26 April 2011

USS PONCE (LPD 15) CO / XO Relief


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.
For those of you who are in the command pipeline or still contemplating a career that culminates in command, I think it is important that you understand the following significant lessons from these incidents:

(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.


Anonymous said...


I totally agree with your leadership philosophy. The question I pose to you is what happens when as the Department Head or Executive Officer "forceful leadership" regarding the Commanding Officer or Executive Officer and it results in career suicide? Leaders KNOW what the right thing to do is but what happens when there are retaliations for doing the right thing? I've served in multiple capacities in where I recognized it, reported it, but the end result is a DH that will never be in command and an XO who will never get the chance to be in command. Thank you Admiral.

Very Respectfully,
Committed to the Institution

Butch Bracknell said...

Committed: ADM Harvey can answer for himself but this naval officer has a preliminary answer for you: man up. Moral courage means doing the right thing, consequences be damned -- see, e.g. David Farragut, et al. You were not guaranteed a career as a naval officer. If career suicide results from doing the right thing, be a moral actor, then get a new job -- full stop. Trust the institution to do the right thing. If it disappoints you by making a mistake, consider your career an erroneous sacrifice on the altar of a stronger naval service. I stand behind this statement and offer my name, rank, and email address to further the debate. LtCol Butch Bracknell, USMC, rbracknell@acus.org.

Anonymous said...

This is EXACTLY what she did when I served with her! NO ONE BELIEVED! Thank you Sir for removing her. Thank you!

"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."

Anonymous said...


From the perspective of a JO; I think "Committed's" point brings up an important consideration. Our whole system seems to reward those who keep quiet and maintain the status quo and to punish those who speak out against any issues they might find. It is very sad to think that we're more likely to punish those with moral courage and reward with command those who are unfit for it (as evidenced by the large number of relieved CO's over the last 10 years). Maybe it's time we take a complete round turn on the manner in which we select those who are to be CO; as well as those who are to be XO or DH...and possibly replace the entirety of a flawed fitrep system that is helping to put the wrong people in command; perhaps implementing a 360 degree fitrep or requiring an evaluation of command potential of every DH to be conducted by the Chief's Mess. I am a firm believer that the people who really know what type of leader a person is are their peers and subordinates, NOT his superiors.
For every unfit CO that is caught and relieved, I wonder how many escape unnoticed?

Very Respectfully,
LT Kevin R. Jacobson, USN, kevin.r.jacobson@navy.mil

Anonymous said...

Obviously, her behavior and leadership traits were accepted or ignored long before she took command. It didn't magically start one day after she started wearing her Command at Sea pin. Her prior DH's, XO's, CO's, and those that "groomed" and selected her for command failed her, hundreds of Sailors & Marines, and the institution.

PONCE is a solid ship with an exceptional crew. To them I say, "Stay on top, stay proud, and it's guns up for our Marines!"


This is nothing compared to the Army. We have no "anonymous hot line" and in order to get relieved as a unit commander you have to literally get people killed.

NVYGUNZ said...


Great point of views on the mentioned incidents. One in particular I'd like to comment on is - "loyalty to the institution". That point is one I personally had to mature into, especially as an enlisted Sailor. I (personaly) was taught early in my career that we "take care of one another". (add your own interpretation) And further as a weapons-rate, that got engrained very deeply - even further skewed. Also, as a CPO you are (or were) taught something very similar - "Take care of your fellow Chiefs", "What happens in the Mess - stays in the Mess", etc.. It took a couple-few years into the CPO Mess to understand loyalty to the unit or institution was more important.

In my own posted 'leadership philosophy' (for the CPO Mess), I have a line item that states: "LOYALTY: Loyalty to the Mess or unit exceeds loyalty to any individual. Pick you battles wisely". The intent was that I have loyalty to the unit above the individual CPO and I will hold you accountable. Additionally, those also in the Mess should do the same, plus we must all provide corrective training/counsel, etc..to correct future issues. When I update it prior to transfer, I will likely change unit to institution. They were meant to be one in the same. Glad I was on the right track! Thx Sir!!


Anonymous said...

The previous comment says it all!!!

Anonymous said...

At the very least the Navy is implementing a system to remove these toxic CO's. In the Army there are no checks and balances. It takes a severe issues, usually lives lost, to make any changes or to even bring a CO under review. When these reviews do happen the only people called as character witnesses are those who the CO has pull with or who owe the CO favors for career advancement and the like. Flawed is an understatement.

s said...

LtCol Bracknell wrote, "If career suicide results from doing the right thing, be a moral actor, then get a new job -- full stop."

