Before he and his boss were relieved in December, a littoral combat ship’s executive officer berated junior officers, told a female subordinate that a military acronym stood for a derogatory sexual term and made jokes to another female colleague about a once-viral pornography video, according to an investigation obtained by Navy Times.
That investigation substantiated sexual harassment, maltreatment and hostile work environment allegations against Cmdr. Phillip Lundberg, the former XO of LCS Omaha, but it also found that the ship’s onetime commanding officer, Cmdr. Richard Zamberlan, failed to rein in his deputy.
While both officers were investigated in connection to their time commanding the training ship Omaha, they were actually commanding the LCS Montgomery as part of a hull swap when the Navy announced their firing on Dec. 30.
“CDR Lundberg’s conduct ranging from berating outbursts, throwing objects, aggressive course correction in front of peers and subordinates, communication barriers, and inappropriate humor and commentary created a work environment that was abusive, offensive and hostile,” the investigation states.
One ship member likened dealing with Lundberg to a “Jekyll and Hyde” experience, because officers never knew what sort of mood he would be in.
Meanwhile, the investigation found, Zamberlan failed to get his XO under control, even as his wardroom repeatedly sounded the alarm.
Zamberlan took command of the training ship in April 2021 and told investigators he informally counseled Lundberg a handful of times during his tenure.
“The investigation confirmed CDR Zamberlan did not take appropriate and substantive actions to correct CDR Lundberg’s behavior,” investigators wrote.
Neither Zamberlan nor Lundberg responded to requests for comment for this report.
In addition to the relief, Lundberg was given nonjudicial punishment, while Zamberlan received a nonpunitive letter of caution, according to Naval Surface Forces officials.
Both were reassigned to Naval Surface Force Pacific.
“CDR Lundberg consistently denied any potential misconduct,” the investigation states. “His failure to adequately remember and inability to perceive any potential harassment shows a lack of self-reflection and personal accountability not in keeping with the standards expected of an XO.”
Speaking with investigators, Zamberlan admitted that his XO “is very direct, he doesn’t take feedback well, and he frequently cuts people off in conversations.”
But he also said some of the documented outbursts came because junior officers were not doing their jobs.
“I think some of this can be attributed to being a (Virginia Military Institute) guy, where this level of aggressiveness is accepted,” Zamberlan continued. “I don’t necessarily see him as ‘lashing out’ at others in particular, just heavy-handed in his techniques of correcting and communicating with Officers.”
The investigation that would lead to the firings was sparked by a female junior officer serving as Omaha’s navigator who submitted a formal complaint against Lundberg in November.
Like every other crew member interviewed for the investigation, her name is redacted in the copy provided to Navy Times in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
But even before the junior officer filed a Command Managed Equal Opportunity, or CMEO, complaint against Lundberg, the ship’s wardroom had tried to warn Zamberlan of the issues his No. 2 was causing, according to the investigation.
The junior officer told investigators she was meeting with Lundberg about a draft ship instruction in August, one in which she used the acronym “DSL” as shorthand for “Duty Section Leader.”
Lundberg replied by telling her that DSL was a commonly used pornographic acronym.
She “stated that CDR Lundberg’s reference and use of the phrase … made her extremely uncomfortable and made her want to leave the scene as quickly as possible,” the investigator wrote.
Lundberg recalled the encounter as one that occurred “in a professional manner” and that he never actually said the first word of the phrase, a term for male genitalia, according to the investigation.
Recalling the encounter, Lundberg said he had never seen DSL used for “Duty Section Leader” in his career.
“Confusion over terminology was coupled with my knowledge of a popular slang use of DSL as pejorative term for a part of the human body,” he said.
Lundberg said he asked others whether they knew “DSL” to stand for an inappropriate term and they did.
While no one else was there for the encounter, other crew members told investigators that the junior officer later told them what happened.
Another woman interviewed for the investigation recalled another inappropriate remark from XO Lundberg during an August hail and farewell ceremony.
“I had mentioned that the departing male department head was going to be replaced by a female, changing the gender balance of the Department Head group,” the officer said in a statement. “Afterward, CDR Lundberg made a remark to me saying he thought I was going to reference a sexually explicit video called ‘2 girls, 1 cup’ that had achieved notoriety decades ago. I was bothered by but ultimately shrugged off his comment at the time.”
The investigation notes that “no one has witnessed CDR Lundberg use sexually explicit language to proposition or suggest sexual activity.”
But in addition to the junior officer’s complaint, investigators noted that “multiple observers described a command climate where CDR Lundberg uses derogatory language in public and professional settings directed toward individuals,” and that “CDR Lundberg frequently made unprofessional and inappropriate remarks in public and professional settings, often in the form of attempted humor.”
Other officers reported that Lundberg “frequently delivers loud and aggressive discipline and correction to subordinate Officers in public settings that can be witnessed by passersby, including enlisted personnel,” the investigators continued. “CDR Lundberg frequently and forcefully corrects or admonishes subordinate Officers for shortcomings … of which the subordinate has no control over, including official higher headquarters instructions.”
Lundberg regularly used profanity and may have taken his foul-mouthed cue from Zamberlan, officers told the investigators.
