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Mabus censures former CO in call-sign slur case

Jul. 22, 2011 - 07:04PM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 22, 2011 - 07:04PM  |  
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Previous coverage

Officer in call-sign slur case wants apology (April 28)

In a slap at the fading and officially out-of-favor tradition of racy, sarcastic and irreverent aviation call signs, a just-retired Navy fighter squadron commanding officer was censured by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus Wednesday for failing to halt and subsequently condoning the hazing of a junior officer at a 2009 call sign review board where assembled officers voted to call the officer "Romo's Bitch," the Navy announced late Friday.

"You were given a position of special trust and responsibility," Mabus wrote. During that Aug. 17, 2009, board, he continued, "You failed to exercise appropriate leadership and demonstrated a profound lack of judgment."

The Navy also announced that the Naval Inspector General substantiated subsequent whistleblower complaints by Lt.j.g. Steve Crowston regarding that hazing, which violates Navy policy, as well as Cmdr. Liam Bruen's authorization of excessive liberty and improper use of rental cars while the squadron was deployed to Fallon, Nev. Those reports were completed in March but had to be processed for public release, according to Cmdr. Danny Hernandez, a Navy spokesman.

The IG had earlier found that Bruen issued an unfavorable fitness report to Crowston, who is not a pilot and served as the squadron's administration and legal officer, in retaliation for filing an official complaint about the environment within the squadron.

In addition, the IG said in its newer report, the then-executive and now commanding officer of Strike Fighter Squadron 136, Cmdr. Damien Christopher — who was present at the call sign review board — also failed to halt and thereby condoned the hazing. The actions of both officers, the IG said, subsequently permitted sexual harassment in the form of a hostile work environment, in violation of Navy Equal Opportunity Policy.

Bruen had already lost his job as operations officer aboard the carrier John C. Stennis. His sudden June 1 retirement made moot any further action on the Naval Air Force Pacific recommendation that he be detached for cause, Hernandez said. A copy of the letter of censure and the Naval IG report will be filed in his permanent record.

Despite the findings, Christopher remains in command of VFA-136, which recently returned from a six-month deployment aboard the carrier Enterprise. According to Hernandez, "appropriate corrective actions have been completed by Commander, Carrier Air Wing One and endorsed by the chain of command."

Christopher was formally counseled by the commander of Air Wing 1, Capt. Jeffrey Trent, according to a May 24 memo on Crowston's hotline complaint, also released by the Navy Friday, from Adm. John Harvey, commander of Fleet Forces Command. Trent also issued Christopher an unspecified letter of admonition — the type was blanked out in the memo — that "identified deficiencies and provided guidance regarding consequences of non-compliance with the Department of the Navy policies on hazing and equal opportunity."

Two days later, on Apr. 4, Christopher also was formally counseled by Rear Adm. Terry Kraft, commander of Carrier Strike Group 12.

Christopher, Harvey wrote in closing the memo, "Failed to provide forceful backup to his commanding officer … the appropriate action would have been to immediately advise the commanding officer to terminate the board and address the issues that both officers indicated they knew at the time to be problematic, rather than wait until after to discuss the event in private."

But Harvey also praised Christopher, writing that he "turned the climate around, earned outstanding reviews from his chain of command, and performed superbly in leading his squadron in combat operations." Harvey said he agreed that "it is appropriate to retain Cmdr. Christopher in command."

Other officers present at that August call sign review also have been admonished. Hernandez said "appropriate corrective actions" have been taken against at least some of those officers; he could not say how many were affected.

Bruen, who declined an interview Friday evening but provided a copy of his formal response to Naval Air Forces Pacific, called the IG reports "troubling and one-sided."

He said he recognized that what took place at the call sign review board constituted what the Navy's Equal Opportunity Policy calls "yellow light" behavior, or that which skirts the line of acceptability. He wrote that he addressed the issue at the next all-officers meeting. He said that several officers had been the subject of homosexually oriented call signs, "and I viewed all of them as inappropriate."

Bruen added that Crowston had told Christopher that he wanted apologies from the officers who'd recommended the offending call signs — other suggestions included "Fagmeister" and "Gay Boy" — but thought it better to address the behavior without identifying Crowston as the officer who'd complained. Afterward, and after Christopher met with Crowston, Bruen said Crowston said he was satisfied with the action taken but later re-raised his concerns.

He also denied that he wrote Crowston a negative fitness report in retaliation for making the complaints. "I assessed his performance as an officer to be marginal to poor," Bruen wrote.

Christopher told Navy Times that the Naval IG's findings are under review by the Department of Defense IG — at his request — and that the findings are "therefore subject to being overturned by the DoD-IG."

In an email, Christopher expressed disappointment over the Naval IG re-opening the case after he'd been cleared by the AIRLANT IG and said the Naval IG concluded that he'd condoned hazing "using flawed legal analysis."

Christopher added: "I am grateful for the continued support of my chain of command."

Crowston, also reached Friday, was in a celebratory mood.

"After 18 long months, the substantiated findings of sexual harassment and hazing are a victory for the gay, lesbian, and bisexual members serving in the Navy and throughout the Armed Forces," he wrote in an email. "No one should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. Hopefully this case will encourage gays, lesbians, and bisexuals to stand up even more so for themselves and fight homophobic bigotry anytime and anywhere."

Crowston also noted President Obama's earlier certification to Congress that the military is ready to repeal its "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bans service by openly gay individuals.

"Today is a day to celebrate!" he wrote. "We can all celebrate again on 20 September after the 60-day waiting period and again when the Defense of Marriage Act is finally buried."

Crowston has never acknowledged his sexual preference, saying it's immaterial because he filed his complaints because of what he considered to be inappropriate workplace harassment.

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