Though I agree with him as a matter of principal, one must ask, What kind of Navy/Marine Corps do we serve in where doing what is morally right could result in the end of career? Who would WANT to serve such an institution?

CDR K. J. Sudbeck, USN said...


Do you think it is time to examine the selection board process used at NMPC, considering the high number of Commanding Officers being relieved and their associated reasons?

Devious personality and flawed professional/character traits such as the ones noted above can be identified if leadership only looks for them. As we see, the good old boy network or academy hookup doesn't seem to be working as it did in the past.

Anonymous said...

I served the U.S. Navy proudly for 20 years and I must say that I am extremely disappointed in how political it has become. I served under COs that were tyrants. Some would say they commanded with fear, but the successes of those commands were unparalleled. I've also had COs that were everybody's friend and guess what? Yep, no command success! I was also in the room on two occasions where the author of this blog demeaned and ridiculed subordinates and that person has continued a successful career.

Let me get this straight...two officers, a CO and XO, former enlisted, non academy grads, one a female get fired for what was once daily routine in our navy. I admit I was not onboard that ship, but I will not jump on the bandwagon to slander two commissioned officers. Some may say that I don’t know what took place on that ship or how horrible those two officers were. I would say to you, how do you know it was so bad? The leadership that made this decision based it all on he said/she said. None of them were onboard the ship either. I’ve talked to Sailors onboard that ship and they were, to a Sailor, surprised and disappointed.

I would love to see those of you who made these posts say what you've written to the face of CDR Jones. Oh, that's right; you'd rather hide behind the keyboard than actually command a ship! To all of you, the author included, before you past judgment on another Shipmate, take a look in the mirror and see if you should be casting stones.

Zoe Brain said...

As a durned furriner - look to systemic failures. To state the obvious, these problems could not happen unless the system failed some way.

Look for reasons. Try to figure out in a non-judgemental way from interviewing all concerned, victims and the guilty, how things got like this in each case. Look for common traits.

Then fix them. Maybe that means removing people, maybe that means a quiet word, maybe that means kicking, um, you get my drift, and usually it involves changes in the way things are done.

The Threat is not individuals: the Threat is flaws in the system. Try to give one(only) chance for reform when performance is unsatisfactory provided all own up NOW, no reservations, no hesitations, for the good of the service. No punishment either if they straighten up IMMEDIATELY. Else Goodbye, not wanted.

For my next trick, I'll teach grandma to suck eggs but sometimes the obvious needs stating.

Anonymous said...

Your lessons in leadership are hopefully molding a new generation of leaders who will take their responsibilities as seriously as you.

Authority, responsibility, and accountability must be executed concurrently, not separately or sequentially.

I for one am deliriously happy to see that someone of your stature is taking Navy leaders to task for blatantly unprofessional and dangerous actions/inactions that make all of us who serve in, or with, the Department of the Navy look like a bunch of Kindergartners at recess.

We all work too hard every day to defend this great nation to put up with the kind of "press" that results from these peoples' inability to deduce right from wrong, simply because they are wearing a "command pin."

Your contemporaries should be singing your praises!
Your subordinates should be heeding your warnings.

The whole Navy should be reading your words!

Bravo Zulu, Admiral Harvey!!!


Cdr Wilson, USN said...

I was at your brief Monday and one thought came to me too late to ask. Are some of the very same traits we traditionally look for in CO's the same that cause some of the flaws that result in relief? For example we look for officers with exceptional self confidence, larger than life attitude, and generally type “A” personalities. If these traits are controlled, they often lead to exceptional commanding officers. If people are unable to control them, they lead to abusing the position of authority we put them in.

Anonymous said...

"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."

I have to question this statement. I personally know that in at least one case the CO's subordinates nor the majority of his superiors lost their trust in their CO's ability to command. Nor was his ability to command affected in any way. Rather he was drug through the mud by the "institution" he so proudly serves. He was and is supported by many who are part of the "institution" and many who are not. This did not matter to those who had "final authority" regarding his career and the careers of others.

Anonymous said...

A "Caine Mutiny" dynamic, perhaps? I've never met CDR Jones, but I do know the previous CO of PONCE and he is a charismatic and dynamic leader who is well-liked, evel-keeled, level-headed, and who resonates well with the people he seves with. My perception of him is reinforced by the comments of officers I've met who served with him when he was XO in HARPERS FERRY or while he commanded PONCE.

That being stated, I offer to the discussion that when command of a large group of people changes from a popular well-liked leader to a more-draconian type, it becomes quite possible that anonymous complaints might come forth from a handful of people averse to change. To be honest, everyone gets (and should get) stressed during a change of command. There are so many leadership styles and personalities and it is plausible that in the case of this situation, personalities clashed.

