’s ambition to run for Congress, and no doubt the glowing words were meant as a parting gift to someone who might become a member of Congress. The narrative notwithstanding, any detailer or selection board would consider the FITREP a bad one. Had Kerry remained in the Navy, it would be difficult to “sell” him to a new Aide assignment when his last boss, an Admiral, had dinged him in precisely those attributes indispensable for Aides.
The real performance problems are evidenced in FITREPs for his operational tours.
Because it is a FITREP that only covers about a month, LCDR Grant Hibbard’s first FITREP on Kerry should simply be marked “not observed” all the way down the line -– no grades, marks or narrative. Significantly, LCDR Hibbard chooses otherwise. Hibbard detects a personal behavior problem – a conduct problem – and smacks him for it in the report. He also dings Kerry on initiative and cooperation, just like his last CO in Gridley. 17 DEC 68 (HIBBARD).
In his FITREP for his combat tour as Officer in Charge of a SWIFT Boat -– arguably the most important FITREP among those released by the Kerry campaign –- Kerry is not dinged but slammed in command, seamanship and ship handling and in all major leadership traits (28 JAN 69 ELLIOTT). To Kerry and perhaps to other junior officers, it is an okay FITREP. To detailers and selection boards, it is a negative fitness report that borders on the adverse. LCDR Elliott ranks him well below the norm in traits essential for command: force, industry, analytical ability, judgment and more.
The PCF squadron commander, LCDR Elliott has 15 officers in his command, and his report (28 JAN 69) offers an excellent breakout. Elliott ranks his officers in two groups, the top and the bottom, and Elliott ranks Kerry among the top group. Or does he? Just like Hibbard, Elliott “red flags” Kerry in conduct by downgrading him significantly in judgment and personal behavior. When viewed in the context of the total FITREP, it is very clear to a detailer or selection board that Kerry probably ranks 7 of 15. He’s a “pack player” at best, but this is a worrisome FITREP to detailers and selection boards, because the significant flaws Elliott finds are in two critical areas: leadership traits and personal conduct. Moreover, because personal conduct issues have been raised by past commanders, detailers and selection boards would certainly conclude that the officer has exhibited major flaws in leadership and conduct over a sustained period of time that limit both his promotability and his salability to positions of responsibility. None of Kerry's evaluators had access to his previous FITREPS -- his commanders observed the same flaws independently.