Monday, June 04, 2018

Decisions and Outcomes

Guest post by Michael Junge, CAPT, USN

Commander Alfredo Sanchez’ career ended at 0524 on August 21, 2017. A graduate of the University of Puerto Rico, Sanchez’ career included graduate studies at the US Naval War College, two chief engineer tours, and service as executive and commanding officer of USS John S McCain (DDG 56). He was, as all commanders in command of ships are, destined for promotion to Captain. 

Last week he pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty as part of a plea deal that retained his retirement. He is one of only three commanding officers to face courts-martial in the last two decades. He is the only one to be tried for actions that were not related to personal misconduct. Sanchez commissioned in 1998 and as part of the plea agreement requested to retire this year at the minimum 20 years of commissioned service. 

Removal followed by retirement has been the Navy’s practice for the last few decades. When commanding officers and executive officers are removed from command they progress through an administrative process that may include non-judicial punishment, an administrative recommendation for detachment for cause, a board of inquiry to show cause for retention or all, or none, of these. Given the modern approach to command removal these officer’s are digitally and irrevocably linked to whatever incident occasioned their removal and also linked to those who were removed for other reasons. Collisions, groundings, fires, misuse of alcohol, sexual harassment, assault, and rape are all linked in a melange of end of year firing lists.

It wasn’t always like this. In 1945, submarine commander Lieutenant Charles Eliot Loughlin was removed from command at Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz’s order and court-martialed. Found guilty of intentionally sinking a Japanese aid ship, Loughlin was barred from submarines but commanded in surface ships, rising to the rank of Rear Admiral and retiring in 1968 – twenty-three years after his court-martial conviction. His was not an isolated case. 

In 1985, Commander Robert Joseph Natter, while in command of USS Chandler (DD 996), passed a tug towing a barge down the Columbia River. Chandler sped by the tug and barge at a high rate of speed, swamping the barge. In 1987, the US District Court of Oregon found that USS Chandler was solely at fault for the collision by violating the safe speed rule. Natter later held commands worldwide, including Commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, Commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, Commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, Commander U.S. Northern Command, and Commander-in-Chief of the NATO Western Atlantic Command. He retired in 2003 as an admiral.

In 2002, a torpedo shield door gasket failed aboard USS Dolphin (AGSS 555) while she operated off San Diego, California. Despite the abandonment, the submarine was stable and towed back to port where she underwent three years of repairs before decommissioning. Kelety promoted to captain and retired in 2008.

In 2005, Captain Jeffery S. Jones commanded USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) when she collided with the 34-foot Canadian sailboat MAREEKA II. There were no casualties or injuries reported as a result of the collision. Captain Jones promoted to Rear Admiral and served as the senior naval advisor to the head of the Iraqi Navy and commanded Expeditionary Strike Group SEVEN before retiring in 2013. He was a 2001 recipient of the Stockdale Leadership Award.

Between 1945 and 2015, 318 commanding officers dealt with and recovered from some accident or problem that today would mean career death. Some instances involved significant loss of life.  Some meant the loss of a ship or submarine.

In a time when the surface navy is undermanned, has been undermanned, and is likely to be undermanned for the foreseeable future can we really afford to discard officers whose only error was being in command when something bad happened? Have we raised the “reasonable person” standard so high that no one knows what it really is? Is every commanding officer really only one eighteen-year old’s mistake away from being removed from command?

Our Chief of Naval Operations speaks of advocacy mentorship - and he has a point. People like Bryce Benson, Alfredo Sanchez, Sean Babbitt, Jessie Sanchez, Jana Vavasseur, and David Nartker need someone in their corner. Someone who remembers that these officers are the best of our best and that the qualities that placed them in command were not erased by a decision later judged to be in error. Their decisions were not wrong - the outcome was. Likewise, the decisions the Navy has made in these cases are not yet wrong, but the outcomes are likely to be.

Capt. Michael Junge is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer currently serving at the U.S. Naval War College. He commanded USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41) and served in amphibious assault ships, destroyers, and frigates and is the author of the forthcoming “From Pillar to Pillory: U.S. Navy Crimes of Command 1945-2015.”.  The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. His cat remains unhappy, but is now hopeful as he corresponds with his new friends in Washington, DC.

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