The former head of the Navy’s fleet readiness centers kissed a subordinate employee on the mouth without consent prior to his ouster in April 2021, according to a report from the Office of the Naval Inspector General obtained by Navy Times.
Then-Rear Adm. Trent DeMoss, who assumed the top job at Commander, Fleet Readiness Centers aboard NAS Patuxent River in Maryland in August 2020, told investigators it was typical for him to hug and kiss those he was friendly with and that he meant the kiss in a “friendship sort of way.”
DeMoss, who has since retired, did not respond to requests for comment from Navy Times, nor did he respond to requests for comment submitted through Navy officials.
But Complainant 1, who identified herself to Navy Times as a civilian public affairs specialist, said the kiss was the final straw following a series of behaviors that made her uncomfortable.
The woman, who records show was not the only one who filed complaints against DeMoss, requested anonymity and Navy Times does not identify victims of sex crimes or sexual harassment.
Despite the physical nature of the interaction, the Navy proceeded to investigate the matter as sexual harassment rather than assault after consulting the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
“The matter was referred to NCIS for a determination whether a criminal investigation was warranted,” Rear Adm. Charlie Brown, the Navy’s chief spokesman, said in a statement to Navy Times. “NCIS advised that the alleged conduct fell below their jurisdictional threshold and declined to open a criminal investigation.”
Although sexual harassment and assault are not uncommon in the military, it is rare for such cases to involve flag officers. DeMoss is the first admiral since 1995 to be relieved following substantiated allegations of sexual harassment, according to Navy officials.
DeMoss was working in his office at Pax River on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, experiencing some technical difficulties accessing a work product when the woman offered to help him since she was already on base running errands, according to the report.
The woman said DeMoss was the only other person in the building at the time, and she knew he frequently worked in the office on weekends, according to the report.
The woman was on her laptop in DeMoss’ office when he came around his desk and stood near her, “kind of hip-to-hip” touching her, the report states. Even after she shifted away from him, he edged toward her, prompting her to step aside once again.
Something “did not feel right” about their interaction, she later told investigators.
As she left the office, DeMoss walked with her out of the flag wing and the two participated in “idle chit chat.” Then, DeMoss placed his arm around her and kissed her on the cheek as he thanked her for her help, the woman alleged.
The woman distanced herself from DeMoss and was eager to exit. But DeMoss came with her to the front door, thanked her again, and then “very deliberately” placed his hands on her cheeks and kissed her lips, she told investigators.
Stunned, she took a step back and then said goodbye before crying in her car, according to the investigation.
DeMoss was relieved of command on April 5, 2021, “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command,” Brown said in a statement at the time. DeMoss was subsequently assigned to Naval Air Systems Command headquarters and retired in October 2021 at the rank of captain following the substantiated allegations.
“Sexual harassment is unacceptable conduct and will not be tolerated,” Brown said in a statement to Navy Times. “The Navy places tremendous responsibility on the leadership triad of Navy commands, and strives to place its best leaders in those positions.”
The inspector general report, dated May 2021, substantiated the allegations that DeMoss kissed the woman on Dec. 6, 2020.
“We determined that a reasonable person under similar circumstances would interpret RDML DeMoss kissing them to be sexual in nature, and that it was unwelcomed and unwanted,” investigators wrote.
The report also concluded that the behavior impacted the woman’s work performance.
DeMoss admitted that he kissed the woman goodbye on Dec. 6, 2020, and said he thanked her for her work, according to the report. DeMoss, who claimed he did not sense anything was wrong when he contacted her later that day to discuss work projects, described the encounter as kissing a “friend or neighbor goodbye.”
“RDML DeMoss explained that he grew up in a small county in Kentucky, where everybody was close and ‘a hug or a kiss was about the same as a handshake,’ that was ‘kind of how he grew up, that is how he is, and it had been that way his entire career,’” investigators wrote.
DeMoss told investigators the incident was the first time someone expressed discomfort with his behavior and that he has since reflected on how others could interpret his actions.
“He could say, ‘Well, I was like that with everybody.’ And he may have been, and he probably was, but that is still wrong,” the woman told Navy Times. “It’s even more wrong.”
Three days after the kisses, she confronted DeMoss in his office and recorded their conversation.
“I’m very uncomfortable with the way you kissed me on Sunday,” the woman told DeMoss, according to a transcript of their conversation included in the report. “It crossed a line. … I haven’t been able to sleep. And I’m just not comfortable at all with it.”
DeMoss said that he “did not mean to do that,” adding that he didn’t want “anything between us” and that he wanted to preserve their working relationship.
The report states that DeMoss did not dwell on the interaction following the confrontation and thought things returned to “business as usual” with the woman.
But for the woman, things were far from normal.
“I thought maybe if I confront him, we can put it behind us, I can just move on,” the woman told Navy Times. “So I did confront him. And then the next day, I went into work, and I had to leave.”
The woman notified command attorneys about the kiss on Dec. 14, the report states. The Naval Inspector General Senior Officials Investigation Division launched an investigation into the incident three days later.
As the investigation into the kiss continued, the woman told Navy Times she grew frustrated that DeMoss remained the commanding officer of Fleet Readiness Centers instead of being reassigned while the investigation continued.
That prompted her to contact her representative in Congress, House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., on March 28, 2021. DeMoss was relieved eight days later.
