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Don’t Be Shocked By Pentagon’s Treatment Of Heroic Commander

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Capt. Brett Crozier, fired this week from command of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, joins a growing list of Navy officers who attempted to raise concerns about the safety of their ships and crew, only to pay with their jobs.

Crozier wrote a letter dated March 30 warning that an outbreak of the coronavirus on his ship was a threat to his crew of some 4,000 sailors unless they disembarked and quarantined.

"We are not at war, and therefore cannot allow a single sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily," Crozier wrote. "Decisive action is required now."

We do not know all the facts that prompted the letter. But we know that once it was published in the San Francisco Chronicle, the acting secretary of the Navy, Thomas Modly, relieved Crozier of command. Crozier, 50, had been a rising star in the officer corps. He will remain in the Navy at his current rank, though his career future is uncertain. In viral videos, Crozier's sailors can be seen cheering him loudly as he disembarks the Roosevelt, alone, before driving away.

Navy experts believe that the cumulative effects of the service's decisions over the past several years to punish those who speak out will result in silencing sailors with legitimate concerns about their health and safety.

"This may have the effect of chilling the responses of other commanding officers because it will be perceived, fairly or not, as a shoot the messenger scenario," said James Stavridis, a retired admiral and former head of the United States Naval Institute, who called for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the dismissal.

The Navy's top officer, Adm. Mike Gilday, initially praised Crozier's attempt to warn his superiors. But the next day, Thursday, Modly, the Navy's civilian boss, reversed course, telling reporters that he fired Crozier because he lost confidence in the officer for not using a secure email network to properly route his complaint.

Crozier's unclassified email wound up with 20 or 30 other individuals and at some point was provided to the Chronicle reporters. Modly said the public airing of the complaint had unnecessarily alarmed sailors and provided enemies with information that exposed weaknesses on one of the country's most important warships.

As part of our 2019 investigation into the incidents in the Navy's 7th Fleet, its largest overseas presence, ProPublica found repeated instances of frontline commanders warning superiors of risks the fleet was facing — a lack of training, exhausted crews, deteriorating ships and equipment. Those warnings, all sent through the normal chain of command, were met with indifference.

Disaster in the fleet struck in June 2017, after the USS Fitzgerald, a destroyer, collided with a cargo ship in the Sea of Japan. Two months later, a second destroyer, the USS John S. McCain, collided with an oil tanker in the Singapore Strait. The two accidents cost the Navy 17 sailors — the biggest loss of life in maritime collisions in more than 40 years.

Navy investigations laid blame on nearly the entire chain of command in the 7th Fleet, punishing commanders and sailors for failing to properly train and equip its crews and ships.

Adm. Joseph Aucoin, the head of the 7th Fleet, was fired. Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, who oversaw training, was forced from his job. Cmdr. Bryce Benson, captain of the Fitzgerald, was recommended for court-martial.

But ProPublica reported that all three men had repeatedly tried to warn higher-ups of dangerous safety issues in the vaunted fleet, based at Yokosuka, Japan. They argued to their superiors that the Navy was running ships in the 7th Fleet too hard, too fast. Their warnings were dismissed.

Some of the Navy's criminal cases against the officers collapsed after court rulings found possible bias in the Navy's prosecution.

Benson, the Fitzgerald commander whose court-martial case was dismissed, said that Crozier "was right to strongly advocate for the safety of his crew and it was wrong for the SecNav [secretary of the Navy] to fire him for doing so."

Senior leaders "continue to under-resource ships at sea and are slow to respond to commanders' pleas for assistance," said Benson, who is now retired. "From one tragedy to the next, senior Navy leaders continue to break faith with the fleet."

Dismissing Crozier, Benson said, "sends a clear message to commanders: The authority and responsibility that you enjoy is yours alone and an absolute liability even when under resourced and thinly supported."

Modly emphasized that he did not intend his actions to discourage officers from coming forward to report their concerns through the chain of command.

"I have no doubt in my mind that Capt. Crozier did what he thought was in the best interests of the safety and well-being of his crew. Unfortunately, it did the opposite," Modly said at a press conference.

But Crozier's firing has raised alarm anew that the Navy is more interested in its public image than in fixing problems raised by its sailors. It did not go unnoticed by fellow officers that Crozier was dismissed within two days of his letter becoming public. Such haste is unusual, and raised questions about the due process afforded to Crozier.

