When Cmdr. Ed Handley departed the destroyer James E. Williams on a small boat in May, he was on his way to commanding officer leadership school and riding the crest of his 33-year career.
But Handley's chance to command the James E. Williams was shot down and his career is in jeopardy. Two months after leaving the ship, Handley, a former fireman who rose through the ranks, found himself in a fight for his career and his reputation over events that took place after he left.
"The Navy has a long-standing tradition of holding personnel in command to the highest standards of conduct and leadership," Dorsey said in a statement. "Those who fall short of our standards are held accountable.
"When a commanding officer, executive officer, and/or command master chief fails to meet these high standards, and his or her chain-of-command loses confidence in their judgment and ability to lead, that individual is removed from command. Leadership is not a right — it is a privilege."
Simmons cited Handley only for "his association with the previous command climate." He recommended Handley be reassigned to commands other than the James E. Williams and commended him for "his years of dedicated service."
By the time Rear Adm. Andrew Lewis, the head of Carrier Strike Group 12, endorsed the report, the recommendation had gone from reassignment to mast for programs that were "in a state of failure" when Handley left the ship.
Handley's career hinges on Navy Personnel Command, which will have final say over whether he will need to show cause to remain in the Navy.
In a statement confirming the authenticity of the documents obtained by Navy Times and that he is awaiting a decision from personnel on a show-cause board, Handley said he would welcome the board.
"I want a [board of inquiry] in any case to clear my name and then a [Board for Correction of Naval Records] to purge my record," he said.
The road ahead is difficult. If NPC grants a show-cause board, Handley must face a panel of officers who will determine if he should be allowed to continue serving or be forced into retirement. He can also appeal to the Board for Correction of Naval Records to have his punitive letter of reprimand stripped from his record.
Handley, 53, declined further comment.
The destroyer James E. Williams transits the Atlantic Ocean in March 2014 en route to Scotland to participate in Joint Warrior 14-1. The ship's furious op tempo may have contributed to the problems that surfaced later, crew members say.
Photo Credit: Navy
At a bar in Norway
The case against Handley is circumstantial.
Simmons concluded that the command equal opportunity program was ineffective and that its failure contributed to Villot-Carrasco's suicide. On the day she committed suicide, Villot-Carrasco told a counselor that she had been written up by her chief for standing an improper watch and that she felt she was being singled out for her petite size and gender.
The counselor, whose name and rank were redacted from the report, said she could file an equal opportunity complaint but advised that it could make things worse if there was not enough evidence. She said she intended to file, but later in the day was put on report for improper watch standing, which Simmons called a reprisal and a breakdown in the equal opportunity program.
However, the investigator concluded that Biswell should have been reported and taken to mast. Handley was blamed for failing to provide forceful back-up to Calloway.
And like that, a 33-year career of service ended in disgrace.
His punitive letter of reprimand said he failed as XO for "negligently failing to provide forceful backup in connection with the command's investigation and good order and discipline responsibilities after receiving information of drunk and disorderly conduct by the Command Master Chief."
In essence, Handley contends he was punished for failing to act on a third-hand report of Biswell's conduct in Norway. All of which was uncovered during a command investigation that was launched because of events that took place more than a month after Handley had turned over as XO.
'Just kills me'
In late July, a month after Villot-Carrassco's suicide, the crew experienced another troubling incident: an alleged sexual assault in Seychelles.
The ship's combat systems officer prior to deployment said in a written statement that Handley held the ship to the highest of standards, and that he will emulate his style as an executive officer.
"It was Cmdr. Handley that always pushed that 'James E. Williams' standard, never settling for average or satisfactory results," Lt. Cmdr. Preston Marshall wrote, referencing the ship's namesake, a Medal of Honor recipient considered the Navy's most decorated enlisted sailor. "We didn't just pass assessments, we excelled in them."
Shipmates who wrote letters of recommendation submitted as part of Handley's appeal attacked the assertion that Handley was responsible for a poor command climate, with some also labeling the process itself as unfair.
Blaming Handley for Villot-Carrasco's suicide and the incident in Seychelles, the ship's auxiliaries officer wrote, provided "no greater example of political correctness and [cover-your-ass] run amok."
"If Cmdr. Handley isn't fit for command ... no one is truly fit for command," the officer wrote.
Young, the Weapons Department chief, acknowledged that the crew labored under Handley's exacting standards, but they understood it was to make the ship ready.
"There were times the crew did not understand why the XO was being so meticulous, and they chafed against it," Young wrote. "But in the end the crew united under his leadership and made the James E. Williams the greatest ship on the waterfront."
Handley's command screening from Coughlin echoed these sentiments.
"Ed's performance during the ship's Basic Phase of Training was phenomenal," Coughlin wrote. "USS JAMES E WILLIAMS scored higher than the Fleet average in 19 of 20 warfare areas — a feat I have not seen duplicated. Ed embodies the [chief of naval operations'] priorities of warfighting first, be ready and, thanks to Ed's tenacity, the ship will be ready to operate forward."
"If I'm a JO, and I read the way they talked about Cmdr. Calloway and Cmdr. Handley in that investigation, I wouldn't continue on in this organization," Vann said in a February phone interview. "It was complete b-------.
"It just kills me that they took away Cmdr. Handley's chance at command."
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the year of the James E. Williams' previous deployment. It was 2012.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.