The cruiser Cowpens was halfway through its Western Pacific cruise earlier this year when the commanding officer got sick.
Capt. Greg Gombert came down with flu-like symptoms in January that confined him to his cabin for about a week.
As he was recovering, he contracted something more unusual: temporary facial paralysis. The non-life threatening disorder makes it difficult to move certain facial muscles and initially can feel like a minor stroke.
Gombert holed up in his cabin to recuperate and began to push responsibilities down to the next most senior officer, a department head with 11 years in uniform with whom the Navy alleges Gombert carried on an "unduly familiar relationship," according to a report obtained by Navy Times.
Lt. Cmdr. Destiny Savage, the ship's chief engineer and temporary XO, became the "acting CO," officials now say, and essentially ran the ship — taking contact reports, leading junior officer qualification boards, and chairing department head meetings in the CO's place.
Savage, a junior officer who was not fully qualified to be a permanent XO, even led at least two replenishments at sea, where the cruiser took on fuel from an oiler as little as 150 feet away in heavy seas, while the captain was in his cabin, according to the Navy's investigation and interviews with current and former crew members.
What's more, Gombert skipped navigation detail briefs and was routinely missing from the bridge during sea and anchor details, which are set when the ship is navigating close to shoal water. Gombert missed all or part of 21 special evolution details, the report found.
And it wasn't just special evolutions he missed underway. Gombert only left the comforts of his in-port cabin for a few minutes a day for a period as long as two months, the report concluded.
Navy officials say they were in the dark about Gombert's illness and seclusion, Savage temporarily filling the CO's duties, and the unfilled XO billet, all of which turned the last three months of a WESTPAC into a veritable Twilight Zone, where a junior officer ran one of the fleet's foremost surface combatants instead of a seasoned O-6.
And no one said a thing.
Gombert was fired in June, two months after the ship returned from its seven-month deployment, becoming the third Cowpens CO canned since 2010. Command Master Chief Gabriel Keeton also was removed. Officials at the time said the reliefs were due to a "loss of confidence" in their "ability to effectively lead."
The startling new details, which come from a Naval Surface Force Pacific investigation and interviews with five current and former Cowpens crew members and spouses, raise questions about Gombert's judgment and the fleet's oversight of his command on the independent deployment.
The report concluded this amounted to fraternization and Copeman found Gombert and Savage guilty of this offense at mast. There is no evidence that the relationship was physical, but this is not needed to establish their bonds had been unduly familiar and thus in violation of Navy rules.
The head of the surface Navy said the so-called command triad of CO, XO and CMC had suffered "a complete breakdown," according to the July 11 report, which Navy Times obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.
"The violations revealed by the investigation, especially the blatant abdication of command responsibility on the part of the CO, are among the most egregious I have encountered in my 32-year career," Vice Adm. Tom Copeman wrote in his letter closing the report.
Reached via phone, Gombert declined repeated requests for comment for this story. Savage and Keeton also declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing legal process.
At the July 25 mast, Copeman found Savage guilty of two violations of failure to obey a lawful order and one of conduct unbecoming, and Keeton was disciplined for two counts of failing to obey a lawful order, SURFPAC said in a statement.
A SURFPAC spokesman refused to specify that disciplinary actions were taken against them, citing privacy concerns.
The report also uncovered evidence that Gombert and Savage had formed a questionable relationship between a senior and junior officer. They hung out in his in-port cabin in civvies. She made his bed and cooked his meals in his private galley. They stayed in hotel rooms together and, in at least one instance, were seen on liberty holding hands.
Gombert's supporters among the crew and spouses, who spoke with Navy Times on condition of anonymity citing fear of career repercussions, disagreed with the report's findings. They said the captain was able to move around the ship during portions of the nearly three-month period when his health was up and down with flu-like symptoms.
They also contend Gombert, who had previously commanded the destroyer Gridley, was delegating to his officers and overseeing their performance via Savage's reports and email.
Shipmates described Gombert, 46, as an intense leader who would often forget to eat when consumed by a task and who trusted his officers. But his trust and can-do approach went too far this time, one colleague said.
"He had a tendency to delegate," said a surface warfare officer, who served with Gombert on the Cowpens, in an interview with Navy Times. "Sometimes he would delegate too much and for too long."
The strain ultimately filtered down to the crew.
