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Sex for career advancement: Navy says commander propositioned subordinate

February 5, 2016 (Photo Credit: Lance M. Bacon/Staff)

The commander of a multi-billion dollar American warship was fired on the eve of its Middle East deployment last year after a drunken night out with his subordinates led to allegations of sexual harassment, Navy Times has learned.

Capt. Brian Sorenson’s 25-year military career began to unravel Aug. 30, when he and several junior officers assigned to the cruiser Anzio attended a "wetting down" party at a bar in Yorktown, Virginia. He is accused of engaging in a highly inappropriate conversation with a woman who worked for him, allegedly propositioning her for sex in exchange for career advancement, according to a Navy investigation report obtained Thursday via the Freedom of Information Act.

The report also includes allegations from a female officer who told investigators that Sorenson grabbed her buttocks while they were in the bar. It is unclear if the complaint was made by the same woman or another, as the Navy's report is heavily redacted.

Last month, Sorenson was found guilty of violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice. An admiral has recommended the captain be separated from the service. 

Reached by email, Sorenson declined to comment on the Navy's report. His attorney, Greg McCormack, provided a brief statement to Navy Times indicating the captain intends to appeal his case.

“Capt. Sorenson has an exemplary service record and has provided 25 years of outstanding naval service to our country,” McCormack said. “We look forward to this legal process, which will provide a forum for the truth to prevail.”

The Navy's investigation was conducted by Carrier Strike Group 8, Anzio's parent command. The ship and its crew of about 350 are in the Middle East currently as part of the Truman carrier strike group. They are tasked with providing air defense for the aircraft carrier.

 

According to the Navy's report, the woman with whom Sorenson allegedly sought to have sex was nearing the deadline to receive her surface warfare officer qualification. She told investigators that the day after their group outing in Yorktown, Sorenson sat her down in his cabin and asked her if she would sleep with him in exchange for her SWO pin, a Navy uniform device that denotes an officer has achieved all basic qualifications required of the service's surface warfare community.

The woman's name is redacted in the report. As a rule, Navy Times does not identify the alleged victims of sexual assault or harassment. 

 

Word of the alleged encounter in Sorenson's cabin spread among his crew, prompting the ship's executive officer and top enlisted sailor to initiate a command investigation that ultimately ended with Sorenson’s firing in mid-September. On Jan. 4, Sorenson was found guilty of violating the service's sexual harassment guidelines, of committing sexual misconduct and of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, said Lt. Cmdr. Myers Vasquez, a spokesman for Naval Surface Force Atlantic. 

Sorenson was given a punitive letter of reprimand, Vasquez said.

Sorenson elected not to submit a statement to investigators, according to a Navy attorney familiar with the case, but a synopsis of the investigators' interview with him was included in the report provided to Navy Times. Investigators noted that while Sorenson admitted drinking too much, he declined to answer questions about the allegations he made sexual advances.

Sorenson, a 1991 Naval Academy graduate, will likely face an administrative board to determine if he should be retained in the service, and he'll be allowed to argue his side of the story.

Sorenson, who assumed command of Anzio in November 2014, was reassigned to SURFLANT. Earlier in 2015, he led a relatively junior Anzio crew in the multi-national Joint Warrior exercise — the largest of its kind in Europe. Prior to taking Anzio’s helm, he had served as commodore of Afloat Training Group Atlantic; commanding officer of destroyer Mitscher; and deputy commodore for Destroyer Squadron 26. Sorenson is a 1991 Naval Academy graduate.

'Wetting down' 

The night at the bar in Yorktown began as a promotion party. The so-called "wetting down" was held while Anzio was being loaded with ammunition ahead of its November deployment.

The wardroom — a naval term for the ship's officers — hopped in a government van at 6 p.m. When they arrived at the bar, several enlisted crew members were there drinking as well, the report says. The officers, including Sorenson, began quizzing the woman about the responsibilities expected of an officer of the deck, a position of significance among the ship's crew.

During the evening, many of the officers became intoxicated, according to the Navy's report. At one point, Sorenson allegedly approached the woman and asked her to meet him on a bench outside the bar, the report says.

The two shared a cigarette, and Sorenson allegedly asked if she would have sex with him, according the report. The woman thought it was a joke, and said she would in exchange for her surface warfare officer pin, the report says.

A crew member who was outside the bar on his phone, talking to his grandmother, overheard the commander making explicit remarks to the woman and asking her about specific sexual acts, according to the report. Other sailors told investigators that they were uncomfortable seeing Sorenson and the junior officer sitting so close together. One sailor remarked that the scene looked like an example from one of the Navy’s sexual assault prevention training videos, the investigation says.

As the night wore on, the officers' behavior grew sloppier, one sailor told investigators.

"The whole night the officers were acting like hooligans," the sailor said in his statement to investigators. "I used to be a [bartender] and could tell that the get-together of the officers was turning into a sludge-fest. And if I was serving the officers, I would have cut them off."

Sorenson was intoxicated when he got into the van to go back to the ship, according to the report. Witnesses told investigators that the captain kept repeating two phrases: “The crew is all that matters” and “f--- the crew,” the report says.

'Privacy Please'

The next morning, as rumors of the officers’ behavior circulated, Sorenson allegedly summoned the woman to his stateroom to discuss her surface warfare qualifications, the report states. When she entered the room, Sorenson allegedly asked her to hang a “Privacy Please” sign on the outside of the door. The officer told investigators that that's when Sorenson propositioned her, according to the Navy's report.

“If I give you your SWO pin, will you sleep with me?” her statement reads.

When she refused, Sorenson allegedly made more suggestive remarks, before finally turning to questions about navigation rules and other knowledge required of the officer of the deck, the report states. He then signed her OOD letter and she left the room distraught, the woman told investigators.

 

COMPTUEX
The guided-missile cruiser Anzio, seen here in the Atlantic Ocean during a training exercise in late September.
Photo Credit: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman L. E. Skelton/Released

The allegations are “he said, she said,” investigators wrote in the report, adding that the third-party witness testimony about Sorenson’s alleged behavior the night before made the woman's statement more credible. Additionally, the investigator concluded in the report, the officer had little if nothing to gain by making unfounded allegations, especially with her qualifications deadline looming.

When investigators interviewed others on the ship, they heard from multiple female officers who reported having been made to feel uncomfortable by Sorenson. One even kept a logbook detailing interactions with Sorenson that she deemed creepy, the report says.

“Capt. Brian Sorenson should not return to command of USS Anzio or any other command, at sea or at shore,” the investigating officer wrote in the report's opinions. “Strong consideration should be given to charging Sorenson with violations of the UCMJ.”

Rear Adm. Bret Batchelder, the strike group commander, largely agreed with the recommendations and opinions and signed the letter of endorsement Oct. 15. 

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