Some officers in the wardroom said they only interacted with Lundberg when absolutely necessary and told their division officers to avoid him because of his “unpredictable and volatile reactions.”
Another officer recalled how they accidentally attached irrelevant paperwork to a training drill guide and Lundberg asked, “are you this motherf***ing stupid?”
The officer later confronted Lundberg, and the XO responded with, “I don’t know what to do with what you are telling me.”
“Following this conversation, he refused any interaction with me for over a week,” the officer told investigators.
Lundberg told investigators that he “does not perceive hesitation of an OMA Crew member to interact with him personally,” and Zamberlan professed ignorance about wardroom warnings to avoid interaction with Lundberg.
Either way, Lundberg’s conduct rippled across Omaha’s wardroom, impacting unit morale and cohesion, the investigation found.
One female officer said that Lundberg’s behavior “drastically and negatively altered the working environment onboard OMA and that the last three months have been her worst time she has spent in the Navy.”
“The Officers appear to have become accustomed to tuning out CDR Lundberg’s, and to some extent the CO’s, comments,” the investigators wrote. “Some Officers just try to ignore the leadership’s comments.”
Zamberlan said he had a “general sense of awareness in the challenges the Officers were having with communicating with CDR Lundberg.”
“CDR Zamberlan takes personal accountability for knowing the state of the ship and does not exclusively rely on CDR Lundberg to communicate up the chain of command,” the investigator wrote.
But if that was the case, Zamberlan should have been able to pick up on the issues that his wardroom felt Lundberg was causing, according to the investigation.
One Omaha member recalled Lundberg throwing a casualty report folder at him and yelling at him in public about its contents.
The officer on the receiving end of that folder throw said “he tries not to remember the interaction.”
While Lundberg denied throwing the folder, “multiple Officers state they expect to be yelled at and verbally berated in regular engagements with CDR Lundberg,” the investigation states.
While Zamberlan and Lundberg’s time leading Omaha only spanned April 2021 to December, the two did not operate together until August, when Omaha’s crew resumed day-to-day operations aboard the training ship.
Soon, the wardroom was voicing its concerns, even before the junior officer brought her formal complaint in November.
During a command focus group in September, following a climate survey, “Officers provided direct feedback to CDR Zamberlan regarding the issues they have experienced with CDR Lundberg.”
Someone also put a note in the CO’s suggestion box in mid-October describing Lundberg’s conduct.
The former XO told investigators he was made aware of the suggestion box message “but that the CO did not offer any specific concerns.”
Lundberg took a “more submissive” tone when Zamberlan was around, according to the investigation, and Zamberlan sometimes tried to “tone down” Lundberg’s statements.
“CDR Lundberg and CDR Zamberlan have been overheard engaged in conversation perceived by observers as inappropriate or belittling of others within the command, both in public and professional settings,” the investigator wrote. “Specifically, noting in a joking manner that neither one should ‘offend’ (a female officer) and that she may be purchasing ‘teddy bears’ to snuggle with.”
Zamberlan admitted to investigators that he swore “frequently,” and the CO expressed concerns “that his leadership style will be poorly received by female subordinates.”
Investigators also found that while Zamberlan did not directly enable or encourage Lundberg, the CO’s “own language and verbal behavior set a lower standard for his subordinates to follow, and created a permissive environment for CDR Lundberg’s behavior to occur.”
While the investigators did not substantiate several other allegations against Zamberlan and Lundberg, the circumstances still led subordinates to question leadership’s integrity, the investigation states.
“The Navy expects leaders to be discerning about their conduct, how others can perceive such conduct, and most importantly, how their conduct may affect others around them,” investigators wrote.
At one point in early December, as the investigation was underway, Zamberlan told the wardroom and chief’s mess that a complaint had been filed “against CDR Lundberg by a female officer and that was the reason he was not present during the briefing.”
“When speaking to the Officers, CDR Zamberlan referenced the CMEO complaint and said it was from the females not liking to work with the XO,” the investigators wrote. “A CO with CDR Zamberlan’s experience and years of service should have known better than to comment on or disclose an ongoing investigation and its contents.”
One Omaha member described Zamberlan as always exhibiting “extreme passion.”
“He approaches every situation from a warfighting perspective, whether it is appropriate to the situation or not,” the member told investigators.
One member said Zamberlan “continuously makes comment about going to war or deployment,” even though Omaha is a training ship.
Zamberlan, according to the member, regularly sent people “on hunts for answers to questions that are unnecessary or that don’t have a clear answer, causing numerous breaks in productivity.”
One member accused Zamberlan of spreading bogus information that needlessly stressed the crew.
The member recalled the CO telling his crew they would need to be ready to get underway on Thanksgiving Day, even though Navy weather officials had already confirmed that conditions would not allow the ship to get moving until several days after the holiday.
“He blatantly lies to the crew about the Ship’s schedule, telling them things he wants to happen but portraying it as if it is confirmed … the Khaki level knows the actual schedule and is forced to do damage control for his words,” the member told investigators. “He puts excessive stress on the sailors and officers, with officers having to battle the CO and XO and try to impress good expectation management to the crew due to the CO constantly putting out incorrect information.”
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.