The Navy Ethos

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Navy photo

Navy Woes: here is the USS Guardian, on the rocks. For the commanders of the USS Vandergrift last fall in Vladivostok, the problem was vodka on the rocks.

The accompanying photograph is painful to see. It not only documents the “complete loss” of the $277 million USS Guardian minesweeper, which ran aground off the Philippines last month, but it is likely to signal the end of one or more Navy careers (we’ll have to wait to see how much blame a lousy chart ultimately is assigned).

But not only has the Navy has issued several statements about the calamity, it has published at least two photographs. We posted the first here on Battleland last Friday – under the headline USS Scrap — and we’re publishing the second today (the service even distributed it as one of its Photos of the Day).

It’s enough to make you feel sorry for the Guardian’s 79 crew members, all of whom have now safely returned to their home port in Japan. Their fiberglass-hulled ship will be cut into pieces to free it from a treasured Philippine reef with minimal damage.

Is the Navy run by masochists who get pleasure from publicly flogging transgressors?

Probably not, but there’s scant debate that it holds its commanders more accountable than those of the other services (even though, in the Guardian’s case, there’s yet no finding of wrongdoing).

In fact, it’s the only service to routinely issue press releases when commanders are relieved of duty. The Associated Press’ Lolita C. Baldor recently noted that when it comes to firing misbehaving brass, “there is little public notice if the senior officer is in the Army or Air Force. The Navy, however, issues a public statement every time a commander is removed from a job.” She also pointed out that the Navy, while the second-smallest of the four services, relieved the most commanders – 99 – over the past eight years, compared to the 70%-bigger Army’s 83, 41 for the smaller Marine Corps, and 32 for the same-sized Air Force.

Last year, the Navy cashiered 25 commanders, a nine-year high. A pair – both commanding Los Angeles-class attack submarines — has already been relieved this year:

— On Jan. 4, the Navy relieved Commander Thomas Winter, skipper of the USS Montpelier, for crashing into a guided-missile cruiser off the Florida coast last October.

— On Jan. 25, the Navy relieved Commander Luis Molina, skipper of the USS Pasadena, which has been sitting in a Maine drydock undergoing renovation for more than the past year.

On Jan. 22, the U-T San Diego newspaper (née San Diego Union-Tribune) published a story on the antics of the officers and crew of the San Diego-based frigate USS Vandegrift while on a port call to Vladivostok, Russia, last September. The story spoke of a crew awash in vodka, its officers’ visit to a strip club called Club XXX – apparently, no need to speak Russian – and  a request from the Russian government that the crew turn down the music at a party being held on the vessel’s flight deck.

“The behavior of key leaders in the Wardroom shed unfavorable light upon USS Vandegrift, the Navy, and our nation. In many cases, those setting, establishing, and upholding the liberty policy for this port visit abdicated their ambassadorial and leadership responsibilities in favor of conduct that command policies were set to prevent,” the investigation concluded. Then it twisted the knife: “From all accounts, the crew in USS Vandegrift performed with aplomb during the port visit in Vladivostok and served as the expert example we expect from them.”


The damning report wasn’t leaked to the newspaper. Instead, it was “released by the Navy to U-T San Diego” and is available, in its cringe-inducing entirety, on the paper’s website here.

Professional snafus aren’t responsible for most of the COs tossed overboard. “There are four basic categories as to why a commanding officer has tended to fail,” Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, said in November. “One, a grounding or an untoward incident, grounding or collision; two, regrettably, just incompetence, not cut out to be a commanding officer; three, unable to deal perhaps with the stress, and one might become abusive, overbearing; and then four, misbehavior, such as a DUI, an adulteress affair, or something of that nature. And by a factor of at least 2-to-1…it’s been misbehavior. And so I don’t understand why they are misbehaving. And I’m concerned about that, and I’m looking into that, looking into it very hard.”

Why does the Navy hang its dirty laundry high on the the halyard for all to see? In contrast, the Army rarely releases anything. The Air Force is eager to release reports of snafus that lead to accidents, but they focus on the hardware, not the humans. Retired Navy officers say it’s a part of Navy heritage, where the skipper’s word is law – and that he, or she, must be above reproach.

“I find the public announcements of CO firings somewhat reassuring,” a Navy poster says on I Like the Cut of His Jib, a website frequented by retired officers. “It shows me that we are holding leaders to a standard and that, yes, some do fail.”