US Navy Chief Warrant Officer 3 Nicholas Hess, assigned to the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis, renders a salute at his retirement ceremony, after 23 years of service, in Smithfield, Virginia, July 1, 2022. A glut in unprocessed DD-214s has led the Navy to issue DD-214 discharge forms that lack a sailor's signature, but the sea service wants government agencies, veterans' organizations, and employers to know that they're still valid separation documents. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Riley Gasdia.
When Senior Chief Navy Counselor Kevin Price Ray began leaving the Navy after more than a quarter-century of honorable service, he ran into a glitch.
“My command was great. They let me take care of a lot of business as I was getting ready to get out, but still some of the stuff came down to the last minute,” Ray told Coffee or Die Magazine.
For his final physical, the doctor came down with COVID-19, so that got delayed. And the Navy team that handles separations was a five-hour drive away in Norfolk, which made separating a grind. He also toiled in the hectic recruiting field, where sailors doggedly woo the next generation of sea service talent.
As the end of September loomed, marking his anticipated exit from the Navy, he still hadn't signed a verified DD-214. That coveted certificate of honorable discharge is the key that unlocks civilian jobs, federal pension and health benefits, and membership in veterans organizations.
On this Veterans Day, the senior chief holds something that looks a little different. Reeling from an ongoing glut of unprocessed discharge paperwork worldwide, Transactional Service Center personnel cut him a temporary, unfinalized DD-214 stamped “Signature Unattainable.”
“I never thought about it,” he said. “I joined the Navy when I was 18 and I don’t really understand the civilian world, so I’m not sure if that hurts me or not.”
US Navy Capt. Bret Washburn, right, NAVAL Air Force Atlantic force maintenance officer, hands a folded flag to his grandson during his retirement ceremony at the Center for Naval Aviation Technical Training Unit, Oct. 28, 2022. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Aimee Ford.
The Navy wants government agencies, veterans service organizations, and potential employers to know that the unsigned DD-214s held by Ray and other sailors are just as valid as discharge forms signed by other service members, and these certificates should be honored as official military paperwork.
In most cases, the sailors weren’t able to review and approve the information contained on the form 14 calendar days before they detached from the service. But unsigned DD-214s should be read as accurate reflections of a sailor’s service and no one should discriminate against veterans who have them, officials say.
“The DD-214 remains valid even without the sailor’s signature so long as it is signed by an authorized official in Block 22a and contains a serial number in Block 18,” said Rear Adm. Stuart C. “Stu” Satterwhite, the commander of the sea service’s MyNavy Career Center in Millington, Tennessee, in an email to Coffee or Die. “DD-214s marked in this way are valid and do not affect a sailor’s ability to access any veteran or transitional benefits.”
Satterwhite also wants veterans to know that his sailors and civilian staffers are winning the war against the backlog. Anyone who left before Nov. 1 has a discharge certificate, and the hiring freeze that kept his command from adding federal help has ended.
The Navy is paying overtime to its top clerks, and their numbers are buttressed by dozens of sailors who have arrived from the fleet to bore through the DD-214 blockage.
Master Chief Musician Gresh Laing receives the flag during the reading of “Old Glory” during his retirement ceremony on Rhode Island's Naval Station Newport, July 1, 2022. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Derien C. Luce.
Over the past three months, the center has dragooned roughly 60 Navy Command Pay/Personnel Administrator specialists to help process discharges, and they’re expected to bring their newfound expertise on DD-214s back to their units, which officials hope will streamline separation processing for future veterans.
But Satterwhite also is calling on service members to help him out. He urges sailors who are voluntarily exiting the military, including those who are retiring after at least 20 years of service, to submit their separation packages 60 days prior to the start of their terminal leave.
He estimates that 75% of separation and retirement packages — roughly 850 transactions per week — arrive after that deadline and trigger immediate action at his transactional centers.
A late package delays processing other sailors’ DD-214s, and it can create a larger cascade of stoppages if incorrect or incomplete information is discovered.
Sailors assigned to the Naval Air Station Sigonella security department participate in the “Presentation of the Flag” ritual during Master-at-Arms 1st Class Nicholas Heffel’s retirement ceremony in Italy on Oct. 11, 2022. Heffel retired after two decades of honorable service to the Navy. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kegan E. Kay.
That's because the package must be returned to the sailor or CPPA specialists to fix, an often long and laborious chore, especially with DD-214s for retirees with decades of service to put down on paper.
Those separation snafus also might’ve been avoided if sailors and their administrative personnel consistently made sure the right data was contained in the service records.
“A sailor’s official record is the basis of the information contained on the DD-214, so sailors should continue to ensure they are maintaining their official record,” Satterwhite wrote.
If you’re a sailor who was discharged before Nov. 1 and you’re still awaiting your official DD-214, Satterwhite asks you to contact MyNavy Career Center at 833-330-MNCC (6622) or [email protected].
Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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