Serving Country - And Soup

The New Navy

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Jamie Goglin, Frank Gallaway, and Ryan Liddell spent a recent cold evening sitting on wooden benches in a barren church basement, swapping stories and playing cards with a group of homeless men, women, and children.

Despite the grim surroundings, the sailors smiled brightly as they went about their tasks. In crisp blue uniforms, they cleaned up after the chicken-and-rice dinner, doled out supplies, and prepared the next day's lunch before bedding down on the chill linoleum floor.

Welcome to the brave new world of Navy trainees.

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In an era of continued peace, and as America's armed services try to recover from a spate of scandals, the Navy has added community-service to its training.

While other services talk to privates and grunts about values and ethics, the Navy is unique in sending its newest members out to aid civilians. Recruits go to churches, shelters, schools, and parks near the Navy's main training center in Chicago with one mission: to do good.

"This is part of our training program, part of instilling our core values into our youngest sailors," says Rear Admiral Kevin Green, the commander who instituted the community service program. "I am absolutely convinced it has tremendous and measurable benefits."

All of the Navy's recruits go through eight weeks of basic training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in North Chicago. In addition to visiting homeless shelters, seamen play sports with troubled adolescents, offer friendship to people with mental illnesses, visit senior citizens, and teach computer skills to students in the local school districts.

"The Navy is here to protect our country," says Seaman Goglin. "One of the best ways to do that is to help the people who need it the most."

This kind of interaction is vital to the base's mission of turning civilian adolescents into military adults, says Admiral Green. Officers pitch in to help alongside the sailors and meet with them afterward to reinforce what they learned, he says.

When the facilities of Rebound Inc., a rehabilitation program for troubled youths, burned down recently, Great Lakes sent sailors to help with a new building. Since then sailors have served as mentors for some of the youths, playing basketball and talking with them. "They are a positive force here in the county," says Dan Melyon, director of Rebound.

While many applaud the do-good efforts, some question whether volunteer work is the best way to prepare the nation's sailors for war - and whether it instills values that will prevent the kinds of sex scandals that have dogged the armed services.

But clearly the military branches are attempting to march double-time away from sex scandals, including the Navy's Tailhook convention where male sailors harassed women, a rape of a Japanese girl by marines in Okinawa, and drill sergeants having sex with trainees at the Army's Aberdeen, Md., Proving Grounds.

The Marine Corps, for instance, added a week to boot camp so drill instructors can work with recruits on values and moral character. To prevent future misconduct, the Army is looking at closer screening of its drill sergeants and the addition of a three-star general to oversee basic training.

The scandals proved the military needs to teach character, not just technical skills, says Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "The people our society is producing don't necessarily have core values," Mr. Korb says.

Community service is nothing new for the Navy, Korb says. When he was stationed in Japan 30 years ago, his Navy unit helped out a local orphanage, Korb remembers. What is new is the Navy's emphasis on placing community service at the start of almost every sailor's career.

Chaplain Robert Feinberg, Great Lakes' character development officer, insists the Navy would be sailing full-speed ahead with community service even without the recent scandals. Every year roughly 8,000 new sailors join at least one community-service project, Chaplain Feinberg says.

"It's these kind of high-impact programs that really stretch their moral muscles," Feinberg says.

Ruth Hadsell watched this moral muscle-toning last week as recruits Bill Elkhay and Kody Stitz handed out clothes at the St. John's United Church of Christ shelter. Sailors are invaluable when there's a shortage, says Ms. Hadsell, the shelter's manager.

Seamen Elkhay and Stitz bantered with the guests crowding around them as they distributed clothes. "It's good to get to see the people we're actually going to be protecting," Elkhay says. "If they need something, we'll do it."

Kenneth, a shelter guest, is grateful for that effort. The companionship the sailors offer makes the shelter a nice place to stay, he says. "It helps us get a good night's sleep," he explains. "It's nice to know the Navy cares."

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