J. Paul Reason: The Navy's First Black Four-Star Admiral

Article excerpt

Annapolis graduate is commander in chief of mighty Atlantic Fleet

WHEN Adm. J. Paul Reason speaks, more than 124,000 Navy and Marine Corps men and women, including 26 admirals, listen. Since becoming the first African-American naval officer elevated to four-star rank and assuming command of the Atlantic Fleet--roughly half of the U.S. Navy--in December 1996, the 6-foot-5 giant has headed a seaborne juggernaut of 195 warships and 1,357 aircraft based on 18 major shore facilities. As CINCLANTFLT (Navy jargon for commander in chief, Atlantic Fleet), Adm. Reason oversees an annual budget of $19.5 billion and is charged with the responsibility of directing the fleet's globe-spanning activities that range from the North Pole to the South Pole, the Caribbean Sea and the waters around Central and South America, the Norwegian, Greenland and Barents seas, and waters around Africa up to the Cape of Good Hope.

At his fleet headquarters in Norfolk, Va., where an armada of his nuclear supercarriers, cruisers, amphibious ships and submarines forms an awesome show of Americans' tax dollars at work, the person seemingly least awed by the arsenal on display is Adm. Reason himself. A trained nuclear engineer, the admiral is a vocal advocate for the rejuvenation and updating of not only the Navy's hardware but also the procedures it uses. "I do believe that the Navy has a lot of adjustments to undergo to move into the next century because many of the tools that we have for naval warfare, many of the tactics that we use are based on World War II," he explains. "The ships are not altogether different from the ships you saw 50 years ago. Most are quite new, but we still need to use them differently. We need to train our people on the tools of today. We are putting computers on those ships, but those ships were not built around the use of computers. So we have to transition into an environment where we can take advantage of not having [to use] so many people. An aircraft carrier with a crew of 6,000 men and women is truly a great expense for the taxpayer, but we can scale it down by accomplishing the same mission with fewer people, which is technologically possible."

Adm. Reason feels that the opportunity for upgrading the Navy for the 21st century has never been better than right now. "Today--this year, next year --when the world is at relative peace, is when we need to take some risks to do things in new ways," he says. "This is when we need to cut the size of crews on ships and see if we can still accomplish our missions. It's during this time of transition into the next century when we really ought to try some new things and see if we can do naval warfare better, cheaper and quicker. We've got to be quicker."

By elevating the amicable, 32-year Navy veteran to the Navy's group of nine four-star admirals, the Navy has finally caught up with the Air Force, which produced its first Black four-star general, Daniel (Chappie) James, in 1975; and the Army, which promoted its first Black four-star general, Roscoe Robinson, in 1982. Besides Adm. Reason, two Black four-star officers are currently serving on active duty. They are Gen. Johnny Wilson, commander of the Army Ma teriel Command, and Gen. Lloyd Newton, head of the Air Force Education and Training Command. This leaves the Marine Corps with the dubious distinction of being the only U.S. military service branch which has never elevated an African-American to four-star rank.

Asked about the status of race relations in his command, the admiral's response is quick and to the point: "It is pretty much the same as you would find within our country. The Atlantic Fleet is but a microcosm of the entire spectrum of our country," he says. "The part that is easier to address is: What do I do about ensuring equal opportunity? The answer to that is: I do everything that the law allows me to do! I hold every commanding officers responsible for the environment within his command. …