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The controversy surrounding inappropriate videos made by the commanding officer of the aircraft carrier Enterprise comes on the heels of a rough year for Navy skippers.
Cruelty toward subordinates, soliciting prostitutes, sexual harassment, drunkenness and assault, and fraternization with junior enlisted were the offenses that cost 17 commanding officers their jobs in 2010. The total number of firings was the highest in seven years and the second highest in a decade.
Eleven of the 17 relieved skippers lost their jobs because of personal misconduct, making it the most common reason for firings.
And reliefs are on the rise. For most of the past decade, the Navy fired 12 skippers a year. That spiked in 2003, when the Navy fired 26 officers. In 2009, the number rose to 16. As the firings continue to stack up, observers have questioned whether the extensive selection and training pipeline is adequately choosing and preparing officers for command.
Officials note that the firings represent roughly 1 percent of the 1,614 commanding officers in the Navy, ashore and afloat. It is a concern, not a crisis.
"There's no indication that the [commanding officer] reliefs are the result of any systemic problem," Navy spokesman Lt. Justin Cole said. "These kinds of numbers can go down or up year to year in small increments, but what remains constant every year is the very high standards that we hold all of the COs to."
Issues from another era
Every detachment for cause, as the administrative removal is known, comes across the desk of Capt. Leo Falardeau, head of career development at Navy Personnel Command. Falardeau said the violations often remind him of transgressions from another era, before blogs and cell phone cameras.
"I think there are some cases of guys just not recognizing that the behavior that may have been acceptable years before is no longer acceptable," he said. "It wasn't right years before — it isn't right today — but they just can't figure it out."
Tougher enforcement isn't behind the spate of firings, Falardeau said. Instead, he believes they spring from two factors, one of which is the headiness, and loneliness, of command.
The other, he said, is the widespread use of social media and e-mail. Before e-mail, Falardeau recalled, when investigators arrived at the ship to examine an alleged incident, they had to rely primarily on interviews to gather evidence. This was especially tough in cases such as fraternization, where the allegations might have limited evidence. Now, investigators can seize hard drives or search e-mails, even deleted ones. Proof is much easier to find.
"We've had cases where something popped on Facebook," he said, recalling photos of an inappropriately dressed officer that recently appeared on the social networking site. They showed him at a Halloween party at an enlisted person's house "in an outfit I'm not going to describe," Falardeau said.
When Falardeau later confronted him, the officer admitted that the costume might have been acceptable in his fraternity, but not in his position. "He's no longer with us."
Not just another job
Once a month, Falardeau speaks to prospective shipboard leaders at the Command Leadership School in Newport, R.I.
The school is a two-week course that prepares 1,200 officers and senior enlisted a year for follow-on jobs as command master chiefs, captains and executive officers. Coursework focuses on evaluating case studies, which often incorporate hot-button issues such as fraternization, favoritism, operational stress and other minefields for commanders.
Falardeau's talk focuses on the detachment-for-cause process and what can get you fired.
He tells the classes: "Little things matter. And when you take care of little things you'll be amazed that you don't have that pinnacle event, you don't run aground, you don't have a collision." But he also talks about failures, stinging and real. "When I give them real-life examples, it hits them between the eyes."
The leadership school's director said addressing misconduct is a high priority in the curriculum.
"In terms of addressing the issues of personal misconduct or setting the command climate, we talk about that from Day One," said Capt. Bill Nault, head of the leadership school. "This is not just another job in the Navy. You're going into command and you're going to be the face of the Navy wherever you go, 24-7."
Four-star officers routinely visit the classes to emphasize the prestige and special trust that commanding officers enjoy, Nault said. Recent speakers include Adm. Kirkland Donald, director of naval nuclear propulsion, and Adm. Jonathan Greenert, vice chief of naval operations.
Asked if the spike in firings indicated a problem with the leadership school, Nault replied: "I don't think about it in those terms. All I think about is in terms of how I adapt the curriculum to keep it up to date and applicable to the students based on a wide variety of fleet inputs, from fleet needs and from the students' needs."
The removal process
Whether a commanding officer is fired and taken to mast or court-martial, or simply relieved for a loss of confidence, the most common mechanism to administratively remove is detachment for cause.
"The DFC process is there to get that officer out of there right now," Falardeau said, explaining that relieving a skipper before the end of his tour means finding a relief and paying for him and his family to relocate on short notice, which can be a very expensive process. This process frees up funds for the unexpected relief.
In some cases, the officer is asked to "show cause" for why he should remain in the Navy.
Still, in spite of its formidable reputation, a detachment is not necessarily a career-ender. It is a significant impediment to promotion, though. Take a commander who runs his ship aground, gets fired, but stays in the Navy, Falardeau explained.
"Does that mean he's a horrible guy?" Falardeau asked. "No, and he probably has an awful lot to continue to offer to the Navy. And I'm going to tell you right now, a lot of them stay in the Navy."