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As headlines show, commanding officer firings are becoming more and more frequent. Roughly half stem from personal misbehavior. Navy leaders have provided information on these firings to the public — unlike other services — but have stopped short of labeling the increase as troubling.
Now, a former Navy CO has come forward with an approach to stem the tide of reliefs: It begins with acknowledging there's a problem.
Capt. Mark Light, a naval aviator, reviewed 11 years of CO detachments for cause for his master's thesis. His conclusion: These failures are a systemic problem the Navy needs to urgently address.
"The U.S. Navy has an integrity problem in the ranks of its commanding officers," Light wrote in a bombshell report published this summer in the Naval War College Review. "The number of COs fired for personal misconduct is too high, and we can and must do better — but doing so will require that Navy leadership makes it a priority."
Light, now a professor at the U.S. Army War College, said in a Sept. 13 interview that he wrote the article to spark a discussion and prompt the Navy to re-examine the cultural forces underlying the reliefs.
"I don't think the sense of urgency has been elevated enough," Light said of the Navy's response. "[Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert] mentioned it. He addressed it with standards of command. But it still seems to be a minor nuisance sort of problem."
Navy spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby dismissed Light's conclusion that these reliefs were a product of Navy culture, saying: "The whole culture of the Navy is designed to produce good leaders because we know that's how you have a good Navy."
In the article, Light calls the "Charge of Command" memo — issued last year to reiterate the conduct demanded of COs — "merely Scotch tape on the problem" and noted that publicizing CO firings hasn't resulted in fewer reliefs.
Light, who commanded Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 40 from 2006 to 2008, wrote that COs must concern themselves with their subordinates' character. When an officer exhibits a character flaw, it should be addressed. If they take responsibility and change, then they're better for it. But if they lie or deflect blame, then they may have "an intrinsic ethical void that must be documented," Light wrote.
"COs must explicitly demand integrity from them — and mentor or document shortcomings appropriately," Light wrote. "Otherwise they encourage the behavior we want to eliminate in those chosen for command, which ensures the cycle will continue."
Here are three steps Light argues the Navy needs to take:
• Track it. Create "a central database of every CO relieved of command owing to personal and professional failures (recording the specific cause for the dismissal, as well as demographic data) to facilitate future tracking and analysis."
• Character campaign. The Navy should set explicit standards of integrity and character, and implement them as policy. Light suggests the Navy's core values — honor, courage, commitment — be expanded to include character. And he argues everyone needs more "regular, lively and meaningful emphasis on ethical behavior."
• Change the fitrep. One of the seven performance categories on fitness reports is "military bearing/character." Light argues that character should become its own category and compares it with the Army's equivalent, in which an officer is rated on all seven of the Army's core values. "Such specific evaluation of character is required to emphasize the priorities we desire in commanding officers," Light wrote.