Some now believe that the cumulative effects of the Navy's decisions over the past several years to punish those who speak out will silence sailors who have legitimate concerns about their health and safety.

"His removal sends a really strong message that coming forward will end people's careers," said Mandy Smithberger, a military expert at the Project on Government Oversight. "Before this I'd say that risk was more so implied through both social and professional retaliation. This is much more explicit."

Crozier's firing comes amid increased concern that the Pentagon is not acting quickly enough to protect whistleblowers. Glenn Fine, the principal deputy inspector general for the Defense Department, testified that the agency has shown a reluctance to punish officials who take punitive action against whistleblowers.

"We have seen a disturbing trend in the DoD disagreeing with the results of our investigations or not taking disciplinary action in substantiated reprisal cases without adequate or persuasive explanations," Fine testified in January to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. "Failure to take action sends a message to agency managers that reprisal will be tolerated and also to potential whistleblowers that the system will not protect them."

Navy commanders may be fired at any time by their superiors. And the captains of Navy ships are uniquely responsible for any mishaps on their ships.

A study published earlier this year of more than 2,000 disciplinary cases found that Navy commanders were historically dismissed for "crimes of command" — such as a ship colliding with another vessel or running aground.

More lately, however, the study documented that it has become harder to tell if those punished are being disciplined less because of their performance and more because they had either internally or publicly called the Navy out for neglect.

"In the modern Navy," wrote Capt. Michael Junge in the Naval War College Review, "a commander is most likely to be removed for personal misconduct or when the crime of command includes one or all of the following elements: death, press coverage, or significant damage to the Navy, whether materially or to its reputation."

Do you have access to information about how the Navy, the Air Force, the Marine Corps, or the Army is responding to the coronavirus that should be public? Email t.christian.miller@propublica.org or megan.rose@propublica.org or robert.faturechi@propublica.org. Here's how tosend tips and documents to ProPublica securely.

Female Naval Academy Grad Named To Blue Angels Squadron

By Joe Burris and Colin Campbell, The Baltimore Sun

When your father, two uncles, and both grandfathers served as pilots, your career seems destined to take flight.

Marine Capt. Katie Higgins not only followed in the footsteps of her family members, but this week she was named to the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, also known as the Blue Angels.
With her first show flight sometime next spring, the 2008 Naval Academy graduate said she could become first woman to perform in Blue Angels history.

The Blue Angels are considered one of the most elite outfits in U.S. military aviation, and the addition of a female pilot to its ranks is both historically significant and no small feat, said Robert Thomas, the curator of the National Military History Center in Indiana.

“To get added to that group is extraordinary, seeing how far the military has come,” he said.

While women flew aid missions in World War II, no women flew in combat until Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Thomas said.

Blue Angels public affairs officer Lt. j.g. Amber Lynn Daniel said that Higgins’ addition to the team, along with Marine Capt. Corrie Mays, 34, of Marstons Mills, Mass., marks the first time in Blue Angels history that two female Marine Corps officers have been selected to serve on the team at the same time.

Whoever takes to the air first will break through a gender barrier, though neither is the first female member of the Blue Angels. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Amy Redditt Tomlinson became the first woman to wear a Blue Angels number when she became Blue Angel No. 8 in 2010. But Tomlinson never performed, serving as an events coordinator and navigator.

Both Higgins and Mays will pilot the Blue Angels’ C-130 Hercules cargo plane known as “Fat Albert,” which rumbles low and slow over the crowds at air shows and can take off at a 45-degree angle using rocket boosters, a maneuver used in combat zones.

Marta Martin, a Navy counselor who runs a history blog on women in the service, said Higgins flying with the Blue Angels is “a huge deal.”

Higgins joins a growing list of high-achieving women, such as the Navy’s first female full admiral, Michelle J. Howard, who serve as an inspiration to others in the service, Martin said.

“It allows people to see there are so many different options for them,” Martin said. “With the Blue Angels, it is very difficult to even work for their team, to be appointed to assist them. Just the fact that there’s a female, that’s great. It’s a good feeling to know there are women out there that are role models, who are not just staying in what’s a comfortable role.”

Higgins said she dreamed of becoming a pilot when she was growing up, but her ambition wasn’t truly formed until her second-class midshipman year at the Naval Academy, when she boarded her first noncommercial aircraft and took the controls.

“It was really intimidating but one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” said Higgins, 27. “I could say I had a goal to do it because of my dad, but until I did it I didn’t know. It was a really cool experience.”

