Capt. Gregory McWherter, left, received a reprimand Tuesday after being found guilty of condoning a 'toxic' command climate during the second of his two stints leading the Blue Angels. (MC2 Jen Blake / U.S. Navy)
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Capt. Gregory McWherter served not once, but twice, as commanding officer of the Navy’s elite flight demonstration squadron. His first tour seemed to go smoothly, according to a Pacific Fleet investigation released Tuesday, but something went awry when he returned to replace an ousted CO in 2011.
When McWherter came back to the Blue Angels, he was dealing with a broken dynamic, Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Harry Harris wrote, so he tried to put things back together with camaraderie and democracy.
The only problem: this led to inappropriate behavior and a majority rule, even when the majority went against Navy policy, the investigation found.
McWherter was found guilty at an admiral’s mast Monday of condoning crude practices on the F/A-18 flight team that led to a sexually hostile command climate, PACFLT said in a Tuesday statement released in tandem with a 63-page report that revealed new details in the high-profile relief.
Harris issued McWherter a letter of reprimand for “failing to stop obvious and repeated instances of sexual harassment, condoning widespread lewd practices within the squadron and engaging in inappropriate and unprofessional discussions with his junior officers,” the release said.
It wasn’t always that way, though, according to the investigation. Interviews with pilots and support officers from McWherter’s 2008-2010 tour found that he had previously corrected his officers when their behavior went over the line.
Overall, most of those interviewed said they didn’t witness sexual harassment in the ready room during his second tour, but felt that McWherter allowed frat-boy like antics because he wanted to fit in.
“In essence, Captain McWherter lost his sense of rectitude and decent behavior when he re-assumed command in 2011,” Harris wrote.
The PACFLT report released Tuesday contained a trove of issues and incidents, including:
Cockpit pin-ups. Both male and female crew chiefs would place pornographic photos, usually of nude women, in the cockpits for the pilots’ amusement. During his second tour, the issue came up in the ready room, and McWherter decided that the photos should be toned down, to only “Maxim-type,” semi-nude images, the report said.
McWherter said he “thought the pornography was appropriate because it reflected a special trust shared between the pilot and crew chief.”
In November 2011, after he received an anonymous letter forwarded to him by the CO of Naval Air Station, Pensacola, complaining about the pin-ups and sexually-charged atmosphere, he banned the photos altogether.
Inappropriate group texts. The squadron used an app called GroupMe to send mass text messages, sometimes about schedule updates and other operational discussions. Often they used it to joke around and send pornographic photos, usually of male genitalia, the investigation found.
Though McWherter never sent any of the photos, according to the report, he did not discourage the behavior. The “vulgar, homophobic, and sexually suggestive” discussions didn’t stop until a female member of the squadron sent out a message requesting that they create a separate GroupMe conversation for the photos, the report said.
A lewd painting. During the 2012 air show season, a team member painted a blue and gold penis on the roof of a trailer at the squadron’s winter training facility in El Centro, California. It was big enough to be seen on Google Maps satellite imagery.
The painting stayed up throughout the season, until an officer used his own money to purchase paint and cover the artwork, the investigation found.
Ready room pornography. One officer —whose name and rank are, like others, redacted from the investigation — reportedly showed the other officers in the ready room photos of his girlfriends, sometimes nude.
“McWherter would actively participate in these conversations, would view the pictures, and when [name redacted] would go for a period without offering up the pictures, McWherter would request them out loud in front of everyone,” the report said.
During Halloween 2011, two members of the Blue Angels and their significant others carved pornographic images into pumpkins. One of them brought these “pornkins” into the ready room. Some members say McWherter ordered them removed, but others say he took a photo of them and sent it to his wife, the report said.
A March 24 complaint from a service member launched the investigation into McWherter’s command climate.
He was relieved of duty as executive officer of Naval Base Coronado, California, on April 18, after the allegations arose. He had served there since November 2013.
Several of McWherter’s subordinates received formal written counseling for contributing to the hostile command climate, the PACFLT release said.