"My husband never comes home from deployment depressed," said the wife of one Cowpens senior sailor who asked not to be identified, fearing career repercussions for her husband. "He's usually upbeat and excited to talk about all the fun things he did on cruise and the port visits. But this time was different. He just came back, sat on the couch and had this sad look on his face. He said 'I'm just glad we made it home.' "
'We weren't ready'
Officials quickly spotted the Cowpens' problems after it returned to San Diego in April. They discovered a string of troubling oversights that Copeman listed in a report to the head of Pacific Fleet: The flight deck was unsafe for flight operations, firefighting systems had fallen into disrepair and watch qualifications were being gundecked.
But the ship had problems before the cruise, the investigation found. When crew members took over Cowpens in 2013 following a hull swap with the cruiser Antietam in Japan, they found their new hull had been ridden hard.
When the Antietam's CO, Capt. Robert Tortora, assumed command of Cowpens, he reported "significant deficiencies in the material condition of the ship," according to the investigation.
The crew certified for deployment in 2012, but the certifications were earned on a modernized cruiser with the latest engineering upgrades and the latest version of Aegis combat system, said two sources close to the ship. The Cowpens, on the other hand, had an older version of Aegis that the crew coming over from Antietam was unfamiliar with, a former officer on Cowpens said in a phone interview.
The crew and wardroom also had seen a great deal of turnover since the hull swap, crew members said. But the certifications for deployment carried over to allow Cowpens to deploy.
Despite Cowpens' conditions and crew changes, fleet bosses fast-tracked the ship for a full deployment three months after its San Diego homecoming, a target it missed by almost two months while the ship was undergoing more than $7 million in repairs, according to the investigation.
"We're weren't ready for an operational deployment," a former senior Cowpens crew member told Navy Times. "Get underway, pull into ports, show the flag — we could do that. But we weren't ready to be operational."
Despite extensive repairs prior to leaving Japan and after it pulled into San Diego, crew members told Navy Times that they had the impression the repairs were temporary fixes to merely survive the deployment and get back to the U.S. for a more extensive overhaul.
Gombert took charge of the crew in June 2013. The ship deployed on Sept. 18, 2013, for an independent, seven-month cruise.
The deployment began making headlines in December, when the Cowpens had a high-profile near miss with a Chinese amphibious ship, operating close to the new Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning during its sea trials.
Chinese state media claimed the Cowpens was shadowing the carrier during its trials. The Chinese amphib responded by running down the Cowpens and crossing its bow at less than 100 yards — a tense situation defused only when the carrier CO got on the bridge-to-bridge radio and spoke in English, Navy officials have said.
Not long after the dust-up, the Cowpens' XO left the ship. Cmdr. Jeremy Aujero, who had overseen the work-ups and hull swap, was allowed to leave in mid-December. Aujero had finished his tour, and Gombert said he was OK with the XO billet being open for about three weeks while the new XO was finishing a previous tour and screening for sea duty.
"Comfortable letting [XO] go — and equally comfortable subjecting the crew to a premature departure," Gombert wrote to his boss, Rear Adm. Michael Smith, head of Carrier Strike Group 3, according to the investigation.
He also told Smith that Savage would be acting XO until the new XO arrived.
Savage, 33, had a reputation as a hard-charging junior officer who'd earned Gombert's confidence. But the highly unusual situation left the deployed ship without a seasoned XO, the position that oversees the ship's day-to-day operations and is typically regarded as an enforcer.
The first test of that arrangement came in January, when Gombert was hit hard by strep throat and subsequently spent most of his time in his cabin. Savage, already acting as XO in addition to CHENG, began to fill in for Gombert.
After signs that his health was recovering, Gombert took an unexpected turn for the worse when he came down with what sources say was Bell's palsy, according to two crew members familiar with the CO's illness.
The disorder causes a partial paralysis of the face that often makes it difficult to smile or make other facial expressions. The condition typically lasts two to three weeks with treatment and can be accompanied by flu-like symptoms.
In an email to Smith, subject line "Deployment Illness," Gombert reported he was "sick for 2.75 months" and that he was "pretty much confined to the [unit commander's cabin]."
But the investigation disputes the claim that Gombert was actually ill past the end of January, concluding that he had no diagnosed medical condition that would have required him to remain in seclusion in his in-port cabin — far from the bridge.
Gombert's choice of quarters on deployment raised eyebrows. He stayed in the unit commander's cabin, instead of the at-sea cabin in the superstructure, close to the bridge and the combat information center. The UCC is typically used as the captain's in-port cabin or for a dignitary at sea.
