By Kate Wiltrout

The Virginian-Pilot

NORFOLK, Va. – Four weeks ago, gunner’s mate Brandon Beaver suddenly found himself at a dead end. Stuck in an overstaffed job specialty, the petty officer third class learned that he had been turned down for slots in three other fields. After five years in the Navy, he had a month left to serve, a wife and two children to think about and no idea what to do next.

Then Beaver heard about Operation Blue to Green, a fledgling program that would allow him to transfer directly into the Army without losing his rank, benefits or educational opportunities. Three weeks ago, the enlisted sailor walked into an Army recruiting office near his post at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base – only to discover that no one knew anything about the option.

Recruiters learned fast.

Beaver is the first person on the East Coast – and the second one in the U.S. military – to make the switch officially from Navy blue to Army green. On Friday, he is scheduled to fly to Fort Knox, Ky., for a month of transitional Army training before joining the 10th Mountain Division, an infantry unit based in upstate New York.

The switch requires a three-year hitch -and some mental adjustment for a young father who had planned on staying in the Navy for another tour. He will join a fighting unit in the thick of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, a big switch from working for a West Coast-based amphibious construction battalion and his most recent job as a gunner’s mate aboard the Whirlwind, a Little Creek-based patrol coastal ship.

His high school sweetheart and wife, Dawn Beaver, said she supports his decision and the accompanying upheaval. Whatever uniform her husband wears, she will still pull stints as an “occupational single mother.” She laughs about some of the skin-deep changes her husband faces – ike trading his white sailor hat for an Army black beret.

“He did say, “I don’t have to wear that stupid white hat anymore,”‘ Dawn Beaver said with a laugh.

But there are darker thoughts, too – like those planted by a Navy SEAL friend who asked whether she understood what it meant for Brandon to join the infantry.

“‘You know these are the guys who go over there and come back in body bags, don’t you?”‘ she said her friend asked her. She tries not to dwell on that.

“I told him from day one, I’m behind him no matter what,” she said.

Beaver will leave Kentucky in early October with the rank of specialist and, he hopes, the chance for promotion to sergeant soon after.

“Maybe it was for the good, who knows,” Beaver said of getting pushed out of the Navy. “I think the Army’s going to be better for me. The Army is fast-paced. I can’t sit at a desk and be waiting, watching the clock. I need to be moving.”

Beaver is exactly the type of soldier the Army is looking for: someone with military discipline and years of experience who will learn the specifics of Army doctrine and training quickly.

The 25-year-old Pennsylvania native will be a member of the first class of the so-called “warrior transition course” at Fort Knox, a shortened version of basic training designed to prepare sailors and airmen for Army life.

There, said Frank Shaffery, the deputy director for recruiting operations at the Army Recruiting Command in Fort Knox , participants will get classroom training on Army marching, uniforms, ceremonies, ranks and weapons. They’ll learn how to shoot an M-16 rifle, use a bayonet and conduct hand-to-hand combat. Field training – which constitutes 70 percent of the course – will test their navigational skills and simulate urban operations.

It’s a far cry from boot camp.

They will tackle a “confidence and obstacle course,” Shaffery said. But they won’t have drill instructors barking at them to drop and do 20 push-ups.

“You’re not going to have some guy with a Smokey the Bear hat looking in your face,” Shaffery said. Instead, the new soldiers will be treated like any soldier going through an advanced course, he said, “respecting the fact they’ve got this military experience.”

Army officials say they hope that thousands of sailors and airmen leaving the Navy and Air Force will follow in Beaver’s footsteps. Shaffery said the Army has scheduled 17 rotations of the transition course during the coming year, which could transform more than 3,700 military members into soldiers.

Operation Blue to Green is more than just a program to beef up a wartime Army, though. It’s also a relief valve for military branches looking to shed strength.

