Cmdr. Fred Wilhelm was fired as commander of the dock landing ship Gunston Hall in 2010. ()
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The commanding officer of the dock landing ship Gunston Hall could not believe he was under the scrutiny of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service for sexual harassment.
"I was completely shocked and caught off-guard," Cmdr. Fred Wilhelm told an NCIS agent at the outset of his Aug. 2, 2010, interview.
But Wilhelm later acknowledged a free-spirited nature with a comment that, when viewed in the context of his abuse of alcohol and numerous complaints from female officers, seemed to sum up the entire problem on the ship in 2009 and 2010.
"I will say that I enjoy having a good time," Wilhelm said, according to the NCIS investigation obtained by Navy Times.
It was too good a time and too loose a command climate for the Naval Surface Force Atlantic commander, who dressed down Wilhelm during an August 2010 nonjudicial hearing in his Norfolk office before relieving him of his command.
Wilhelm acknowledged elements of his subordinates' complaints about his off-ship partying, but said his drinking was moderate. "I do not consume more than seven beers on liberty," he said. "I may have some beers and some occasionally [sic] shots, but I always make sure either [names redacted] is with me to make sure I don't get overly intoxicated."
On at least one occasion, Wilhelm did need some help. After a hail-and-farewell event during a port call in Souda Bay, Greece, he admitted getting sick after drinking and throwing up on his shoes while riding a liberty bus back to the ship. He blamed it on inadvertently swallowing some chewing tobacco.
Wilhelm was highly social.
"There was a lot of pressure to go out," a female officer said. "He would tell us that there were other people to take our [duty] positions so that we could go out with him."
"He would address the crew on managing their alcohol and not going out and drinking too much, but then would do exactly that himself," another female officer said. "In the past, he has addressed the crew with a hangover from the night before."
The Navy provided only a rough sketch of the conduct and climate when it announced Wilhelm's relief last year. But the NCIS investigation Rear Adm. Dave Thomas relied upon to mete out discipline, although heavily redacted, is almost a clinic on the wrong way for commanding officers to comport themselves, especially male COs leading female officers.
The document was released to Navy Times through the Freedom of Information Act more than a year after the initial request. All names and ranks were blacked out, but a Navy official familiar with the investigation confirmed Wilhelm's statement, providing a cross-reference to details in others' statements.
Alcohol abuse was a common thread running through the 176-page investigation. But the larger problem, and the initial basis for the investigation, was Wilhelm's apparent propensity for touching his female officers, and making or condoning others' sexually suggestive jokes and comments.
During a wardroom conversation, a female officer remarked how she'd been startled earlier by someone who had come up behind her. Wilhelm remarked, "So ... you like it from behind?" A common joke was of the "that's what she said" variety — if someone said something like, "That was hard," the response would be, "That's what she said."
A female officer said she was preparing to go on leave in June 2009 to get married. Wilhelm, she said, pulled her into his stateroom and said she "better not get f——— pregnant on my honeymoon." In May 2010, she left the ship to attend a school in Newport, R.I., but scored only a 76 — one point above passing — on her first test. The score got back to Wilhelm, who told another female officer that she'd probably scored poorly because she was "banging" her husband the night before, she said.
After the commanding officer of the dock landing ship Fort McHenry was fired in December 2009 for fraternizing with an unidentified crew member, one of Wilhelm's officers told NCIS that he called her three times in a matter of minutes to ask if she knew a certain crew member on Fort McHenry and whether "she was hot." She put him off, but a few minutes later, when she subsequently asked permission to enter the wardroom, she said Wilhelm loudly announced, "We can't have sex!" "I was stunned and felt sick and said, ‘What?' " she told an agent. "He thought I didn't hear him so he repeated, "We can't have sex!" like he was insinuating that I had propositioned him. He then called her over and again asked about the crew member on Fort McHenry.
A female officer said that in early 2010, when the ship was deployed to Haiti, she made a comment in the wardroom that she was hungry. Wilhelm, she said, asked her if she was pregnant. She replied, "No sir, I'm not." She said he replied, "Good, because if you were, I'd hand you a coat hanger."
A male officer assigned to Destroyer Squadron 60 told NCIS that while he felt Wilhelm was "very professional," he also had an attitude of "work hard, play hard." He also found it "odd" that the nightly operations intelligence brief would "always start off with a joke. ... The jokes in my opinion were inappropriate."
Then there was the touching. One female officer was on the ship's bridge when Wilhelm came up behind her and "grabbed me on my sides just under my bra line. I turned around and told him to stop." Instead, she said, "He picked me up and held me up in the air a moment before letting me down. I wasn't even in his way."
On two occasions, Wilhelm admitted that he picked up a female officer — once on the ship's bridge — and held her in a fireman's carry. No training was apparently underway at the time.
An unidentified officer told NCIS that on one such occasion, he said to Wilhelm, "Sir, you can't pick up the ensigns." Wilhelm asked him why, and the officer said that others were watching.
The touching wasn't done with a sexual overtone, Wilhelm said. "I have a coaching leadership style," he said. "I regularly put my arm around male and female staff when encouraging them. I have occasionally poked the sides of female officers to get their attention."
Wilhelm also defended the loose talk. "All of the sexual jokes and comments I participated in seemed in my opinion to encourage a free and laid-back atmosphere," he said, adding that morale was low when he took command in April 2009 and that he "wanted to create an atmosphere where officers and department heads felt comfortable and more like a family."
"I never received any complaints from any personnel that anyone was offended or uncomfortable about the jokes or comments," Wilhelm said.
Relieved of command
Thomas didn't think it was funny. On Aug. 12, 2010, Thomas found Wilhelm guilty of sexual harassment, maltreatment of a subordinate, simple assault, conduct unbecoming an officer, drunk and disorderly conduct and use of indecent language, and relieved him of his command. Wilhelm was one of 17 COs relieved for cause in 2010; at least two cases were related to drinking.
Thomas also disciplined the executive officer, Cmdr. Kevin Rafferty, for dereliction of duty, and the ship's top enlisted, Command Master Chief (SS) Wayne Owings, for dereliction of duty, sexual harassment and simple assault. Both had already transferred.
Wilhelm left the Navy on Sept. 30, 2011, according to Navy Personnel Command. His whereabouts are unknown, so Navy Times was unable to reach him for comment.
The inquiry was launched by an anonymous complaint to the SURFLANT inspector general hotline regarding sexual harassment by the Gunston Hall command staff. The IG findings led to an NCIS investigation during July and August 2010.
The difference in tone between the statements of male and female officers is striking. Most of the men generally said they saw nothing inappropriate. "Nothing that seemed offensive. ... I would characterize these jokes as ‘soft core' and nothing I would be offended to have my wife hear or be told," one said.
One male officer countered the women's complaints about ribald comments, saying that the women in the wardroom "engaged in these jokes and stories more than the males." Still, he said, "the wardroom was too casual and was crossing the line for what should be acceptable."
The presence of outsiders tamped down the hijinks. "The command is completely different" with visitors aboard, one female officer said. Underway visitors in 2010 included Africa Partnership Station officers and members of the DESRON 60 command staff.
A female officer assigned to DESRON 60 embarked on Gunston Hall said she spoke with Wilhelm about a lack of professionalism within the wardroom, particularly during the evening briefs.
She said he told her that one of his goals had been to improve morale and cohesion; he "acknowledged that obviously he'd let things go a bit too far but would rectify the situation."