Kunkle is relieved as commanderof USS Kitty Hawk Battle Group
Stars and Stripes
The USS Kitty Hawk Battle Group commander, Rear Adm. Steven Kunkle, was relieved of command Thursday, accused of an “inappropriate relationship” with a female officer.
Citing “a loss of confidence in his ability to command,” 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Robert Willard took the action following an Article 15 hearing Thursday at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, said Cmdr. Matt Brown, a 7th Fleet spokesman. He added that Kunkle received a punitive letter of reprimand.
The Kitty Hawk Battle Group received orders Feb. 7 to head to the Central Command area of responsibility and is traveling there, Brown said.
“The Kitty Hawk’s orders to the Central Command region are not affected and the battle group remains en route as directed,” Brown said.
“Vice Admiral Willard took action as a result of his loss in confidence in Rear Admiral Kunkle’s ability to shape morale, good order and discipline in his assigned forces as evidenced by his part in this inappropriate relationship,” Brown said.
Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a spokesman for the Pentagon’s civilian leadership, said that defense officials regard Kunkle’s situation as an internal Navy issue, and that the change of command will not adversely affect the Kitty Hawk’s ability to fight should the U.S. go to war with Iraq.
“Personnel matters are handled by the services,” Davis said Thursday. “We are confident that the Navy leadership is managing this appropriately, and that this battle group will be ready for any future operations.”
Lt. Cmdr. Pauline Storum, a Navy spokeswoman for Navy headquarters at the Pentagon, said Thursday that “7th Fleet is the convening authority, and Navy headquarters declines to comment.”
Capt. Dick Corpus, the battle group’s chief of staff, will serve as acting battle group commander until Kunkle’s relief is identified.
“Vice Admiral Willard has complete confidence in Captain Corpus and the Carrier Group FIVE staff to meet all operational taskings while awaiting the arrival of the new commander,” Brown said.
Kunkle has been assigned temporarily to Commander Naval Forces Japan, pending further review.
Kunkle’s improper relationship was disclosed during the nonjudicial punishment proceedings, Brown said. Kunkle is married, with one grown child.
Brown said he could not identify the officer, “although I can tell you that she is not in Rear Adm. Kunkle’s chain of command.”
Brown said an individual notified the chain of command of what the spokesman termed “credible concerns about a possible inappropriate relationship.
“The Navy takes such allegations seriously and began an investigation, which continues,” he said.
Brown said he was unaware of any previous such charges against Kunkle. The spokesman declined to comment on whether any other aspect of Kunkle’s job performance might be under scrutiny.
Saying that the investigation is ongoing, he also declined to speculate whether any future actions might be taken or contemplated against the rear admiral.
As the commander of several ships including an aircraft carrier, thousands of sailors and an air wing headed into a possible conflict in the Gulf region, Kunkle was in a position of extreme responsibility, Brown said.
“A violation of the UCMJ is a serious matter, especially given the unique position of trust and responsibility inherent in command,” he said.
Kunkle took the helm of the battle group from Willard — the admiral who relieved him of command Thursday — in September 2001.
Willard has axed senior leadership in the battle group before. In September, he fired Kitty Hawk skipper Capt. Thomas Hejl, citing a loss of confidence in his leadership abilities. He was replaced by Capt. Robert D. Barbaree.
Pentagon reporter Lisa Burgess contributed to this report.
(Corrections have been made on this story since it was first posted.)
Other cases of alleged misconduct
Rear Adm. Steven Kunkle, who on Thursday was relieved of command of the USS Kitty Hawk Battle Group, is the latest military leader to lose his job because of alleged sexual misconduct.
Among the most notorious years in recent memory was 1997, when three general officers lost commands because of “improper relationships.”
The most prominent case that year was that of Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, who in June of that year was nominated by Defense Secretary William Cohen to succeed Army Gen. John Shalikashvili as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Cohen withdrew the nomination after Ralston admitted that he had conducted a secret, adulterous relationship 13 years previously.
Earlier in the spring, Air Force 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn — the Air Force’s first female bomber pilot — resigned to avoid a court-martial on adultery and other charges, including lying to investigators. Critics had complained Ralston was not being punished to the same extent for similar transgressions.
But even before the Ralston/Flinn cases in 1997, Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis was relieved of his command of Army medical operations in the Southeast region of the United States because of an alleged “improper relationship” with a civilian nurse who was caring for his ill wife.
And just weeks before the Ralston case, Army Maj. Gen. John Longhouser, commanding general of Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., retired after a Army investigators were tipped off about an alleged affair Longhouser had five years previously.
Since 1997, three more high-profile cases have involved Army officers, including the 1999 court-martial of Army Maj. Gen. David Hale, who admitted to affairs with the wives of officers in his Izmir, Turkey, command.
In June 2001, Army Col. Sammy G. Wiglesworth lost command of the 17th Area Support Group at Camp Zama, Japan, for transgressions that allegedly included an improper relationship with an enlisted servicemember’s wife.
In September 2001, Col. William Haass, an Army reservist from San Antonio, was relieved of command of Area Support Group-Eagle in Bosnia and Herzegovina just 17 days after taking command, after his commander “lost confidence in his ability to command,” a USAREUR spokesman was quoted as saying.
Air Force Col. William Kalaskie, the outgoing 425th Air Base Squadron commander in Izmir, and Lt. Col. Dwight Harris, his designated successor, were relieved of duty amid allegations that they had inappropriate relations with women under their command.
Although losing a command does not automatically terminate an officer’s commission, such events are generally career-enders. Promotions almost always come to a grinding halt, and many officers relieved of commands either choose to retire or are quietly told by senior leaders to voluntarily leave military service.
— Lisa Burgess