The Navy codified the enlisted DFC process in 2010.
Yet the policy’s language has changed over the years, due in part to concerns that commanding officers might abuse it.
Commanders can use a DFC to get rid of a sailor who has had documented unsatisfactory performance over an extended period of time, even if they’ve not committed any crimes.
But it’s also used in cases of misconduct as well. In those cases, Navy policies encourage commanders to complete any number of legal processes — such as captain’s mast or court martial — before seeking the DFC. But that’s not a hard-and-fast rule.
"DFC will not be used in lieu of disciplinary action or administrative discharge, nor is it a bar to such action or an excuse to transfer a problem sailor to another command," Milpersman Article 1616.010 states.
"DFC is one of the strongest administrative measures used and should only be requested when all other efforts are exhausted," according to the Navy policy.
Initially, the DFC rules were broadly written.
But in April 2012, a new version of the rule was approved, one that appeared to offer some protection for the top senior enlisted leaders by suggesting sailors should be stripped of their NEC only after facing NJP or court martial. This change came under then-MCPON (SS/SW) Rick West.
"Change of rating and removal of NEC … is mandatory for a detachment for cause (DFC) of a [command senior enlisted leader] due to adverse action such as non-judicial punishment, court martial or adverse civil or criminal court action," according to the 2012 update of OPNAV Instruction 1306-2G.
A former senior Navy official involved in the 2012 instruction changes said it was intended to prevent commanding officers from abusing the DFC process.
"We needed to put more rigor in the system and ensure that COs weren’t just firing there CMCs because they didn’t like them or couldn’t get along with them — I’d seen that happen before," the former official said.
The former official said the DFC process is necessary and important, but there needs to be more specificity to the rules. It is administrative and based on the judgement calls of top officials. It’s not a judicial process or meant to replace courts martial or NJPs.
"If they’re found guilty, they should be fired. But the feeling for this change was that a DFC for misconduct should only come once the individual is proven guilty under formal legal proceedings, so there’s no doubt that was the intent here."
Last year, however, that policy was quietly changed again, this time making it far easier to force a CMC into retirement. Under the new rule, an approved DFC is considered equal to an NJP or court martial, and simply getting an approved DFC is the only thing a commander needs to have a command level senior enlisted sailor disqualified from their job.
"Any [command senior enlisted leader] that is the subject of a substantiated adverse action including, but not limited to, a guilty finding at non-judicial punishment, court martial, or in civilian criminal court, or an approved detachment for cause, must have his or her rating and NEC…removed," the updated dated June 22, 2016 states.
That change, officials say, was pushed by now-retired Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens in his waning days in office.
Navy personnel officials say there is enough scrutiny in the DFC process to consider it a final authority for finding guilt.
"A detachment for cause is not an arbitrary process, and requires a rigorous review and decision," said Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, spokesman for the chief of naval personnel.
"A DFC request originates from the commanding officer and must be forwarded to the first flag officer in the service member’s chain of command for endorsement — every detach for cause request in the Navy is forwarded to and reviewed by commander, Navy Personnel Command, who is the detach for cause authority for the entire Navy."
Since 2013, there have been 23 command senior enlisted leaders who have been officially detached for cause, and NPC has no record of rejecting any DFC requests for the top enlisted sailors, he said.
Sampson's DTS problem
Seven months into his second command leadership tour, Command Master Chief Sampson, a Seabee, was on the top of his game — at least that’s what he’d just read in the most recent evaluation by his then-commanding officer, Capt. Heather Walton, who then headed the Navy Construction Training Center in Gulfport, Miss.
Walton rated him a 4.57 on a five-point scale, called him "a seasoned and extremely inspiring leader, mentor and confidant!"
She recommended him as ready to screen for top enlisted jobs in both the Naval Construction Group and Navy Expeditionary Combat Command.
"Loyal and well-versed! Makes everything around him better! A fantastic CMDCM whose pride and confidence is contagious. Ready NOW for more challenging CMDCM billets!"
The same day — April 14, 2016 — he received the evaluation lauding his character and accomplishments, Sampson says he was called back in to Walton’s office. This time for a different reason. She told him she was relieving him as the CMC, intended to take him to captain’s mast for dereliction of duty and sought to have him officially detached for cause.
The drastic change stemmed from an investigation from his previous command, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 11.
The investigation accused Sampson of misconduct regarding his travel expense claims and said he wrongfully accepted reimbursements totaling $6,000.
Walton filed a two-page initial DFC request, laying out her charges against Sampson and stating that her discontent with him stemmed from the command investigation only.
It wasn’t the first time Sampson had heard about his travel issues. He’d deployed as a member of the command team of Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 11 to Rota, Spain, but spent most of his time traveling around the world to visit the command’s various detachments.
In the process, he’d filed 11 travel claims with the military’s Defense Travel System, a notoriously flawed system that has been the target of government investigations.
NMCB 11 had a plethora of travel claim issues, which resulted in the initial investigation. The command had also been the subject of five inspector general complaints from 2013 through 2015, according to the Navy.
