Navy’s vice chief visits Bahrain to ‘maintain confidence and continuity’ after death of 5th Fleet boss
By JOSHUA KARSTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 6, 2018
MANAMA, Bahrain — The Navy’s second-in-command, dispatched here on a mission to console sailors and reassure allies after the sudden death of the service’s top officer in the region, said Thursday that troops are “on watch” even as they mourn.
The arrival of Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran, whose visit comes as the USS John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group heads toward the Middle East, came less than a week after 5th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Scott Stearney was found dead in his home.
Moran, who met with command leadership and enlisted troops over two days, also met with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa to deliver a message that the mission hasn’t changed.
“When you’re on watch and something happens to your ship or shipmate, people step up, they step in and the mission goes on,” Moran told Stars and Stripes. “I feel very confident that they’re ready for anything that comes their way.”
Despite CBS News and USNI News reports that Stearney’s death was an apparent suicide, Moran said that he could not confirm the cause of death until an investigation is complete.
Vice Adm. Jim Malloy, who is in Bahrain as a senior liaison officer supporting U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and 5th Fleet, will soon be nominated to lead the commands, service officials said. Malloy would await confirmation from Congress.
Stearney’s death shocked the military community in Bahrain, who gathered on base Wednesday for a private memorial service.
The death also stunned the Navy’s leadership.
“I got a phone call and a text from the CNO, and he asked me to call him immediately and I did. I got word from him,” Moran said. “Like you would expect, I was crushed.”
The “flag wardroom is pretty small, pretty tight,” he said, referencing the community of admirals.
While Moran wouldn’t comment on the circumstances surrounding the death, he did indicate concern about the workloads of Navy leaders.
In October, Moran issued a mandate that all flag officers take more time off to care for their physical and mental health, including calling for leaders to take 10 consecutive days off per year. It’s expected to be a model for lower-ranking sailors.
“It’s not an option, because most flag officers — and a lot of sailors follow the lead of those flag officers and their commanders — don’t take enough time off,” he said.
Senators last year during hearings zeroed in on long work weeks — some up to 100 hours — and lack of sleep for sailors as factors in the separate collisions involving the destroyers USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald, which left a combined 17 sailors dead.
Officers who don’t follow the new leave policy will get a call from him directly and they’ll have “a nice conversation,” Moran said. He’s also reinstated a requirement that flag officers undergo full annual physicals, similar to those given to aviators.
After Stearney’s death, the Navy’s priorities were the admiral’s family, the team in Bahrain and making sure the mission stayed on track, Moran said.
“He was in an incredibly important position out here as fleet commander in an area of the world where we’re in contact with adversaries every day,” Moran said.
The 5th Fleet area of operations spans from the Red Sea to parts of the Indian Ocean. It includes critical maritime chokepoints like the Strait of Hormuz, where much of the world’s oil is transported and which Iran has threatened to close.
In a sign that the mission is moving forward, the USS Stennis group is bound for the 5th Fleet area, marking the first carrier visit to the region in eight months.
“It’s not a response to (Stearney’s) death at all,” Moran said. “It was previously scheduled.”
During his visit, Moran spoke during a promotion ceremony and opened the floor to address sailors’ concerns. Operations, less predictable scheduling of carrier group deployments and capabilities in the region were hot topics, but the biggest and most immediate concern was for Stearney’s family.
“We talked about how to deal with that, and that everybody grieves in their own way (and) that they needed to pull together as a team, to watch out for each other right now at this time,” Moran said. “I was heartened by just how much I saw that [is] already going on.”
Moran also said that Hamad, Bahrain’s leader, expressed condolences and “reiterated the support that his government in this country has for the United States Navy here in Bahrain.”
As he prepared to depart the country, Moran said his main message to servicemembers was that the “entire Navy stands behind them in this period, and to reassure our wonderful partners and hosts here in Bahrain that we’re here to stay.”
Petty Officer 2nd Class Kristen Gale plays taps during a memorial service for Vice Adm. Scott Stearney on Naval Support Activity Bahrain, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. Stearney, who led U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the 5th Fleet, was found dead at his Bahrain home Dec. 1.
RICHARD HOFFNER/U.S. NAVY