The O-4 Department Head Tour in a Navy Jet Squadron

First, I just want to say that I really cannot believe that I’m writing this post, considering I started this blog when my husband was just a junior officer on his second tour. He is now post-Department Head and in the midst of his 5th tour, and he is about to be reviewed for Command. We’ve come a heck of a long way, and I want to thank everyone who has been reading along and supporting me all of these years.
Okay, let’s talk turkey. Or, I should say, Department Head turkey.
The O-4 tour of any military officer is a big one, and it’s the gateway to the other, big leadership side of the Navy. After 20 years, active duty service members are eligible for retirement, so once an officer has gone beyond 10 years, it’s time to either get out of the military at their first opportunity so they can begin investing in their new career, or commit to staying in for the long haul to at least 20. It’s not the same for everyone – some people get out at 16 years or at other intervals, but overall, if an officer is in the military for over 10 years, they’re either looking to get out at their next opportunity or they’re planning to stay in to 20 and maybe beyond. 
Almost every Naval jet air crew officer (pilot, EWO, or NFO) does a Department Head tour following their disassociated sea tour (usually their 3rd tour). The DH tour is the 4th tour for most air crew officers, they must be an O-4 or soon-to-be promoted to O-4, and there can be upwards of 5 Department Heads (DHs) in one squadron at any given time. To give you an idea, my husband’s squadron had 4, while other squadrons have 8 or more.

The Purpose of a Jet Aviation Department Head Tour:

Learning to run and command a squadron is the purpose of the DH tour and the basis for their evaluation (Fitness Reports, also called fitreps). DH officers rotate through squadron department head jobs, heading the maintenance department, the operations department, and other areas of the squadron. They lead junior officers and a large number of enlisted personnel in each area, which gives them the opportunity to show their CO that they have what it takes to be a squadron CO one day.
The squadron DHs are ranked against each other for fitreps, which occur every October and once at the end of their CO’s tour. The goal for any officer who wants to be a squadron CO is to have a #1 EP for as long as possible; the #1 EP is the best possible evaluation, only one DH (in some cases 2 DHs) can have it at a time, and to be downgraded from a #1 to a #2 or below is a career-killer. Usually when a DH is awarded a #1 EP, they maintain that #1 EP until they leave the squadron, which means they could maintain a #1 for a year or more. This sounds complicated, but it all boils down to being officially ranked as the #1 Department Head in a squadron for as long as possible. When Command Boards convene to decide who will become a CO, DH fitreps are compared by board members, and thus having a long #1 EP means that officer is more likely to become a CO.

What I Expected

To be honest, I thought my husband’s DH tour was going to be the worst tour ever because I had heard bad things about DH wives in the past. I had heard that since every DH’s spouse wants their loved one to receive the #1 EP, everyone becomes stressed about fitreps and workplace dynamics translate to spouse club politics. I was nervous that I would get drawn in, even if I didn’t want to be, and I was glad that I would be leaving for a while to finish my nursing degree.  
On the flip side, I was really worried about my husband! I heard about DHs working +12 hour days every day of the week, getting super burnt out, and not having any work-life balance. My husband has been lucky with tours and COs, and I was nervous that this tour would be the breaks on that luck.

What It was Really Like

In a word, his DH tour was AWESOME for both of us! Well, on his end, I think he would tell you some times were better than other times and he didn’t love one or two jobs within his squadron, but we met great friends, he had awesome COs and XOs, and we found a family in his squadron. Like every other squadron, we found that our experience was great because of the people in the squadron and their spouses.
My husband did work a lot of sporadic +12 hour days, and for many months he left for work at 0615ish and didn’t get home until after 1700. That was not my favorite time period during his DH tour, especially because I was working 12 hour days as a nurse, but we got through it, just like we’ve gotten through everything else, by communicating a lot and being really flexible.
At the end of the day, every tour is what you make of it and how you decide to face it. I missed out on over half of his DH tour because I was in nursing school on the opposite coast. When we made the decision for me to move East and finish school, we thought I wouldn’t miss much because he would be working long hours and he would be deployed for a long period. Looking back, I am so so so so happy we made that decision because I now have my BSN, RN, but I totally missed out on 18mo of friendships with some of the kindest, funniest women I’ve encountered in my years living in this Navy bubble, and I feel confident that there would NOT have been any drama or issues at all related to the stress of the Department Head tour.
I have also found as I’m getting older that I appreciate the leadership at the top a lot more, and it’s getting more interesting for me to watch and learn from the leadership styles of my husband’s Command (his CO & XO) and their spouses. Because it’s no longer new and because we are getting so close to command, I’m paying more attention to the why’s and the how’s, rather than just the products of decisions. It’s getting interesting, folks, and the DH tour is the gateway to this other side of Navy life.

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