On Saturday, 23 April 2011, VADM Harry Harris, Commander, SIXTH Fleet, relieved the Commanding Officer and Executive Officer of USS PONCE (LPD 15). I’ve provided a summary of events below to make sure you have the facts behind the decisions that were made and the timeline on which the Preliminary Investigation was conducted. I fully support VADM Harris’ decision – I believe he made exactly the right call.
Unfortunately, like PONCE, most of the Commanding Officers (COs) detached for cause on my watch were for personal misconduct. In every case, each Commanding Officer, whether through personal misconduct, negligence, or exceptionally poor judgment, lost the trust of their subordinates or their superiors and without that fundamental building block in place - trust - they no longer had the ability to command. Here's a summary of the ten Commanding Officer reliefs that occurred in 2010 and 2011 in U.S. Fleet Forces.
- USS THE SULLIVANS- Multiple operational incidents culminating with a buoy collision that damaged the port screw while deployed.
- USS JOHN L HALL - Collision with a pier while deployed
- USS TRUXTUN - Inappropriate relationship with a junior member of the wardroom.
- NCTS Bahrain - Inappropriate relationships with several members of the command.
- USS GUNSTON HALL - Sexual harassment, maltreatment of subordinates, assault, drunk and disorderly conduct. Command Master Chief (CMC) also relieved for failure to take appropriate action for inappropriate/unprofessional behavior.
- USS MEMPHIS - Cheating ring involving exams.
- NMCB 21 - Failure to address inappropriate/unprofessional behavior by subordinates. CMC also relieved for failure to take appropriate action for fraternization and unduly familiar relationships.
- USS ENTERPRISE - Exceptional lack of judgment while XO of ENTERPRISE.
- USS STOUT - Failure to take action to deter unprofessional behavior in overseas ports, hostile command climate. CMC also relieved for failure to correct a pervasive pattern of unprofessional behavior by the ship's crew.
- USS PONCE - Dereliction of duty, unprofessional conduct, favoritism, hostile command climate. Executive Officer (XO also relieved for being complicit by action and inaction in creating a hostile, unprofessional and unsafe environment onboard PONCE.
(1) Loyalty to the Institution. The responsibility of a CO for his/her command is absolute and COs are provided with tremendous authority to execute their responsibilities (Navy Regulations). When a CO is negligent, demonstrates personal misconduct, or routinely exhibits poor judgment that places the command at risk, the XO and CMC are faced with a hard decision - loyalty to the individual or loyalty to the institution. Although the answer is easy - loyalty to the institution - the decisions that will be required to maintain good order and discipline at the command, which includes addressing CO issues, will be hard but must be made. Problems do not fix themselves and only grow worse with time.
(2) Command Leadership Team. Commanding Officers must have the forceful backup of their XO and CMC to succeed in command. Conversely, the XO and CMC cannot cede their shared responsibility for good order and discipline to the CO. You simply cannot be a strong "Yes Man" and a good XO or CMC at the same time. Correcting the improper orders or behavior of our seniors (forceful backup) is critical to mission success and good order and discipline. Forceful backup means just that - forceful backup. The XO and CMC must have the courage to address CO issues with the CO until they are resolved. There is often no clear line of demarcation on what must be addressed - it's the ultimate gut check call based on your beliefs and your core values. I personally believe the greatest act of loyalty to a CO by any subordinate is keeping him/her from making a serious mistake. On PONCE, VADM Harris also determined that the XO failed to provide the forceful backup to the CO necessary for her to succeed. Had he done his job and provided forceful backup despite the CO's overpowering nature, there was a chance that this whole matter could have been avoided. Contrast this situation with STOUT. There, with a popular and well-liked but very hands-off CO, the CMC was the weak link and kept command issues from the CO - issues that ultimately caused his downfall. In both cases, the Command Leadership Team failed the Navy and the CO was held accountable, along with the relevant other corner of the triad.
(3) Risk Taking. Effective operations in a rapidly changing battlespace are absolutely dependent on intelligent initiative which means intelligent risk-taking. With any risk-taking, there will inevitably be mistakes. There is a big difference between mistakes in judgment that are well-intentioned, recoverable, and result from inexperience and those actions resulting from willful negligence or fatal flaws, personal or professional. I think it is clear that all of the reliefs summarized above were a result of the latter and not the former.
Command at sea is still the best job in the Navy and the highlight of any naval career. Most of our COs succeed every day in tough circumstances and successfully complete their command tours. Although CO failures are rare, they are traumatic to our Navy and to our units, which is why they garner so much attention (as they should). We must learn from these failures and move on. But the fundamental fact remains, the vast majority of our COs succeed in command.
All the best, JCHjr
Summary of USS PONCE Events:
The U.S. Fleet Forces Command Inspector General received an anonymous hotline complaint on Friday, 14 April 2011, alleging misconduct by the Commanding Officer of USS PONCE, CDR Etta Jones. PONCE was on station near the coast of Libya as part of the KEARSARGE Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) supporting Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR. The complaint alleged administrative and operational misconduct that included creating a hostile command climate, preferential treatment, safety and navigation violations, and manipulating reports/withholding facts to preclude outside investigation.
ADM Locklear, Commander, Naval Forces Europe, and VADM Harris, Commander, SIXTH Fleet, were informed of the allegations on 15 April 2011. VADM Harris initiated a JAGMAN Preliminary Inquiry to determine the validity of the allegations, get a sense of the command climate and assess operational impacts. An investigation team embarked PONCE on 18 April 2011 and completed the Preliminary Inquiry on 22 April 2011.
Based on the findings of the Preliminary Investigation, VADM Harris held Admiral's mast on 23 April 2011 and found that CDR Jones failed to report and take proper corrective action for hazing and for poor judgment during a security drill where she endangered two Sailors with a loaded (condition 1) weapon. Upon conclusion of the Mast, VADM Harris relieved CDR Jones of her command due to loss of confidence stemming from the aforementioned Mast, unprofessional conduct, rendering her chain-of-command largely ineffective by marginalizing her senior leaders and displaying blatant favoritism to select junior officers, and for cultivating a hostile work environment permeated by verbal abuse, fear, and intimidation.
VADM Harris also relieved the Executive Officer, LCDR Kurt Boenisch, due to loss of confidence based on his failure to act as required to address the pervasive misbehavior of the Commanding Officer which perpetuated a hostile work environment, failure to thoroughly investigate allegations of misconduct and appropriately address substantiated hazing onboard PONCE, and demonstrated lack of good judgment and moral courage.
VADM Harris forwarded his endorsement of the Preliminary Investigation on 25 April 2011. The U.S. Fleet Forces Inspector General investigation into the hotline complaint remains open.