An embarked flag officer on board to coordinate disaster relief operations in the Philippines thought it was strange that Gombert stayed in the in-port cabin, the report said.
Gombert began delegating more of his responsibilities to Savage. She even took contact reports from the bridge.
It's common for a CO to delegate when he's under the weather, but Gombert's extended absences from the ship's daily life were unusual, the investigation said.
The investigation lays out a startling number of instances where Gombert was missing when the CO's from event where the commanding officer's presence is required or is universally understood in the surface Navy to be essential.
In at least two cases, Gombert was not present for alongside fuel replenishments, according to the investigation.
Savage was on the bridge, overseeing the conning officers and helmsman and navigation team while the ship took on fuel from an oiler about 150 feet away — a routine evolution, but one that can turn dangerous in seconds.
During one UNREP in heavy seas, the officer of the deck asked Savage why the CO wasn't on the bridge, to which she said, "It's all good, you've got this! He trusts you and knows you'll do a good job," the report said.
Savage lacked senior officer backup on the bridge, as is typically the case during special evolutions when the margin for error narrows. Instead, the captain was in his cabin, dialed into the ship's internal communication net, a bridge watchstander recalled in a telephone interview with Navy Times.
Savage — an officer who was not screened for XO and had not gone through the arduous XO training pipeline — became the stand-in for functions that normally require the CO. Sources told Navy Times she was reporting back to Gombert, who was still active on email and the general announcing circuit.
During the second half of the deployment, Gombert was increasingly absent, the report found.
He didn't attend qualification boards for officer of the deck or tactical action officer; he didn't take routine updates from the officer of the deck or other key watch standers more than 50 percent of the time; and was either completely or mostly absent from 21 of the ship's 48 so-called special evolutions, which include sea and anchor details and UNREPs, according to the report.
Meanwhile, the incoming XO was delayed for sea duty screening issues, leaving Savage as the acting XO until the ship returned home in April, the report said.
The absence of an experienced XO compounded the ship's maintenance and operational challenges, and left Gombert without a backup who could have confronted him about his medical condition.
Compounding an already abnormal cruise, scuttlebutt circulated that command climate was rampant rumors that Gombert and Savage were sleeping together.
Gombert and Savage were charged with fraternization, but, according to investigative documents, both denied having a sexual relationship. A number of interactions between the crew and the two of them set off the rumor mill, which the investigation found was "prejudicial to good order and discipline." The rumors started in December.
Savage and Gombert reportedly spent a three-day Christmas holiday in a hotel two hours' drive from Subic Bay, where the ship had pulled in.
On another occasion, the culinary specialist assigned to the wardroom knocked on the door to the CO's cabin; Savage and Gombert were inside, and the CO answered the door in his boxers. Noticing the trash was full, the CS asked if he could take the trash out, to which Gombert reportedly said, "nope, we're good," and closed the door.
Members of the wardroom and the command master chief confronted the CO and Savage about the perceived inappropriate relationship, but that they did not stop meeting, the report said.
Both Gombert and Savage vehemently denied to fellow crew members that they were having sex, and Savage maintained that she was subject to unfair accusations because of her gender. One crew member who confronted Savage about the relationship said Savage responded that she and Gombert had a professional relationship and that "if she was a man, this would not be an issue."
Ultimately Keeton was held responsible for failing to report the deteriorating command climate and inappropriate relationship between Savage and Gombert to higher authority.
The investigation found Gombert failed to report the lengthy absence of a qualified XO to his chain of command, but conceded that SURPAC and the staff of his carrier strike group could have done more to monitor the situation, according to the report.
Gombert put the safety of the crew at risk by failing to review navigation briefs and by his absence from the bridge during special navigation details, the report concluded.
These professional absences and lapses, Copeman said in his endorsement letter, "are beyond rare; they are unprecedented."
It found that Gombert had sought and received adequate medical treatment from Navy medical staff, and that at no point was he unfit to command.
"There was a fundamental disconnect between the CO Cowpens' actual medical diagnosis and his representation of his condition to the crew … and others," the report said.
Ultimately, the strange deployment of the Cowpens was the result of a string of bad decisions that started with Gombert, the report concluded.
"It is a tribute to the crew's resilience and fortitude that the ship was able to accomplish its mission and return to homeport safety," Copeman concluded in his letter.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.