Cmdr. Joseph R. Darlak, left, and Cmdr. Ivan Jimenez were relieved of duty on Friday. ()
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Their misstep came early: trying to match the Russians shot for shot. A few hours after docking in Vladivostok on Sept. 20, the frigate Vandegrift's skipper and officers attended a luncheon reception on a Russian cruiser punctuated by toasts.
American naval attaches, dispatched to steer them through the visit, had earlier advised the officers not to try to keep up with the Russians — advice they would "proudly disregard" amid the toasts, the attaches later reported. Vodka flowed.
So began a three-day port call, the ship's first in nearly two months, that found the wardroom behaving less like ambassadors for the Navy and more like frat boys during rush week, exhibiting a party-hard mentality that would cost some of them their jobs. It's just the latest reminder that the service has work to do in breaking its "anything-goes-in-port" culture.
On Vandegrift, the problems started at the top, a subsequent command investigation makes clear. Officers flouted buddy rules. They drank to abandon, impairing their judgment. The operations boss swore at a senior officer. The chief engineer roamed a strip club looking for a fight. And the navigator gave the navigation brief while drunk.
Overseeing this port call had been the responsibility of Cmdr. Joseph Darlak, the frigate's commanding officer. At the ship's last reception on the flight deck, he allegedly told his crew: "Keep drinking. I don't want to restock any alcohol." This party raged until the Russians asked them to turn down the music.
The incidents that led to Darlak's Nov. 2 relief preceded a series of heinous crimes and embarrassing incidents in Japan that prompted a 7th Fleet liberty crackdown.
The 197-page report reveals a command where drinking was seen by those in charge as a pursuit and not a behavioral problem. Crew members got hammered in the presence of their shipmates. And countless opportunities to intervene were missed. The report called the ship's alcohol abuse program "non-existent." What makes the Vandegrift case stand out is where this misconduct emanated from — the top.
"The behavior of key leaders in the wardroom shed unfavorable light upon USS Vandegrift, the Navy and our nation," wrote Capt. John Schultz, the then-commodore of Destroyer Squadron 15, in the official report, which was obtained by Navy Times through a Freedom of Information Act filing. "Those setting, establishing and upholding the liberty policy for this port visit abdicated their ambassadorial and leadership responsibilities in favor of conduct that command policies were set to prevent."
Schultz cited Darlak for not doing enough to stop the misconduct of his officers, notably his No. 2, Lt. Cmdr. Ivan Jimenez, but stopped short of calling for Darlak's ouster. The strike group commander overruled him and fired Darlak, making him the 21st of the 25 COs canned this year, as well as Jimenez, the executive officer, and two department heads. And the naval attaches were criticized for taking the ship's CO and leaders, who were in uniform, to a strip club.
Four officers, including a new CO and XO, had to be flown out to take over for the reliefs and bring the ship home to San Diego.
Darlak, a 1990 Naval Academy grad who had only been in command for three months at the time of his relief, did not respond to requests for comment. Jimenez, a former CO of amphibious transport dock Dubuque, was reached on his cellphone Dec. 20 and said, "I don't wish to make a comment." The Navy redacted the names and ranks of the other personnel involved, including the two department heads, whose identities are not releaseable per the Navy's interpretation of the Privacy Act.
This is the story of the vodka-drenched port call that wrecked four careers and stained many more.
Day One - ‘Wilding out'
After the lunch and toasts on the Russian cruiser Varyag, Darlak and Jimenez headed to an Irish pub in Vladivostok. The ops boss, the command master chief and the naval attaches joined them. The new arrivals downed beers and a bottle of vodka. They drank a second bottle of vodka at another bar.
By early evening, the operations officer was sloshed, according to the report. He demanded the group go where the "girls are" and grew "belligerent" when they didn't respond fast enough.
The group then headed to Club XXX, a nightclub recommended by the attaches. It turned out to be a strip club where much of the crew was waiting for the 10 p.m. show to begin. Darlak decided this wasn't his sort of place and returned to the ship with the XO, CMC and OPSO. But XO and OPSO were eager to get back to see the striptease.
One attache told the hammered ops officer, "Your night is over," the CMC recalled. But the XO stepped forward. He assured Darlak he'd "take care" of the ops boss and so, after borrowing some money from the CO, the two headed back to the strip club.
This violated the ship's liberty rules — the very policy that Jimenez was responsible for enforcing. It mandated that crew members leave the ship together in groups of three, one of whom had to be a non-drinker. The XO said he'd meet the other buddy, an ensign, at the strip joint. (For a commander select to choose an ensign as his non-drinking liberty buddy is "highly questionable," the report concluded.)
They found a lot of shipmates at Club XXX, including the chief engineer. Binge drinking had brought the "alpha-male" side of his personality to the fore, the CHENG admitted later. He was looking for trouble, two crew members recalled.
"Once I sat down with the other [chief petty officers], someone smack[ed] my head from behind and it was the CHENG," said one senior crew member, most likely the chief quartermaster. "I told him to sit down and look at the girls. CHENG wanted to sit down with me. He took my beer and CHENG said that he could kick my ass."
They started tussling right in the club.