The Air Force will be cutting 20,000 members from its ranks in fiscal year 2005, which starts Oct. 1, said Air Force spokeswoman Jennifer Stephens. The Navy is downsizing by about 8,000 over the same period, with another 40,000-plus projected by 2011. The Coast Guard, on the other hand, hopes to woo sailors into its ranks as it adds 6,000 jobs in the next two years. Bigger increases are called for in the Army and Marines: by 2008, the Marines are scheduled to add 9,000 people and the Army, 30,000.

While scaling back recruiting helps the services slim down, the downsizing most affects people in the mid level enlisted ranks. Cmdr. Carl Murphy, Blue to Green coordinator for chief of naval personnel at the Pentagon, said in the Navy, that means competition for petty officers third class. If a sailor hasn’t been promoted to petty officer second class within eight years in uniform, Murphy said, the sailor will likely be “involuntarily separated,” or forced out, at the end of an enlistment.

Those most in danger of involuntary separation are people like Beaver, who work in overstaffed specialties or jobs that are being phased out. Murphy said it’s hard to pinpoint which jobs are most affected because the numbers fluctuate, but a signalman’s job, for example – which involves sending and receiving messages via lights and radios – is being eliminated.

“A good-performing sailor in just about any rating is probably going to be asked to re-enlist,” Murphy said. “But because of our force shaping, these are some very good people who are leaving the Navy. Not because they couldn’t hack it, but because of the imbalance” between sailors and jobs.

In that case, the Navy is glad to see its investment in people and training put to good use.

“This has probably been, historically, a wasted asset,” Murphy said of young sailors leaving after a tour or two.

The brand-new process isn’t without roadblocks.

A week before he was supposed to leave, Beaver’s family, which includes 7-year-old Jaycob and 3-year-old Isabella, finally got approval to remain in Navy housing while Beaver completes the course at Fort Knox. Beaver chose what Army branch he wanted to join and which base he wanted to be stationed at. A hockey nut, Beaver said he chose Fort Drum, N.Y., because he knows he and his son can play a lot there.

Though both husband and wife applaud recruiter Sgt. 1st class Jacob Walls for helping them navigate the transition, they are less satisfied with the Navy’s handling of the switch.

Walls and another local Army recruiter said they are hearing and sensing some resentment toward sailors who inquire about switching teams. Beaver said his experience shows that Army- Navy rivalry is alive and well, regardless of what’s happening overseas.

“People instantly give you attitude” when you tell them you’re going to the Army, Beaver said. “They don’t want to help at all.”

Even Walls got a taste of it when he called a medical office on Beaver’s behalf: The corpsman on the other end replied “Go Army,” then hung up, the sergeant said.

Still, Walls said about 10 sailors visit the Little Creek office daily for information on Blue to Green, and he has three more people who have begun the process. But the speed with which the program came together – it was pitched in late spring and approved by the Pentagon in late July – means that all the services involved still are working out the kinks.

Walls said he senses that some people misunderstand the program. A couple of potential recruits have come back to him saying their chief petty officer needed more information before approving the switch. A chief, Walls said, is not the approving authority and shouldn’t interfere; sailors need a lieutenant commander to approve or deny their transfer.

Still, Walls is confident that when Blue to Green is better known, the process will be smoother. At the top level, the Navy is providing lots of leads, Murphy said. It has given the Army the names and contact information for 10,000 sailors who are approaching the end of their commitment or are facing involuntary separation.

Beaver, for his part, hasn’t minded the role of pioneer, even though not everything turned out as planned. The bonus he had counted on for choosing the infantry – advertised as $10,000 and available to new enlistees – didn’t pan out. Instead, he got a fraction of that based on his salary and years of service.

Still, he’s glad for the opportunity to stay in the military.

“I like the fact that this is a new program, and I’m in the first group to get into it,” Beaver said. “I’m interested to see how it’s going to go. I’m excited.”

With just a few days of leave left before her husband’s Army career begins, Dawn Beaver said Monday that his excitement may be morphing into nervousness.

“He just said to me an hour ago that he feels like he wants to puke,” said Beaver, who claimed to be holding her own agitation at bay.

“He’s the one who has to live the drama.”

(c) 2004, The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.).

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