The officer who was in charge of two riverine boats that strayed into Iranian waters in January 2016 scored a victory Tuesday before a separation board in Imperial Beach, California, allowing him to stay in the Navy.
But the future Navy career of Lt. David Nartker remains unclear for now.
“The bottom line is that the system worked as it should,” said Phillip Lowry, Nartker’s Utah-based lawyer.
“We don’t know how he’ll be reassigned or when — the Navy personnel machine has to figure that out — but essentially the flag will be removed and he’ll continue on with his career.”
The Navy attempted to separate Nartker based partially on what he was found guilty of at admiral’s mast in August: failure to obey a general order.
That order, Lowry said, was a standing order that boat crews were to upgrade their weapons condition from condition four to condition three once they left their home base for a patrol.
Nartker was issued a letter of reprimand by now retired Rear Adm. Frank Morneau, who was head of the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command at the time.
But it was Morneau’s guilty finding that led the Navy Personnel Command to initiate administrative separation proceedings on Nartker.
The Navy’s reasoning for seeking the discharge, Lowry said, was not only that he had disobeyed a standing order, but also that he’d made the Navy look bad, too.
“The other charge was substandard performance based on his physical appearance and deportment,” Lowry said.
Narker was among the 10 sailors who surrendered to the Iranian military and later appeared in a propaganda video made by their captors, causing an international incident.
“The basis for the case was that he had been in the Iranian propaganda video and it made the Navy look bad — and because it made the Navy look bad, [Nartker] looked bad and therefore he should be fired," Lowry said.
Nartker appeared on video admitting they’d made a mistake.
The Navy’s investigation into the matter found that statement was made as a condition of the boat crew’s release, something that’s a violation of the code of conduct that all service members must adhere to when in enemy hands.
Lowry said he looked up the regulations and it said that the “deportment” charge the Navy was using is one normally used to enforce fitness failures and a history of poor grooming standards in a very broad sense and argued to the board that its applicability in this case wasn’t proper.
“What they tried to do is use a teeny window of this regulation and drive a truck through it,” he said. “And the board saw through it.
But just what Nartker’s future in the Navy will be remains to be seen. A 2011 Naval Academy graduate, he’s been on active duty for just under six years.
As a surface warfare officer, Nartker now faces an uphill battle in that community and in the Navy. As part of Nartker's punishment at admiral’s mast, Morneau also took away the 28-year-old officer’s surface warfare qualification and pin, too.
But for now, Tuesday's ruling by the three-officer board is a victory for Nartker.
“These three officers looked at the evidence and tried to determine if they wanted to retain this officer as their colleague and they decided they did,” Lowry said. “They felt he was worthy of mentoring and growth and continued contribution to the naval service.”