Word and rumor have been trickling in over the last few months about what happened on the USS COWPENS (CG-63). Intitial reports sounded a bit too good to be true. Scrappy Department Head manages to fill the shoes not just as CHENG, but XO (the XO billet was gapped), and assumed CO duties when the CO became unable to carry out his duties ... but something was, well, a bit off. With some of the rumors there were also warnings that many more cards had to come out of the deck ... and ... out of the deck they sure have.
As I read the news reports and the Command Inspection, I couldn't help but think of all the lost opportunities and failures in the fundamentals of leadership, seamanship, and basic common sense. Folded in the background, and a common thread for me in so many of the problems we have, was the misplaced understanding and practice of loyalty - that of loyalty to people and not institutions.
There was also silence from places - specifically the Chiefs Mess to the Wardroom - that we all rely on for brave professionals to step forward. Why? That all important word; why.
More often than not, people remain quiet for two reasons; either they fear that they will be punished for speaking up, and/or - they don't think it will do any good; the cost benefit analysis comes up short.
I don't think it was a case here where everyone thought it was OK. This failure is a larger challenge for others to dig in to - why the silence - and beyond the officers in question, that is the most disturbing aspect for me.
In many ways, as outlined by David Larter in NavyTimes, I am rough alignment with VADM Tom Copeman;
The head of the surface Navy said the so-called command triad of CO,XO and CMC had suffered “a complete breakdown,” according to the July 11 report, which Navy Times obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.Here are the threads in no specific order:
“The violations revealed by the investigation, especially the blatant abdication of command responsibility on the part of the CO, are among the most egregious Ihave encountered in my 32-year career,” Vice Adm. Tom Copeman wrote in his letter closing the report.
At the July 25 mast, Copeman found Savage guilty of two violations of failure to obey a lawful order and one of conduct unbecoming, and Keeton was disciplined for two counts of failing to obey a lawful order, SURFPAC said in a statement.
1. Where was the ISIC?
2. Where was the Chiefs Mess?
3. Where was the Wardroom?
Capt. Greg Gombert came downwith flu-like symptoms in January that confined him to his cabin for about a week.Issues no one wants to talk about. I'll keep most commentary to myself - I think the report speaks volumes.
As he was recovering, he contracted something more unusual: temporary facial paralysis. The non-life threatening disorder makes it difficult to move certain facial muscles and initially can feel like a minor stroke.
Gombert holed up in his cabin to recuperate and began to push responsibilities down to the next most senior officer, a department head with 11years in uniform with whom the Navy alleges Gombert carried on an “unduly familiar relationship,” according to a report obtained by Navy Times.
Lt. Cmdr. Destiny Savage, the ship’s chief engineer and temporary XO, became the “acting CO,” officials now say, and essentially ran the ship — taking contact reports, leading junior officer qualification boards, and chairing department head meetings in the CO’s place.
Savage, a junior officer who was not fully qualified to be a permanent XO, even led at least two replenishments at sea, where the cruiser took on fuel from an oiler as little as 150 feet away in heavy seas,
while the captain was in his cabin, according to the Navy’s investigation and interviews with current and former crew members.
What’s more, Gombert skipped navigation detail briefs and was routinely missing from the bridge during sea and anchor details, which are set when the ship is navigating close to shoal water. Gombert missed all or part of 21special evolution details, the report found.
And it wasn’t just special evolutions he missed underway. Gombert only left the comforts of his in-port cabin for a few minutes a day for a period as long as two months, the report concluded.
Navy officials say they were in the dark about Gombert’s illness and seclusion, Savage temporarily filling the CO’s duties, and the unfilled XO billet, all of which turned the last three months of a WESTPAC into a veritable Twilight Zone, where ajunior officer ran one of the fleet’s foremost surface combatants instead of a seasoned O-6.
And no one said a thing.
Two big items that need pondering:
1. How we train and conduct ourselves as junior officers and a Wardroom. Where to we place and misplace our loyalty and responsibilities? When do we make that call to our friend on the Staff to let them know?
COWPENS Wardroom has something to be proud of, they ran a cruiser with nothing more than a new LCDR without a major long term ship, service, or national security impact; no small feat - and to be fair, as one would expect.
The failure? Everyone just shut up and colored. This isn't a failure in the 3,000nm screwdriver, more of that won't help this challenge, this is a collective failure of a Wardroom whose loyalty was to their Skipper and their silence, but not to the best interests of the ship and the Navy. All it would have taken is a phone call or email to the Staff of the Commodore and/or first Flag Officer in the Chain of Command and all would have been well.
Heck, one of the JOs could have emailed me and I would have been able to get it to the nearest N3, and no one would ever know. Just read the investigation below, you'll see - the 100 opportunities to make the call were there.
2. The real world of male/female, junior/senior interrelationship - gray areas and red lines. The fact is was kept quiet speaks to the huge institutional failure and fear we have when it comes to dealing with the "socially aggressive" female and the ego-insecure man. I have a few sea stories about that, I am sure you do as well. This story though? Good googly moogly. Just three to give you a flavor.
157 (U) The Acting XO/CHENG kept some of her toiletries, specifically (redacted)Thing is ... draw between the lines if you wish ... but this is well past the red line, by both officers.
in the UCC head medicine cabinet.
159 (U) The Acting XO/CHENG personally prepared meals for CO COWPENS in the UCC pantry at least 5-6 times a week.
162 (U) On multiple occasions, when leaving the ship in port, CO COWPENS and Acting XO/CHENG would depart the ship together, be gone for several days at a time, and return together.
You can be gender neutral, but not gender blind. So, if they were nothing but professionals or they were much closer, either way, clear reason for firing of both - if anyone knew this was going on. Even if in the end all they we doing is comparing reading lists and telling sea stories - no excuse. M-M or M-F, way over the line.
Pro-tip: Department Heads do not keep toiletries in the Commanding Officer's cabin.
The fault, again, lies with the Wardroom here, though we need to keep reminding ourselves of this silver lining, the COWPENS JOs and Chiefs Mess threaded the needle without getting anyone killed.
That they managed in this day and age of communication to keep inside the lifelines(not an dishonorable trait in most cases) is impressive as well. That being said, for the right or wrong reasons, information that should have given the signal to leadership up the chain for COWPENS to come in to port at the soonest possible time for proper leadership was not provided. Staffs are full of people who can step in as an XO or even acting CO so that this cruiser would not be a floating abattoir of decision making.
Instead, they made it through deployment with nothing but professional damage and personal repercussions, as opposed to running aground, creating an international incident ... or again - getting someone killed.
The phrase, "systemic breakdown" is misused, but in this case, I think we have it in spades. There are a lot of issues here that go beyond a few flawed individuals, including some institutional questions. That is where the important thinking will go.
Will we go there as an institution? "There" being points #1 and #2 above.
On a personal note, I hope that both Greg and Destiny land on their feet. It ain't easy being human, and boy were they human here, especially when it is on the cover of the Naval Enquirer.
Below is a copy of the redacted Command Investigation. You can find nuggets of your own. This doesn't make me upset as much as it does make me sad. Destiny could have come out of this as, pardon the phrase, a stud. Greg could have come out of this as an honorable man who took himself out of action for medical reasons beyond his control.
If Admiral Halsey could miss the Battle of Midway, Captain Gombert could have missed a deployment.
Lessons for all here