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USS James E. Williams' toxic command climate cited in sailor's suicide

A toxic command climate on the destroyer James E. Williams is partly to blame for the suicide of Seaman Yeshabel Villot-Carrasco (inset), a command investigation has determined.

STARS AND STRIPES ILLUSTRATION; US NAVY SHIP PHOTO

By DIANNA CAHN | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: December 17, 2014

NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — A sailor's suicide on board the Norfolk-based destroyer James E. Williams in June can be blamed in part on a toxic command climate that involved bullying and retribution, a command investigation has found.

The investigation was spurred by the death of the sailor but grew in scope when the investigator began examining the ship's leadership. What he found was misconduct and abusive behavior among senior enlisted personnel while the commanding officer and the executive officer failed to take charge.

Among the allegations to surface in the report were accounts of a second suicide attempt, sexual assault, a reprisal and alcohol abuse by the ship's command master chief — the top enlisted sailor.

The ship's skipper, Cmdr. Curtis Calloway, handed over the reins in September. He was reassigned, along with his deputy, Cmdr. Ed Handley, and Command Master Chief Travis Biswell, to desk jobs in Norfolk pending the investigation. All three faced nonjudicial punishment for dereliction of duty in October, while Biswell was also found guilty of drunken and disorderly conduct. 

"As the CO, Cmdr. Calloway owned the culture on board USS James E. Williams," Rear Adm. Andrew Lewis, the Carrier Strike Group 12 commander, wrote in his endorsement of the report.

Calloway's failure to hold senior enlisted personnel accountable, including the command master chief, "enabled a culture that empowered the chief petty officers to target, belittle and bully junior sailors," Lewis wrote. "Cmdr. Calloway was either willfully blind to problems on board his ship or he was in an extremely negligent state of denial."

The Williams left on an eight-month deployment to the Mediterranean Sea on May 30. Seaman Yeshabel Villot-Carrasco died June 19 after taking a toxic dosage of sleeping pills, according to the investigation.

The report found that she was upset about her treatment on board and felt she was being singled out and selectively punished because of her small stature. The investigation found that she'd faced reprisal in the form of disciplinary action after telling her superior that she planned to file an equal opportunity complaint. She also struggled with perceptions on board that she was involved romantically with another sailor while her husband was on a different ship.

The investigation said she sought assistance the day she took the pills, but support networks that are required to be in place were not functioning. It found that the initial ship's investigation was incomplete and that the commanding officer failed to address concerns it raised about command climate, misconduct and missed warning signs.

"Her belief that she was being treated unfairly by her leaders... was not her only source of stress but it was significant," the investigator found.

About a week after the suicide, another sailor tried to kill herself by attempting to jump overboard. She was physically restrained by others, the report said.

The report also found that chief petty officers would hold "informal" and unauthorized disciplinary reviews and that sailors were not comfortable going to their chiefs with problems because they feared retribution.

"Sailors perceive the (Chief Petty Officer) Mess to be on a 'power trip,' " the report said.

A separate enclosure in the report contained a series of revelations the investigator discovered during the course of his inquiry into the suicide. Among them: During every liberty from the ship, the command master chief became intoxicated.

In one case, while on leave in Norway, he was seen dancing with his shirt off and twirling it around his head. He also accepted shots and drinks bought for him by junior sailors, the report said. The commanding officer never reported the incident up the chain of command.

Another time, Biswell got on the ship's intercom after a night of drinking and used profanity to order sailors to their racks, the investigation found.

Citing sailors interviewed, the report said another chief "belittles and berates subordinates and 'drops F-bombs like commas.' "

During a liberty in the Seychelles, a female sailor spent the night in a hotel and became pregnant. Several sailors said she was rumored to have had sex with five people that night. The sailor had consumed "significant amounts of alcohol" during the port visit and told a fellow sailor that she couldn't remember the events of the evening because she was too drunk.

The investigation said that the sailor "may have been too intoxicated to consent" and that Navy criminal investigators have been notified.

The ship is still on deployment in the Mediterranean.

Calling the Williams a national asset, Lewis said the ship's sailors deserved better.

"I am incredibly disappointed in the leadership triad for allowing a climate of fear and intimidation to take hold," he said, "and for failing to hold individuals accountable."

dianna.cahn@pilotonline.com

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