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.
"Ed Handley is one of our community's best and brightest, and I strongly believe he should be screened for command," wrote Capt. Stephen Coughlin, then-head of the Destroyer Squadron 2, in Handley's recommendation letter. "Ed Handley is the best executive officer in Destroyer Squadron 2."
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.
Handley deployed with the destroyer on May 30, but detached two days later, his XO tour at an end. Only weeks later, tragedy struck when Boatswain's Mate Seaman Yeshabel Villot-Carrasco ingested a lethal dose of over-the-counter sleep aids aboard ship. Then in a late July port call, as many as four chiefs reportedly had sex with a junior sailor. Investigations began and Handley, Command Master Chief Travis Biswell and Commanding Officer Cmdr. Curtis Calloway were reassigned in mid-September, while they awaited non-judicial punishment.
A Navy report found a chief's mess on the deployed destroyer that was out of control and fostered a "culture of retribution," on the deployed destroyer that which contributed to the suicide. It , and faulted the command triad for not intervening. Handley was cited for a breakdown in command programs — specifically the command equal opportunity program — and for failing to properlyaddress the CMC's alleged alcohol problem at an earlier port call.
But current and former crewmembers said the ship's stressed climate stemmed from its breakneck operations tempo. They described and that Handley as a dedicated, by-the-book officer who's not responsible for the incident or misconduct that occurred after his tour. Navy Times reviewed hundreds of pages of documents pertaining to the James E. Williams' troubled seveneight-month deployment and interviewed half a dozen of Handley's shipmates, all of whom questioned the brass' judgment in ending hisHandley's career.
"Cmdr. Handley is the most truthful and by the book officer I have ever met," wrote Chief Gunner's Mate (SW) Matt Young, the Weapons Department's leading chief, in one of a dozen letters of statements of support obtained by Navy Times. "The treatment he has received and the fact that his character and word [have] been questioned is about the dumbest and most asinine thing I have ever heard."
When reached for comment, Naval Surfaces Forces Atlantic spokesman Cmdr. Jereal Dorsey defended the investigation, and argued that ultimately commanders need to have full confidence in their subordinates' ability to command.
"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."
The investigating officer, DESRON 2 deputy commodore Capt. Tony Simmons, recommended Biswell be fired for failing to control the chief's mess and for two instances of "drunk and disorderly conduct." He recommended and that Calloway be cautioned on his way out the door — his relief was scheduled for a week after the report was filed.
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."
But Capt. Fred Pyle, the new DESRON 2 boss, ratcheted up those relatively light punishments, were ratcheted up by Capt. Fred Pyle, the new DESRON 2 boss,and Handley ended up being awarded a punitive letter of reprimand. Pyle stopped short of calling for a show-cause board, but recommended Pyle also recommended that Handley be stripped of his screening for command, writing that his "heavy-handed style is not consistent with the level of dignity and respect our sailors deserve."
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 was found guilty of dereliction of duty at mast and appealed the NJP, but the appeal was denied adjudicated by the same leadersofficers who oversawendorsed the investigation. The appeal was denied first by Pyle, who presided over the mast case, and was bottom-lined by strike group commander Lewis, who was the officer who recommended Handley go to mast in the first place in his endorsement of the command investigation.
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.
Handley is vowing to fight his NJPconviction and letter of reprimand, and he's backed up by many of his former shipmates.
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.
Handley, who oversaw the program as XO, but the charge that he was derelict in overseeing the EO program was dropped, was never found guiltyconvicted on this count because the charge was dropped, according to Handley's wife, Kate.
What Handley was ultimately punished for was the CMC's behavior in a Norwegian bar. The ship was in Norway in conjunction with a multinational exercise only five months after returning from an eight-month deployment. At the bar, Biswell was observed getting drunk and twirling his shirt around his head, the report said. A sailor from another command saw this and told his observed the incident and reported to that ship's CMC, who cautioned Biswellhim to watch himselfs actions in front of sailors. Biswell told Calloway and Handley. Calloway told him to watch himself around the crew, and that was the end of it.
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 his appeal, Handley said that Biswell failed to make it clear that alcohol was involved, and he didn't hear about the incident from anyone else. He also argues that, even if he did know about the drunken shirt-waving, it wasn't within his powers to discipline the CMC. That would have to come from the CO, and since Calloway didn't initiate any investigations, he couldn't have failed to provide forceful backup. Furthermore, he says that there's insufficient evidence to conclude Biswell's behavior was drunk and disorderly.
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 details of the incident in Seychelles are sketchy but it is alleged that multiple chief petty officers, as many as four, had sex with a junior female sailor at the Coral Strand Hotel on the island. NCIS was sent to investigate but has closed the investigation, according to NCIS spokesman Ed Buice, which suggests a lack of evidence. Sexual assault investigations can take months as investigators gather evidence and witness statements.since typical NCIS investigations drag on for a long time.
The sailor is believed to have been impregnated, according to theSimmons' command investigation.
All those involved were removed from the ship, which was being handled by the command when Simmons arrived to investigate the suicide, according to multiple sources who were stationed on the Williams at the time. Simmons detailed the incident in an enclosure to, separate from the main investigative report, arguing that the ship's leadership failed to put proper controls in place that could have prevented the sexual encounter.
But members of the crew said the command climate wasn't negative and didn't lead to the group sex. Instead, they credit Handley and Calloway with holding the ship together through the months leading up to the deployment. The ship returned from an eight-month deployment in November, 20123, then completed a Board of Inspection and Survey, a certification exercise, and an exercise in Europe in the six months before leaving again on deployment in 2014. Indeed, the ship was among the fleet's busiest in 2014, spending nearly 70 percent of the year underway.
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."
Handley's career-ending punishment has weighed on the many officers who served with him on the James E. Williams, said retired Lt. Cmdr. Chris Vann, the combat systems officer during the deployment. Many junior officers in the wardroom are considering getting out over it.
"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.