Margaret Mulkerrin, Hoyer’s communications director, told Navy Times that their office does not comment on private casework inquiries, and Navy officials say that Hoyer did not influence the decision to oust DeMoss.
The woman, who said the experience left her so shaken that she initially didn’t tell anybody about it for several days, told Navy Times she was offered another position “on rotation” working for another Navy command after the complaint was filed, essentially swapping spots for another public affairs role.
She told Navy Times she felt she had no choice but to accept the position to distance herself from Fleet Readiness Centers at the time, but has since returned to the command.
She hopes that future generations won’t accept sexual misconduct and that speaking up about her experience means more women will remain in the Navy.
“I’m encouraged by the fact that the younger generations see no place for things like that in the workplace,” the woman told Navy Times. “So, it might take a generation or two. But the more we talk about it, and the more it’s exposed as bad behavior, it’s just one step closer to getting rid of it so that young women in the military won’t feel like they have to get out just because they can’t take it anymore.”
The kiss did not come out of the blue, the woman said.
She recalled several interactions and conversations with DeMoss that made her feel “weird” ahead of the kiss, she told Navy Times.
The two worked together before DeMoss assumed command of Fleet Readiness Centers, dating back to when DeMoss held the rank of commander, the report said. They also worked together on a “peripheral basis” when DeMoss became the commanding officer of Fleet Readiness Center Southeast in Jacksonville, Florida, in July 2017, according to the report.
As a captain in February 2019, DeMoss became vice commander of Fleet Readiness Centers.
The woman described to investigators how she witnessed DeMoss become “very close and personal” with people and that the “friendliness was just atypical.”
Meanwhile, DeMoss told investigators that he frequently cracked jokes in the office to promote a casual environment.
“RDML DeMoss explained that, except for when a situation required protocol, he tried to be as informal and personable as he could with everyone,” the report said. “RDML DeMoss described himself as not real ‘Navy-ish’ or ‘military-ish.’”
While the woman said she and DeMoss were friendly and exchanged jokes, the “friendliness became more and more friendly” in the 18 months leading up to the kiss. For example, the woman told investigators that high fives with DeMoss turned into “interlacing of fingers akin to hand holding” and that his comments were inappropriate for someone of his rank.
The report also substantiated allegations that DeMoss made a comment to the woman about wearing “sexy lingerie” in January 2020.
Even so, the woman told investigators none of the previous behavior was comparable to the kiss.
“It was a series of inappropriate behaviors, lewd comments and unwanted touching, leading into the final incident where, you know, it was just like, I can’t ignore this any longer,” the woman told Navy Times.
Had DeMoss not been fired, the woman said she would not have continued working for the Navy as a civilian.
Likewise, her husband, a high ranking naval officer who interacted with DeMoss in professional settings, was also prepared to leave the service if DeMoss hadn’t been ousted. That would have meant retiring earlier than they had planned, she said.
The report also substantiated an allegation that DeMoss placed his hand on another complainant’s knee on Dec. 11, 2020.
Although DeMoss denied touching the subordinate employee on the leg “intentionally or unintentionally,” the report substantiated the allegation that DeMoss gave Complainant 2′s leg a “double pat.”
“Additionally, the record contains significant evidence that RDML DeMoss was prone to touching personnel,” the report said. “Although the interaction may not have been sexual in nature, the preponderance of the evidence supports Complainant 2′s description of this event.”
‘Unwelcome or offensive’ behavior
Just over a year after DeMoss kissed Complainant 1, President Joe Biden signed an executive order in January 2022 that includes sexual harassment in the Uniform Code of Military Justice under Article 134. The change is designed to mitigate sexual harassment in the military, penalize perpetrators and increase accountability, officials say.
Lynn Rosenthal, who headed the Pentagon’s Independent Review Commission examining sexual misconduct reforms in 2021, told Military Times in January that the policy represents an attempt to change the military’s culture, and noted sexual harassment is connected to increased levels of sexual assault.
Previously, sexual harassment could be prosecuted under Article 92 of the UCMJ as a dereliction of duty, under Article 93 as maltreatment, or under Article 133 as conduct unbecoming, according to retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen.
Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, a group that fights to end sexual violence and racism in the military, told Navy Times the policy change was more of a “messaging move than anything else” since its now singled out as a specific offense under Article 134, which is the “general article” and includes offenses such as adultery.
The woman said she was encouraged by the Biden’s administration’s policy change, noting it is a sign of progress.
However, she is unsure why her case was considered sexual harassment rather than sexual assault, as is one of her children, who is also a naval officer and has undergone training on sexual harassment and assault.
Sexual assault is considered “intentional sexual contact,” and includes “rape, nonconsensual sodomy (oral or anal sex), indecent assault (unwanted, inappropriate sexual contact or fondling), or attempts to commit these acts,” according to the Navy’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program.
Meanwhile, the secretary of the Navy’s policy defines sexual harassment as conduct that is “unwelcome or offensive to a reasonable person, whether oral, written, or physical, that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.”
Ultimately, the woman said she wanted to share her experience because even though she had support and resources available to her, she still found it a challenging situation to navigate, from reporting the incident to the toll it took upon her physical and mental health.
“If I don’t say something, who will?” she told Navy Times. “The bottom line is, if this can help somebody else in the future, and if this can help maybe make changes and urge them to make changes, then … I’ll be at peace.”