ABOARD THE USS KITTY HAWK — Four liberty incidents this year in the Pacific have raised the ire of Navy leaders, caused diplomatic havoc and forced the Navy to strongly reiterate the need for good behavior ashore.

Three carrier strike groups, including the Japan-based USS Kitty Hawk, sailed through the 7th Fleet’s area of responsibility since January. All three have had incidents in which a sailor was drinking, committed a crime and later assaulted a police officer.

While Navy leaders say they won’t tolerate any criminal incidents, those occurring in strategic foreign ports and involving resistance to authority figures are most troubling, said Rear Adm. James D. Kelly, commander of the Kitty Hawk Strike Group and the person responsible for any strike group while it is operating in the fleet’s area.

The three most serious such incidents occurred in Singapore and Hong Kong.

“The issue is strategic access,” Kelly said. “Singapore and Hong Kong are extremely important ports for us, for multiple reasons.”

The incidents prompted a memo from Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Walter Doran earlier this month demanding leaders to push harder for an end to the incidents.

Kelly responded with a memo to his staff demanding the same.

“We all recognize that ‘zero liberty incidents’ is the goal. Simple recognition, however, is not good enough,” his memo stated.

The incidents themselves are just part of the problem. The diplomatic dilemma they created is of greater concern.

“Trust me, I didn’t need Adm. Doran’s message to tell me how important this was,” Kelly said. “We have incidents that don’t break what I would call the ‘plane of pain,’ where they create an international or a local incident. Our whole thing out here is we can’t have the liberty incidents that become strategic issues.”

Two incidents involved sailors assaulting police in Singapore; the third involved an officer assaulting a police officer in Hong Kong, one of the few places the U.S. Navy engages the Republic of China, Kelly said.

Singapore later turned the sailors over to the U.S. government. The third is awaiting the outcome of his case in Hong Kong.

“They became strategic issues because they’re issues being talked about at the ambassadorial level and the defense attaché level,” Kelly said. “Hong Kong … that’s a key engagement place for us and we want to be able to keep going in there. Singapore, not only is it a key ally for us, but the access they give us to their port facilities is awesome and we can’t screw that up.”

The problem also is one of sailor safety, Navy leaders say. Even incidents that don’t reach the bar of diplomatic discussion can lead to an injury, particularly if a sailor is alone, in an unfamiliar place and possibly drunk.

“It’s not that we have bad sailors. What they are is inexperienced,” said Capt. Dave Volonino, Kitty Hawk Strike Group chief of staff. “The question is, how do you include smart and less-risky behavior when they’re off the ship and not under your supervision.”

The Navy uses training and the threat of punishment as a deterrent. But, Volonino says, like the rebellious teen in a household, threats and lectures don’t always work.

So Navy leaders impose what they call intrusive leadership — limited liberty until sailors prove their maturity, and a buddy system that requires sailors to watch each other, pairing less-experienced sailors with those a little more mature.

Navy leaders overseas have an additional tool to reduce incidents. Under the liberty risk program, a commander can curb a sailor’s liberty without any formal legal proceeding, which is not the practice in the States, Volonino said.

After the recent incidents, commanders reiterated intrusive leadership techniques.

“We went back to the basics,” Volonino said.

Unit leaders and noncommissioned officers worked closely with sailors to avoid drunken behaviors and looked more closely at who is granted liberty.

Intrusive leadership is working overall, Kelly said.

“The reality is that conduct has overall been getting better,” he said. “We’ve got a wonderful buddy program and it works. There were buddies involved (in the recent cases) who were not where they should have been when the incidents happened. So our buddy program failed there.”

Before their port visit to South Korea last week, sailors aboard the USS Kitty Hawk and accompanying ships were strongly reminded that their behavior was under greater scrutiny. However, there were no additional punishments imposed.

“They’ll get in no more trouble now than they used to,” Kelly said. “But they darn sure understand that there’s a focus all the way to the chief of naval operations. I think we’ve done a better job of emphasizing that piece over the past couple of months.”

There were no arrests or incidents during the stop in South Korea, and that’s no coincidence, Kelly said. Every sailor, from an E-1 to an admiral, was required to have a buddy.

“The buddy system has got to work. When you’re out there with a buddy, you don’t leave that buddy, especially if you’re having some beers,” Kelly said. “You’ve got to take care of each other. I expect the buddy to get his or her buddy out of trouble before it arises.”

Recent liberty incidents in the Pacific

This year, four sailors from three aircraft carrier groups were charged following serious liberty incidents in the Pacific region.

In each case, alcohol was involved and a police official was assaulted, according to Navy officials.

While any carrier group is in the 7th Fleet area of operations, it falls under the authority of Kitty Hawk Strike Group commander Rear Adm. James D. Kelly. These incidents have prompted increased attention and vigilance from Navy leaders:

Singapore, a petty officer from the USS Carl Vinson, March: The sailor accidentally knocked over a motorcycle, attracting the attention of police officers. He ran from them and jumped from the second story of a parking garage, breaking his hand. Police took him to the hospital. At some point in the hospital, officials say, he began attacking a police officer. He eventually was turned over to the U.S. government by Singapore.Singapore, a sailor from the USS Abraham Lincoln, February: A sailor activated the emergency brake on a train at rush hour, which in some cases is punishable by public caning, officials said. He later scuffled with a police officer who investigated. Singapore later turned him over to the U.S. government.Hong Kong, a lieutenant from the USS Kitty Hawk, February: The officer was being brought back to the ship by a shipmate when he kicked their cab driver from the back seat. He then assaulted the police officer who arrived to investigate. The case is open and the individual remains in Hong Kong in U.S. custody.Guam, a sailor from the USS Carl Vinson, January: A sailor assaulted a police officer who had responded to a house party where the sailor was drinking, officials said.— Juliana Gittler

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