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Inquiry board recommends retaining Navy captain

He is a decorated Navy doctor with almost 30 years of service - a man one general says he would serve with again in a heartbeat. But after sequestration grounded the hospital ship Comfort last year, Capt. Kevin Knoop found himself fighting to save his career.

Knoop, an emergency room physician, began serving as commanding officer of the medical treatment facility aboard the Comfort in 2012. He traveled to South and Central America in late 2012 and early 2013, first preparing for a humanitarian operation called Continuing Promise and later working to salvage parts of the mission after the five-month deployment was canceled because of funding cuts.

As the Comfort sat pierside in Norfolk, complaints about Knoop's absences from the ship reached Rear Adm. Thomas Shannon, head of Military Sealift Command. After an investigation, Shannon stripped Knoop of his command last August.

But a board of inquiry, made up of three flag officers, has unanimously endorsed Knoop's leadership and work and recommended retaining him in the Navy.

The board's ruling does not negate the findings of the investigation or restore Knoop's command. Shannon said he stands by his decision to relieve Knoop.

But it does offer him some vindication.

Knoop's supporters say a perfect storm of circumstances led to his dismissal - sequestration, a crew unfamiliar with the complexities of planning a mission like Continuing Promise, a new boss, and perhaps most significant, Knoop's low-key leadership style, which was misunderstood by the surface warfare officers at Military Sealift Command.

The style difference was the subject of testimony during the May 19 board of inquiry hearing. An audiotape of the hearing and copies of the investigation were obtained by The Virginian-Pilot through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Knoop's attorney, Capt. Chuck Pernell, told the board that Knoop received a glowing evaluation from Shannon's predecessor at the command, but in the three months after Shannon took the helm in May 2013, the doctor's and admiral's styles seemed to clash.

"Capt. Knoop does have the leadership skills," Pernell said. "But you have to think that from his earliest training, he has been deliberately and rigorously trained to remain calm, to not be excitable, and I think that's part of the issue. I think that Capt. Knoop did not reflect the kind of outward urgency that I think Adm. Shannon believed he should have been displaying."

Knoop worked all the time, Pernell told the board. His travels had the blessing of his previous boss, Rear Adm. Mark Buzby.

Some members of Knoop's skeleton crew of about 50 medical personnel saw things differently.

They noted missed meetings and his absence on deck when dignitaries came aboard. The investigation found Knoop's deputy, the executive officer of the ship's medical facility, was frustrated with the extent of his time away.

The investigator determined that Knoop did not take any unauthorized leave, but found he was gone 66 percent of the time and had failed to meet his crew's needs. The investigation also criticized Knoop for spending time off ship, in Portsmouth, to maintain his medical credentials.

The investigator said Knoop did not address broken equipment and manning gaps. Crew members perceived him as disengaged, and Knoop failed to recognize low morale. His executive officer felt overloaded and distrustful of him, the investigation found.

At the same time, the investigation found that Knoop "appears to genuinely care for the crew and their well-being" and was perceived to be a gentleman.

Pernell disputed many of the findings. He faulted the investigator, Capt. Michael Strano, for not interviewing anyone who had experience planning a mission like Continuing Promise, which would have visited eight countries over five months.

Pernell said that Strano's math was faulty and that Knoop was absent 33 percent of the time, not 66 percent.

Asked whether he thought the head of the medical treatment facility should maintain his medical credentials, Strano said, "I think there are priorities and when you are CO, your priority is to your sailors and your command.... If your command is suffering because of your time away to get those credentials, then I think that is a problem."

Knoop's supporters vigorously defended him.

Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Wissler, who commanded Knoop when he headed a surgical shock trauma platoon in Iraq, testified via telephone from Japan that he had to adjust to Knoop's leadership style. But the doctor won the general over completely - showing him the importance of caring for the mental health of medical personnel in a combat theater so they didn't burn out.

"His leadership style, while unique, always focused on accomplishing the mission and always focused on the well-being of the sailors and Marines that supported him and got the mission done," Wissler testified.

The military medical community needs men like Knoop, who think outside the box, Wissler said.

Wissler called Knoop "one of the most honest and forthright and direct men that I've ever had the pleasure to serve with" and said that if he could choose who to take into combat, Knoop would top his list.

In a letter to the board, the former civilian master of the Comfort praised Knoop's work, describing him as deeply engaged with the mission and the ship's medical facility.

The skipper, whose name was redacted from the letter, wrote that the Comfort used to fall under the command of the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery but in 2010, it was transferred to Military Sealift Command.

He said Knoop was "calm and considered" as he navigated the political challenges of running a medical facility under Military Sealift Command, but was not afraid to ruffle feathers to get what he needed.

The skipper called the accusations against Knoop subversive and unfounded.

Knoop believes the investigation was faulty and that he and Shannon fundamentally disagreed on his role as commander of the medical facility. He said in an interview that a subordinate "provided erroneous information to deliberately take me out."

Since leaving the Comfort, Knoop has gone back to his roots, working in emergency medicine at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center. He'll finish his Navy career there, retiring at the end of October.

For Knoop, his work speaks for itself. Even after Continuing Promise was canceled last year, Knoop led a group of medical providers to Honduras for a training visit. He was invited back, and returns this week with a small crew that will embed in a local hospital.

dianna.cahn@pilotonline.com

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