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August 2011

New direction for merchant mariners in Navy Reserve
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By Laura M. Seal, MSC Public Affairs

Rear Adm. Mark Buzby
Navy Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, commander, Military Sealift Command, and new flag sponsor for the Strategic Sealift Officer Program, administers the oath of office to more than 200 midshipmen graduating from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., June 17. U.S. Merchant Marine Academy photo by Brian Ballweg

More than 200 midshipmen graduating from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., raised their right hands and took the oath of office to become commissioned officers in the U.S. Navy Reserve June 17 - the first Kings Point graduates to do so since Military Sealift Command assumed new responsibilities for shaping the Reserve community of licensed merchant marine officers.

Just one week earlier, on June 10, a new Navy instruction took effect, replacing the long-standing Merchant Marine Reserve with the Strategic Sealift Officer Program, which includes nearly 2,400 Navy Reservists.

Like the MMR, the SSOP plays an important role in the U.S. national defense by providing the Navy with a pool of licensed merchant marine officers who have specialized maritime training experience in sealift, port operations and logistics.

However, the SSOP offers a broader, more clearly defined career path, and as a result, a better-prepared force of licensed merchant marine officers to the Navy.

Leading these changes to the community is Navy Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, commander, MSC, who, per the new instruction, is the flag sponsor of the SSOP. He also administered the oath, hand-delivered welcome aboard letters and gave initial assignments to the Kings Point midshipmen joining the program. In his new role, Buzby will guide and shape the SSO community while also advocating for it, ensuring that its officers have the experience, training, resources, opportunities and recognition necessary to be productive assets to the Navy.

"As a graduate of the USMMA, many of my classmates went into the MMR, so I've been associated with the program for 30-some years," said Buzby. "I saw that there was not much guidance, structure or feeling of community to the MMR."

With these changes, Buzby is happy to improve and invigorate the program.

"The whole idea of organizing the MMR into the SSO community was to really give it some structure, to give it more recognition and to better utilize this talent for Navy and joint support," said Buzby.

The officers in the SSOP fall into two categories: members of the Individual Ready Reserve, or IRR, and members of the Selected Reserve, or SELRES.

Most of the SSOP officers, about 2,100, are in the IRR and join a Reserve program immediately upon graduation from Kings Point or one of the six state maritime academies in return for a fully or partially subsidized education. These officers have a commitment that is a minimum of eight years, but do not fill specific billets. Instead, their annual required service includes two weeks of active duty and a separate muster.

Under the SSOP, MSC will provide more structure to the IRR officers' two-week active-duty assignments each year, ensuring that officers participate in operations and exercises that will give them experience and training necessary to prepare for potential recall to active duty in times of crisis. In addition, MSC will increase the sense of community for the IRR, assigning each member to a detachment led by a SELRES officer-in-charge from the SSOP, providing regular contact and integration with the Navy at large by that leader.

"The new program gives an operational direction and allows a member of the community to know what to expect to be trained to do, and it also aligns a career path," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Cassano, a member of the IRR since 2000 who supports the SSOP.

The SSOP also includes 250 SELRES officers who fill specific Navy Reserve billets at either MSC or other Navy commands. These officers train one weekend every month, in addition to the annual two weeks of active duty. The primary change for the SSOP's SELRES officers will be an expansion in the types of billets they are able to fill as MSC negotiates with other Navy communities as to where an SSOP officer's unique capabilities and experience would be beneficial. This new initiative will integrate the SSOP officers into a broader range of relevant Navy communities, increasing understanding on both sides.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Harry Elliot, a SELRES officer since 2003, sees this as an important part of the SSOP.

"There was a perception that Merchant Marine Reservists were a part of the Navy, but they weren't really part of the Navy," said Elliott, who first joined the MMR as a member of the IRR in 1999 after graduating from Kings Point. "This transformation will make Strategic Sealift Officers just like any other Navy officer, but with a very specific and unique skill set. We are first and foremost Navy officers."

The signing of this new instruction marks the beginning of a new era for the Navy Reserve and its cadre of officers with merchant marine training and experience.

"We're not done yet," said Buzby. "Step two is to get the career path formally established so that there are a series of jobs these young men and women can look forward to'Ultimately, I would love to see an SSO selected for flag rank some day."

Eric Katz, MSC Public Affairs, contributed to this story.