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USS Germantown, Sasebo 'in a much better place' after leadership changes

Sailors release a mooring line as the amphibious dock landing ship USS Germantown departs Sasebo, Japan, for a patrol in June 2011.

Faced with rampant reports of sexual harassment and mistrust of the chain of command on the USS Germantown, Navy leaders turned to Cmdr. Jason Leach for help.

Sailors applauded when Rear Adm. Hugh Wetherald, commander of the Amphibious Force Seventh Fleet, gave Leach command of the Whidbey Island-class dock landing ship in May 2013, after the departure of the previous captain, Cmdr. Carol McKenzie, who could be so harsh that her behavior bordered on verbal abuse, according to a half-dozen sailors who served with both skippers.

It turns out, he was the wrong man for the job, according to the man who gave him the helm.

But his command would be short-lived.

Less than a year later, Wetherald removed Leach from the post, saying said he had lost confidence in Leach because he had failed to fix a number of the problems.

Some loyal crewmembers decried the move, claiming Leach had turned things around after McKenzie’s departure. But some also acknowledged that Leach may have been “too nice” and failed to take appropriate action against the crew when it was clearly warranted.

Neither Leach nor McKenzie could be reached for comment, according to a Navy spokesman.

Wetherald recently sat down with Stars and Stripes to explain his decision. He said bold action was needed to right the Sasebo-based ship after Leach reportedly did not take decisive action against a clear-cut case of sexual harassment.

“There was an accusation against a commissioned officer of sexual harassment,” Wetherald said from his office in Okinawa. “It was investigated. It was very clear that there had been sexual harassment, and what was also clear was that I didn’t believe that the ship — and the wardroom and the [chief’s] mess — understood clearly where the lines were between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. And the commanding officer did not see this as sexual harassment. We took the officer to mast, so we had to step in there, and that’s where I lost confidence.”

The episode that led to Leach’s relief on March 7 was the latest in a steady stream of alleged crimes of a sexual nature that have plagued the Germantown and ships in Sasebo in general.

Last year, a Germantown chief petty officer was convicted at a court-martial of sexually assaulting a sailor he once mentored. Less than six months later, Command Master Chief Petty Officer Jesus Galura was relieved after allegations surfaced that he had sexually assaulted another Germantown crewmember. Galura’s Article 32 on the charges was wrapped up Wednesday at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan.

Following the allegations against Galura, the Navy decided to conduct a command climate investigation in December 2013 to look into how command leadership addressed sexual harassment and sexual assault. Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery was tasked with examining the Germantown and several other ships at Sasebo Naval Base.

What he found, and reported, was alarming.

In addition to a lack of access to adequate medical care, recreational activities and alcohol treatment programs, Sasebo sailors were under stress from an insufferable operational tempo. The report described a culture of deep mistrust, a lack of female leadership on the ships and issues involving the treatment of female sailors.

The report said the Germantown’s crew had a lack of trust in the chain of command before Leach took over from McKenzie in May 2013. Personal issues were not kept confidential, sailors didn’t know whom to trust, and the lines were blurred between the enlisted leadership and ship’s officers.

McKenzie was investigated for allegations in 2012 that included a buoy strike and the misuse of travel funds by the Pacific Fleet Inspector General, according to the IG report. She was vindicated on all counts.

After Leach became captain, morale improved, the report said, but problems remained: lack of confidentiality, reports of favoritism and double standards for punishment. Junior sailors and female junior officers said they might not report misconduct to their chain of command for fear of reprisal.

The most alarming allegations contained in the report were that female sailors were forced to interact and work with a male sailor who had been punished for sexually harassing them. It does not say when this allegedly occurred.

“Some female officers noted that when they have expressed professional concerns to senior personnel that they have been told they are being too sensitive,” the report said.

Even after the report came out in January, Leach was given the opportunity to turn things around. Wetherald said it didn’t happen quickly enough.

“As I look at a commanding officer, I have to have confidence that they are creating an environment in their ship where there is good order and discipline, where there’s clear authority and clear lines between the ward room, the mess and the junior crew, and that our junior crewmembers feel safe and that they feel the chain of command is responsive to their concerns,” Wetherald said. “In this case I felt that broke down.”

He said morale improved after the deputy commodore of Amphibious Squadron Eleven, Capt. Marvin Thompson, took temporary command of the Germantown. Wetherald said he has taken steps to improve the overall command climate in Sasebo, too. The number of alcohol-related incidents and sexual assaults are down.

“Our numbers are down across the board,” he said. “Certainly I watch the numbers, but I’m more excited that the crews are in a much better place. They’re a lot happier. Sasebo is a far, far healthier place to be.”

burke.matt@stripes.com

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