Friction with the CO
Sampson and his CO at NMCB 11, Cmdr. Jorge Cuadros, had a rocky relationship from the start, Sampson said. The two disagreed over management styles and quarreled more than once during the deployment.
Sampson said he believes the aggressive investigation into his travel expenses stemmed in part from a personality conflict with the CO.
"It’s like this investigation was put in place to disgrace me — the way DTS works, or doesn’t. It’s something where you can find issues with everyone if you dig deep enough," Sampson said.
"I had as many underpayments as overpayments and the audits in 2015 showed that — what else was I supposed to do?"
Navy Times reached out to Walton and Cuadros through their commands, asking for comment on Sampson’s case, but as of press time had not received a response from Cuadros. Through a spokesperson, Walton declined to comment.
Sampson’s relationship with his CO eroded further when Sampson noted the DTS-related investigation would impact many sailors in the unit.
"Everyone had issues, the commanding officer had just as many issues as I did," Sampson said. "It was so bad that we had to bring a DTS expert in from the states to Rota, where we were deployed, to try and help us fix things.
"Instead of fixing the system, by training our sailors, [the DTS expert] attacked those running the program, bad mouthing them to the CO," Sampson said.
"I stepped in and pushed back as I didn’t want our people’s careers in jeopardy for not having sufficient training."
Final Bill: $14
Sampson knew his DTS account was a mess. After leaving NMCB 11 in September 2015, he’d gotten a $3,000 refund check that he was not expecting.
He immediately contacted the NMCB 11 command travel coordinator, who told him the correct thing to do was hold onto that check until he could get to the bottom if it.
"I requested an audit of all my travel during the deployment at that time," Sampson said. "I didn’t want any issues with my DTS account as I moved on to my new command."
That audit was conducted by Chief Logistics Specialist Hadji Cabangcalan who said that his audit wasn’t easy, but in the end, he found that all of Sampson’s claims were correct.
"At the end of my audit, Master Chief was told that he only owed approximately $14," Cabangcalan said, according to an affidavit that Sampson included in his rebuttal to Walton’s DFC request.
Yet Sampson said despite bringing the audit and its results to the investigator’s attention and providing contact information, Navy Lt. John R. Powell, a supply officer who conducted the probe, did not include the auditor’s conclusions in the final command investigation.
In the DFC request, Walton said the command investigation report against Sampson included "examples of alleged fraud, poor judgement, carelessness and disregard of the duties and responsibilities required of a Command Master Chief."
But in a copy of the investigation obtained by Navy Times, Powell recommended that Sampson receive a letter of reprimand for certifying travel claims that were incorrect and resulted in overpayment, but did not accuse him of fraud as Walton alleged in her DFC case.
The command investigation also recommended that Sampson’s travel claims "be reprocessed with proper receipt documentation."
Powell recommended the command travel program be beefed up with "more hands-on and face-to-face training for…travelers, members of the Triad and those expected to travel frequently."
"I knew I was not guilty and that I could clear my name in a court martial," Sampson said.
"That investigation was flawed. Nowhere was the fact that I was the one who identified the problems first and reported them to the command and tried to fix them."
Walton, in responding to Sampson’s evidence of his innocence, told officials up the chain of command that Sampson would get his day in court and a chance to clear his name. Yet she was standing fast in her efforts to DFC him.
"The specific counter assertions/rationale contained in his endorsement will be vetted through more formalized judicial proceedings," she wrote.
But for Sampson, his day in court never materialized, and though the command investigation recommended yet another audit, he said, none was ever conducted.
"There was no effort made to actually verify the validity of their claims against me," Sampson said.
Shortly after Walton submitted Sampson’s DFC up the chain of command, she transferred to a new assignment and Capt. Anna Franco assumed command and responsibility for Sampson’s case.
Franco never moved to take Sampson to court martial, either. She didn’t have to. When his DFC was finally approved by Navy Personnel Command on Aug. 28, 2016, the new command senior enlisted instruction was in effect. The DFC resulted in the removal of Sampson’s NEC and his rating was reverted to constructionman.
Franco "informed me that I was being administratively separated from the Navy as well and presented me with the paperwork regarding my separation," Sampson said.
"She also told me that if I submitted my retirement request that [Navy personnel officials] had already told her that they would accept it — my intentions were to go to court martial."
Sampson said he wanted to go to a court martial. But his lawyer, he said, told him the command wouldn’t take him to court martial because the command would most likely lose.
Nevertheless, the command was now fully in their rights to administratively separate him because his CMC NEC was gone and there weren’t any billets available as a constructionman master chief.
Navy officials contend that he could still have gotten his day in court — not a court martial, but in front of an administrative separation board convened by Franco, where he could have contested his guilt or innocence.
"My lawyer informed me that if I took the route of the Admin Board and lost, it could result in me being retired at a lower pay grade — because the board would be held by the command.
"I did not feel comfortable that I would get a fair chance to prove my case and was left with no other alternative but to submit a retirement request."
Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.