Fired Navy skippers often stay in service
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 7, 2014
Note: This article has been corrected.
In the past five years, 90 Navy skippers have been relieved of duty for indiscretions ranging from driving under the influence to having inappropriate relationships.
But for Navy officers, losing your job doesn’t always end your career.
Based on information provided by the Navy, Stars and Stripes has found that 53 percent of all officers relieved of command since 2010 still put on the uniform each day.
- Navy Cmdr. Larry Gonzales was relieved of leadership duties aboard the USS Chafee in 2009 after he was investigated for groping a subordinate and carrying on an inappropriate relationship. In 2011, he became deputy director of research and analysis at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii.
- In 2011, Cmdr. Timothy Murphy was relieved from Electronic Attack Squadron 129 after police cited him for driving under the influence. He later became a program team leader at the F/A-18 Hornet and EA-18G Growler Program Office in Maryland.
- Last year, Capt. Lance Massey II was relieved as maintenance commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing for inappropriate behavior with female staff. Though he’s no longer in command, Massey is still with the 33rd.
While retaining commanding officers accused of inappropriate and sometimes illegal actions might look suspicious, naval scholars suggest cases must be examined individually.
The evidence and how each case is adjudicated ultimately determines the fate of those relieved.
Admirals looking at a case of alleged wrongdoing have two options, according to Navy Capt. Michael Junge, a military professor at the U.S. Naval War College who has been studying commander reliefs for more than a decade. They can pursue military charges and proceed to a court-martial — where a conviction could result in total separation from the military — or they can relieve a commander administratively. The latter is sometimes easier, especially if the evidence is weak.
Officials at the Navy Personnel Command declined to comment on the individual cases, instead referring Stars and Stripes to lower commands, which largely did not respond to requests for comment.
Junge said administrative actions would not necessarily make it into the sailor’s file, and therefore, the sailor would not be separated from the Navy.
An arrest for drunken driving or groping a colleague’s wife would likely see an officer relieved of command but not forced out of the service, Junge said. It’s likely, however, they would never command again and their career would be adversely affected.
“In the modern Navy, an officer relieved of their command doesn’t go on to command again,” he said. But, “if it isn’t a clear criminal act, then there’s no reason to send these guys out.”
Junge said the number of commanding officers who misbehave makes up a very small percentage of those who serve. Like in the civilian world, he believes some crimes or incidents of wrongdoing are mistakes, where relief of command is punishment enough. In some cases, it is better to help the individual and retain their almost 20 years’ experience, knowledge and training.
“Just because we have a zero-tolerance policy doesn’t mean you’re automatically fired,” he said. “Firing might not be the right answer all the time.”
One area that is often perplexing to Junge is who can fire whom. Sometimes an admiral will relieve a commanding officer but leave the commander’s immediate supervisor out of the loop. Other times, the immediate supervisor does the firing.
“It’s all over the place,” Junge said. “It’s hard to see who’s in charge.”
In 2009, 12 Navy commanders were fired, according to Navy information provided to Stars and Stripes. Personnel Command officials did not respond to requests detailing which commanders were still employed in the Navy.
In 2010, 17 commanders were fired, Navy officials said. As of February 2014, five of them were still in the Navy.
They include Cmdr. Jeff Cima, who was relieved from command of the USS Chicago for drunkenness in 2010, Navy officials said. As of February, he was working at the U.S. Mission to NATO in Brussels. Cmdr. Herman Pfaeffle was relieved of command after hitting a pier in the USS John L. Hall, but now is in Naval Operations.
Capt. Ronald Gero, commanding officer of the USS Ohio, was relieved by Rear Adm. James Caldwell due to a loss of confidence in Gero’s ability to command.
Loss of confidence is a response often used by Navy leadership to remove a commander early into a misconduct investigation, according to Navy spokesman Lt. Chika Onyekanne.
It is also used to remove a commander when there is not enough evidence to pursue formal charges. The information as to what the commander allegedly did is then often protected.
“‘Loss of confidence’ is a legitimate reason for a CO firing,” Onyekanne wrote to Stars and Stripes. “In many cases/situations the investigation of the incident, such as misconduct, is early in the process and ongoing. Relieving the CO also allows continuity of leadership at the command while decreasing and/or minimizing the possible distraction (at the command) of an ongoing investigation.”
Also in 2010, Cmdr. Charles Maher was relieved from the USS Memphis during the investigation of a cheating ring, Navy officials said. He was later hired at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center.
Lt. Cmdr. James Rushton was relieved from the minesweeper the USS Chief for fraternization with the executive officer to close out 2010. Earlier this year, he was stationed at Tactical Training Group Pacific.
In 2011, 23 commanders were relieved of their command for cause, Navy officials said. The number who were able to stay in doubled from the previous year to 10.
In addition to Murphy, Cmdr. Nathan Borchers was relieved from the USS Stout for a pattern of unprofessional behavior in overseas ports, according to Navy officials. He recently held a position at the Strategic Command at Colorado Springs.
Capt. William Mosk was relieved from Naval Station Rota after his command lost confidence he could effectively oversee an investigation. He wound up at Commander Carrier Strike Group 9.
Cmdr. Dave Koss was responsible for a low-flying maneuver, Cmdr. Michael Varney mishandled classified information, Cmdr. Karl Pugh was disciplined in an alcohol-related incident and Cmdr. Laredo Bell was cited for drunken driving. All remained in the service.
The reasons behind the firings of Cmdr. Joseph Nosse, Lt. Cmdr. Martin Holguin and Cmdr. Jonathan Jackson were cited as loss of confidence.
In 2012, 26 commanders were relieved for cause, Navy officials said. Of those, 14 were allowed to remain in the service, jumping to 54 percent from 43 percent the previous year.
Cmdr. Diego Hernandez was relieved for mishandling classified materials, Cmdr. Derick Armstrong for sexual harassment and fraternization, and Cmdr. Michael Ward for an extramarital affair. The justifications behind many of the firings have not been released.
From January 2013 through February 2014, 22 commanders were relieved, 21 in 2013 alone, Navy officials said. Nearly all of them (82 percent) remain in the Navy today.
Correction: In a Dec. 7 story about a U.S. Naval officers who are able to remain in the service despite losing their commands, it was implied that some officers may have been reduced in rank. It should have stated that of those relieved of command, 53 percent had remained in the service at the same rank.