Naval Academy grads, like midshipmen, face conduct scrutiny
By ALEX JACKSON | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. | Published: December 31, 2012
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Scrutiny for misconduct isn't something that ends when midshipmen finish their four years at the Naval Academy.
Of 23 commanding officers relieved from Navy posts this year, eight were former midshipmen. The majority were found to have conducted themselves inappropriately.
More commanding officers, or COs, were relieved this year, for reasons ranging from lackluster leadership to misconduct including hazing and sexual harassment, than in any year since 2009. This year's tally approached the record of 26, set in 2003.
While that's still a small percentage of the approximately 1,500 COs in the Navy, the number worries some Navy leaders. In November, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert said he didn't understand why so many COs were misbehaving and said he was "concerned."
Days before, misbehavior in the military was put under a spotlight when Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus, a retired four-star general, admitted to an affair and resigned from his position.
Last week, a Department of Defense report showed a spike in reported sexual assaults at the nation's three service academies.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta asked the schools for a "strong and immediate response." The Naval Academy vowed to ramp up programs to stem sexual assault and harassment.
In June, Greenert tightened the standards for command and ordered a pilot study of an evaluation system allowing sailors to rate their bosses. The Navy hopes this move, among others, will strengthen the caliber of COs, said Lt. Chris Servello, a Navy spokesman.
"We hold COs to high standards," Servello said. "When they don't meet those standards, they're held accountable."
Academy grads booted
In three of the eight cases involving academy graduates, COs lost their jobs when the Navy said it lost confidence in their ability to command. But five cases involved former mids getting the boot for misconduct.
One discharged CO, Cmdr. Derick Armstrong of the USS The Sullivans, was relieved after at least 10 crew members said they saw Armstrong "check out" women on the ship, according to a report obtained by the Associated Press. Armstrong, a member of the academy's Class of 1995, was booted May 8.
One female crew member claimed Armstrong said, "Now that I'm taking over soon, what are my chances?" between five and 10 times before becoming CO, and that he said something similar at least twice after he started his new job.
Cmdr. Joseph Darlak, a 1990 Naval Academy grad, was relieved Nov. 2 along with three members of his crew on the USS Vandegrift. The Navy Times said officers on the ship were found to be "drunk, disorderly and not adhering to established liberty policies."
Another member of the academy's class of 1990 was relieved after the Navy started investigating allegations of an "unduly familiar relationship between (her) and a sailor formerly under her command." Cmdr. Sheryl Tannahill was relieved from her position at Navy Operational Support Center in Nashville, Tenn., on Sept. 14.
Two other former mids were relieved for allegations of personal misconduct, but details of their cases have not become available. Cmdr. Jeffrey Wissel, a 1994 academy graduate, was relieved in February. Capt. Ted Williams, of the academy's Class of 1987, was added to the list of those relieved on Nov. 19.
The significance of the spike in CO firings has been questioned since the first signs arose.
In the Summer 2012 Naval War College Review, Navy Capt. Mark Light noted the jump. But Light said personal and professional standards by which commanding officers are judged have become stricter.
"Few familiar with the Navy over the past 20 years," Light wrote, "are likely to dispute the point that actions once overlooked are today grounds for (detachment for cause)."
'Cause for alarm'
Lt. James Drennan wrote on the subject in the Dec. 12 issue of Proceedings, published by the Naval Institute Press.
Drennan said whether the increase in CO firings represents a deterioration of integrity or just a heavier focus on personal conduct from leadership, a "seemingly never-ending stream of embarrassing headlines and a desensitized tone from the public are unquestionably cause for alarm."
Servello said the recent move toward standardization of screening and qualification processes, led by Greenert, should strengthen the caliber of COs.
The Navy tries to help each prospective CO learn from previous cases of misconduct in command leadership school, Servello said.
But Drennan wrote that an effort to "cultivate integrity in officers" must start on Day One at the Naval Academy and all other commissioning programs.
"A recent spate of integrity violations at the Naval Academy indicates that issues arise very early in an officer's career," Drennan wrote. "The rash of CO firings may be only a symptom of a much wider epidemic."
Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, director of the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, argued that the reported increase in sex assaults at the three service academies is not all bad news.
Patton noted that sexual assault has historically been underreported and that programs at the academies could be helping mids and cadets feel more comfortable in making reports.
Even as Navy leaders like Greenert and Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Mike Miller institute policies to stem misconduct, it must be kept in mind, Drennan wrote in Proceedings, that integrity can't be manufactured.
"The Navy has established a watertight standard for personal integrity among its COs," he wrote. "It is up to future generations to either sink into failure, or rise to the challenge."