But the point is that there was an investigation and we must trust that the system worked. In fact, I'm certain it worked. In my ten years of service to date, every single Sailor I saw who went to Mast (Officer and Enlisted) was guilty (despite what some JAG's might try to argue).

Anonymous said...


In relation to the "USS JOHN L HALL - Collision with a pier while deployed" incident noted above, the correct term is "allision."

Very Respectfully,

LT Forceful Backup


Admiral Harvey,
I have known of CDR Jones since 2003 when my housemate was serving as a Division Officer for her when she was CHENG on Mighty Monterey under CAPT Bruce Curry. CJ had a horrible reputation even then, but nobody had the stones in her command to challenge her. Besides blaming the XO in this case, who should have stepped up, you need to look at the CO's, XO's and Selection Boards that let these people advance. What did people think was going to happen?!

Anonymous said...

The Navy created a culture over many years that punishes officers who stand up for what is right while promoting (and selecting for command) officers who "play along" with the bad decisionmaking, moral failures, and lack of integrity in their chain of command. We've had CO's like this for many years but it used to be it was just covered up. The information revolution, internet and email on ships and deployed, etc, means that bad leadership can't simply be hidden like it once was. If the Navy's leadership wonders why we have these issues, they should look at themselves. Officers are not selected for command by their peers or sailors.

Anonymous said...


Navy has recently felt the rub due to faults in the system that screen officers for Command at Sea. You make reference to the negative effects of the “Yes Man” and how the “Yes Man” as XO, doesn’t combine for success. Why than are these very same “Yes Men” typically elevated to Command upon completion of (or shortly thereafter) their tours?

I’ve witnessed firsthand a “Yes Man” officer, who, after demonstrating poor leadership as a Department Head, selected for Command at Sea 6-months later. How does this happen? In this instance the subpar Department Head was elevated primarily due to a subpar CO at the same command. The CO was a hands-off Skipper who set poor precedent from day one. Coming in late and leaving early, regularly bringing children to work, lack of professionalism as demonstrated by failure (as CO) to obtain the qualification of aircraft commander and finally not leading by example due to being well out of physical standards. This particular CO relished the company of the “Yes Man’ and detested the company of those officers who towed the line to make up for the deficiencies of the commander. How was this CO ever put in command? How could this CO be given authority to recommend for command—and with that, to recommend someone who often shirked their own professional responsibilities? Could it be that the Command Screen Board process is in desperate need of overhaul and it is that which serves as a causal factor for this failure and the recent rash of failed commanding officers?

Far too often, officers with exceptional records and demonstrated command potential are left on the cutting room floor only to be surpassed by other officers with lesser credentials. Guidance given to board members in board precept messages highlights certain desired qualifications to include previous assignments, race and gender. One example of this can be found in the FY11 Aviation Command Screen Board (ACSB) Admin Precept which states:
“The board shall give favorable consideration to those candidates who have displayed superior performance while serving in IA/GSA/APH assignments in direct support of Overseas Contingency Operations and the National Defense Strategy and, in particular, those assignments that are extraordinarily arduous or which involve significantly heightened personal risk.”

I can fully appreciate rewarding officers for sacrifice; however at what cost to the institution and others do we give such reward? Is command the ultimate payback for being voluntold to serve as an individual augmentee? Affording officer’s a command due to IA service, race or gender places great responsibility and authority in the hands of those not necessarily qualified to command.

Very Respectfully,

Loyal to the Institution

LCDR Jason Schwarzkopf said...

I won't speak to PONCE specifically. My comments relate to the previous posts regarding Officer selection, and will hopefully illuminate some of the challenges. This is meant for robust discussion, not as critique.

There are institutional considerations and process issues at work here--although I will not attribute it to promoting more "yes" men--or women than any other organization in the world. Insitutionally, we are unwilling to relieve XOs or CMCs. "Churn" is unwelcome and firings cast a shadow upon your capability as a leader--rather, your inability to train/work with your subordinates. Unfortunately, this desire to overlook flaws in the interest of keeping the peace (read, tolerating ineptitude until their PRD) sometimes causes Commanding Officers to assume a disproportionate amount of "heavy lifting" when it comes to the command triad. In terms of process, the CO/XO Fleet Up paradigm reduced the number of quality cuts senior leadership made on COs Afloat by removing the XO screening. We EXPECT COs to be relieved when something goes wrong on their watch as they are ultimately accountable; all too often the error chain starts well below them and forceful backup is lacking.