Over the next hour, the officers kept drinking. Liberty expired at midnight, so at 11 p.m., shore patrol started to round up the crew. They encountered some resistance. The naval attaches arrived with a van to bring sailors back to the ship and saw the scene. The CHENG sat on a park bench, too drunk to move, according to the report. But the biggest troublemaker was another department head.
Hours of drinking had unhinged the ops boss. His uniform was disheveled. Witnesses described his mood as "belligerent." OPSO grew agitated that some Russian teenagers took pictures of the sloshed Americans filing out of the bar. He tried to stop them, despite orders from the shore patrol.
After 11 hours of boozing, OPSO was out of control. Ordered to sit, he got up. Ordered to get into the van, he refused.
One of the two attaches, a commander, stepped forward to help. But the ops boss ignored him.
"You know you are talking to a senior officer?" the attache asked.
"F—- off," OPSO replied.
Eventually they got the ops boss, along with other chiefs and officers, into the van. OPSO provoked the others with what one shore patrol member called "s—- talking." The van got unruly.
"OPSO was being crazy in the van and we had to grab OPSO to sit him back down in his seat," another shore patroller told investigators afterward. "He wanted to fight."
The XO, drunk to the point of stumbling, grabbed the chief engineer and tried to calm him down.
The passengers got out at the pier. The XO hit his rack. The ops boss did the same. He blacked out and has no memory of this night, he later told investigators. But the engineer stayed on the quarterdeck. "He is crying and incoherent," the attaches reported later. "He refuses to leave the [quarterdeck]."
The liaison officers asked the officer of the deck to secure the wardroom's liberty.
Stories circulated the next day of "people wilding out," one crew member recalled.
Day Two - The ship's reception
The attaches arrived at 9:45 a.m. They headed to the captain's cabin and told him they wanted to address the wardroom. Dressed in overalls and boots, Jimenez was still "visibly drunk and mumbling," the attaches said in the report. The attaches ran through the issues from the previous night. Darlak expressed surprise. So did Jimenez, despite having been present for most of it.
The attaches recommended Darlak secure liberty for both the operations officer and chief engineer. Darlak agreed.
After the attaches told the wardroom to shape up and thanked the chief's mess for behaving, liberty was called.
The ship, scheduled to depart Vladivostok the next morning, planned a day of events for their hosts. Guests from the Varyag arrived at 2 p.m. for lunch. Eager to show the same level of hospitality as the Russians, the ship bought two bottles of vodka. Glasses rose in toast.
One issue discovered later: Navy regs only authorize ships to serve sherry, wine and beer at official receptions. Darlak and the supply officer said afterward they weren't aware of this rule.
The leftover vodka was saved for the ship's reception that evening. The ship also purchased whiskey and rum in violations of regs. A Russian admiral was one of the 130 guests to attend the reception on the flight deck. The ops officer and the chief engineer, both on liberty risk for their alcohol-fueled misbehavior, attended and drank. So did the CO, CMC and XO. After sunset, the guests and attaches started to depart, but the reception continued. The music shifted from background music to pop songs, and the volume rose.
It was around this time Darlak said, "Keep drinking," according to the attaches.
Asked about this later, Darlak admitted that "I made a comment to the effect that it would be a shame for [the leftover vodka] to go to waste," according to his sworn statement dated Oct. 9.
The navigator came back onboard and downed 10 drinks in full view of his bosses and sailors. But no one intervened.
The attaches received a phone call at 10 p.m. with a message from the Russian captain who served as a liaison officer: tell Vandegrift to "turn the music down." When the attaches arrived, they found a bawdy scene.
"Party onboard is going strong," they later reported, noting that the CO, XO, OPSO and CHENG were "very drunk." (Other witnesses disagreed with this assessment.) A civilian, who was a U.S. citizen, had apparently gotten onboard the ship without being logged in. And the command duty officer, responsible for the pierside ship, seemed to be hung over or drunk. His eyes were bloodshot, he was spitting dip tobacco and he was blinking constantly. An agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service who was present said he appeared to be drunk.
The command investigation concluded the CDO was not drunk, but "potentially suffering from a degree of sleep deprivation," the report states. The report does not address whether this officer was fit to stand duty.
The following morning, watchstanders gathered on the mess decks for the navigation brief, where they review the outbound track and review the risks and safety procedures.
The navigator arrived late and read through the brief, drunk. Attendees said he "looked rough," and appeared to be "still intoxicated."
The navigator, who was set to transfer soon, later acknowledged to investigators that "it was not my best brief."
Afterward, the XO brought him to the bridge and said that the chief quartermaster would navigate the ship that morning. The navigator was placed on liberty risk for the next port call, but as with the other cases, no fitness for duty screening was performed, and the incident was not reported to the ship's alcohol abuse coordinator. The navigator later apologized. Both he and the ops boss were restricted to the ship at the next port call. The chief engineer was not.
That would have been the end. But the attaches complained, sparking an investigation. This came as a surprise to Darlak.
"The NCIS agent briefed to me that there were no complaints to the local police about this incident," Darlak said, referring to the fight on the first night, "and that it had been a good port visit."
Four weeks later, he was fired. The ship returned home under a new skipper.