Higgins, currently assigned to Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 252 at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., will become part of a unit that will serve three years with the Blue Angels squadron.

She will report in September for training but will not fly with the team until well after its Star-Spangled Spectacular show in Baltimore on Sept. 13-14. When the Blue Angels relocate from Florida to California in January, she will begin demonstration training. By March, she will suit up officially for the squadron.

Photo via WikiCommons

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U.S. Admiral Greenert In China For Top-Level Navy Talks

Beijing (AFP) — The chief of the U.S. Navy met his Chinese counterpart on Tuesday for talks aimed at improving cooperation between their fleets amid concerns over regional territorial disputes and potential armed conflict.

Admiral Wu Shengli, commander in chief of China’s navy, welcomed Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the U.S. chief of naval operations, with a red carpet ceremony and an honour guard at his headquarters in Beijing.

The two admirals did not speak to reporters but a U.S. navy official said the visit was meant to “look at ways to increase the cooperation between our navies”.

It was the two men’s “fourth interaction” over approximately the past year, he said, adding: “It obviously improves our understanding of each other also.”

Greenert’s trip is set to last until Friday and will include a visit to China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.

The talks come as tensions mount over maritime disputes in the East China Sea between Beijing and Tokyo, as well as between Beijing and Hanoi, Manila, and others in the South China Sea.

The official, who demanded anonymity, said it was “hard to say” if specific instances of regional tensions would come up in the talks.

“Those things exist but the intent of these meetings is to look at ways that we can work better together so we can improve the understanding between our navies,” the official said.

“And once we have those understandings maybe we can then solve some of these other complex issues.”

Greenert’s visit is part of efforts to intensify dialogue between the U.S. and Chinese militaries.

U.S. Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno visited China in February and said that Beijing and Tokyo must enhance communication to avoid “miscalculations” over the East China Sea.

U.S. President Barack Obama told Chinese President Xi Jinping on in a telephone conversation on Monday that he was determined to constructively manage growing differences between their two nations.

Points of contention include trade, cyber espionage, and U.S. support for security allies Japan and the Philippines, which are involved in maritime territorial disputes with China in the East and South China Seas, respectively.

AFP Photo / Str

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Ex-Blue Angels Commander Found Guilty Of Allowing Sexual Harassment

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

SAN DIEGO — The former commanding officer of the Navy’s famed Blue Angels flight demonstration squad was found guilty Monday of “failing to stop obvious and repeated instances of sexual harassment,” the Navy said.

Captain Gregory McWherter was given a non-judicial punitive letter of reprimand, a move that is usually career-ending.

The guilty decision was made after an Admiral’s Mast convened at Pearl Harbor by Admiral Harry Harris Jr., commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

A Navy investigation had found that McWherter “witnessed, condoned, and encouraged behavior that, while juvenile and sophomoric in the beginning, ultimately and in the aggregate, became destructive, toxic and hostile,” the Navy said.

McWherter condoned “widespread lewd practices” and engaged in “inappropriate and unprofessional discussions with his junior officers.”

McWherter allowed pornography in the cockpits of the Blue Angels planes and also on a restricted website, the Navy said. He also allowed a painting depicting male genitalia on the roof of a Blue Angels building at its winter base in El Centro, California

McWherter was found guilty of violating various parts of the military justice system, including failure to obey an order and conduct unbecoming an officer.

An Admiral’s Mast involves an admiral reviewing documents and listening to an officer’s explanation and then meting out any necessary punishment.

McWherter was commanding officer and flight leader of the Blue Angels from November 2008 to November 2010, and then from May 2011 to November 2012.

During the investigation, he was relieved of command as executive officer of Naval Base Coronado in April. He was set to become commanding officer of the base next year.

Several junior personnel who served with McWherter at the Blue Angels have been given counseling about sexual harassment, the Navy said.

“The behaviors that led to the outcome of the Admiral’s Mast for Captain Greg McWherter are completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated in any Navy squadron, let alone in our elite flight demonstration team,” said Vice Admiral David Buss, commander of Naval Air Forces.

McWherter, an F/A-18 Hornet pilot, has logged 5,500 flight hours and 950 aircraft carrier landings during training missions and deployments to the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf and the western Pacific.

He was an instructor at the Fighter Weapons School, known as Top Gun. During his second tour with the Angels, McWherter, a graduate of the Citadel, received an award for his “leadership and contributions” to the North American air show industry.

AFP Photo/ Mark Wilson