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In Brief

It Takes More Than Steel to Modernize a Navy

Secretary Ray Mabus builds a legacy of equality, humanity.

Photograph by Christopher Soldt, MTS, BC

Among the accomplishments that Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said he was most proud of was improving the quality of life for Navy personnel, pursuing equality of access, and getting the word out about the greatness of the armed forces’ work in the world.

“You have to forge trust day in and day out, connect America’s ‘away team’ with the American people,” said Secretary Mabus, the inaugural speaker in the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series, which was launched last September.

“There is danger in any democracy where those doing the protecting are too distant from those being protected. When I was growing up, everyone knew people in our military; today, we don’t see how hard they work and how good they are at it as much. So we try to do things that reconnect us to the American people.”

The Harvard Law graduate and longest tenured Navy Secretary since World War I also cited fiscal and technical accomplishments that modernized the Navy, including expanding the fleet, optimizing maintenance expenditures, increasing the use of renewable power sources, and strengthening the Acquisition Integrity Office. That office now reviews more than 1,100 cases annually—some ten times the number that it did before he was appointed in 2008—by using a newly developed set of accounting “trip wires” designed to sniff out corruption.

Part of the Navy Secretary’s role, Mabus said, is ceremonial—for example, he set a naming convention for a newly ordered class of ships around modern civil rights leaders. But it’s also about making life in the Navy more closely reflect new social norms, from ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and gender-specific uniforms to bringing women into combat roles, and smaller improvements like expanded childcare offerings on bases and more flexible leave programs.

“Historically, every time we’ve diversified our force, we’ve been better for it and I ultimately believe, when you’re in action, all you need to know is that the person next to you is your equal, in abilities and training,” he explained.

“We also realized that it’s not in our interest to have our people choose between starting a family and staying on with us. Their experience is so valuable and when they walk away, we lose that investment.”