Firing a member of the command triad is never easy, always leaves a mark, and should never be taken lightly, regardless of how egregious their performance is. Culturally, it always causes a ripple effect and I sincerely pray few Sailors will have the displeasure of having to experience it. But like any cancer, it's better to cut than allow to fester--and some cancers are treatable without cutting. You just have to ADDRESS the issues through to RESOLUTION.

The CO-Afloat screening process required a last look after those department head evals and normally during an XO tour; evals which today (due to timing the DH-ride, CO PRD, as well as promotion to LCDR) usually results in only 1 to 3 competitive FITREPs, tops--which then determine the azimuth of the remainder of your career. While the competitive department head evals have long been regarded as the "make or break" cut for Command, we've lost a quality cut: the XO screening.

Where'd the last gut-check go? Where is the requirement to stay hungry for the Navy in hard jobs after that XO ride, as a prerequisite for Command? It's easy to paper over a few warts as a department head when you're competing against a pool size of three; it's a lot harder to escape the inevitability and responsbility of Command when you're standing in the spotlight as XO.

We're missing out on spotlighting some folks who would either benefit from the experience of being XO, followed by a period of professional reflection after that tour which historically prepared them for Command; or fail at it long before it becomes incumbent upon the CO to fire his immediate relief: the relief he is now responsible for training. Separating those CO and XO billets by time, performance evaluation, and selection boards would give senior leadership the opportunity for a final quality cut, and Commanding Officers one last chance to answer the question after seeing them as an XO--"Is this Officer ready for Command?"

How many CO/XO Fleet up COs have fired their XO?

The SWO CO/XO Fleet Up program could be improved, from the perspective of quality assurance as it fails to address a few things:
1) no assessment of another increment of at-sea leadership and subsequent desire to accept hard assignments (the last gut-check),
2) potentially allows mediocre performers the chance to "luck out" on DH evals (due to timing or weak competition) and subsequently get command; without ever being looked at again until the major command screening.
3) forces our O-5 Commanding Officers to be more accepting of those screened--their immediate reliefs.


Very Respectfully,
LCDR Jason Schwarzkopf

Anonymous said...

Failure does not occur overnight as some have mentioned. These leaders were supposed to be groomed from early on by the Chief's mess and it is with a heavy heart that we must accept some culpability. I try to always instill in the junior officers I work with the idea that "I'm here to make you right, not to make you happy" is a mantra for success. That precept does not and should not end, ever. As LtCol Bracknell stated “Moral courage means doing the right thing, consequences be damned.” Courage is mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty. You cannot be a leader if you are not willing to put yourself, and possibly your career, on the line to do what is right.

I've worked for one, and only one, capriciously draconic leader in my 22 years and it was the worst 18 months of my career. His failure was not his demanding, hard charging leadership for which he was rewarded with a 3rd star (and later removed from command at Annapolis.) It was his bipolar conduct from minute to minute, day to day. I have no problems being held accountable for my actions or for the actions of those I lead however to do so without being able to determine the outcome is detrimental to good order and discipline. What I read from the article is the CO of PONCE was doing just this. If the CO’s response to your actions is based not on the success or failure of the action but rather her (or his) predisposed opinion of you then command climate will always fail.

I once had a lively discussion with an ET3 aboard the USS Hewitt about our XO. His hatred of the XO knew no bounds but when I said I liked him I honestly thought it would come to blows. I explained to the ET3 that, for good or bad, I knew where I stood with the XO. It didn’t depend on his day, his mood, whether he had coffee or how his wife and kids may have treated him that day. He was going to be an ass, that was who he was. He did not treat Combat Systems different from Engineering and he did not accept less from me than he did from the CHENG. He held everyone to task, consistently. For that he had my utmost respect and helped in mentoring me and how I try to conduct myself to this day.

Leadership is hard, there is no denying that. I cannot fathom the responsibility that comes from leading at sea and will not second guess the judgment of any CO. I do believe consistency in leadership is what makes any leader successful and based on the investigation, that was the failure of PONCE.

ETC Daryn P. Bartlett, USNR, daryn.bartlett@navy.mil

Anonymous said...

I had 36 years active duty, 10 enlisted. Five XO tours if you count Chief Staff Officer, a great command tour, was an officer detailer, and a recorder on several Selection Boards. it was all in the Submarine Force, which is small enough that professional reputation - the thing that can't be written down - counts a whole bunch on who goes where. We also had the luxury of (usually) being able to match CO/XO pairs so they could compliment each other. Any peg should work anywhere, but that isn't real world. I'd say, with larger SWO numbers, go ahead and give the Type and Squadron Commanders an input into Command Selection. They know their people better than the Board (if they are doing their jobs).