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Opinion: Why More Commanding Officers are Getting Fired

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USS Rentz (FFG-46) in 2009. US Navy Photo

USS Rentz (FFG-46) in 2009. US Navy Photo

As of this date, 16 Navy commanding officers, including five ship captains, have been relieved of their respective commands in 2013.

Is this number particularly significant? Well, while the number of ships in commission has continued to decline, to what is now the lowest number since 1916, the number of ship captains being relieved of their commands is steadily increasing. So, the percentage of ship captains being fired is rising, every year, and that should be a concern.

These officers are, quite literally, the best we have — the best we could make. Each has risen to command following years of intense competition and preparation. How could these captains be so ferociously competitive and yet fail at such a high rate?

According to Commander, Surface Forces, ship captains get relieved for two primary reasons: operational misconduct and personal misconduct.

Operational misconduct should be thought of as (almost exclusively) collision or grounding. While no electronic records related to ship captain firings exist before 2000, U-T San Diego has quoted sources in the Naval Personnel Command saying “nearly every commander fired 50 years ago got into trouble for running the ship aground or hitting a pier.” In other words, captains have been getting relieved for this sort of misadventure for as long as ships have been at sea.

Yet, no one seems especially concerned about this. It is understood that naval operations are inherently risky propositions, involving countless variables. Frankly, it is a testament to our commanding officers’ excellence that more accidents don’t happen. At the end of the day, it seems a certain number of accidents — and associated captain reliefs — are simply considered to be the cost of doing business on the high seas.

This brings us to “personal misconduct,” and the cause of the dramatic rise in firings in the past decade. Beginning in the early 1990s, post-Tailhook, women have been fully integrated into combat ships and squadrons. At first, men and women in ships had a healthy fear of one another, and the rules were rigidly enforced.

However, over time, everyone has become comfortable with the presence of the opposite sex, and naturally that comfort has led to an exploding rate of fraternization, at every level.

Casual observers — those who have never served in a fully integrated combat command — seem convinced that men and women can and should serve together in ships and squadrons with utter disregard for one another’s sexuality.

To those of us who have examined this problem from the inside, this seems a forlorn hope. Simply put, you cannot put young, healthy men and women into a small box, send them away for extended periods of isolation, and not expect them to interact dynamically with one another. They’re like magnets being put into a box and shaken — they stick.

After all, this is the instinctual behavior that has kept our species going for 250,000 years.

Greatly compounding this phenomenon is our growing interconnectedness. In 1983 when a ship deployed, it maintained one ship-to-shore voice circuit. One. Today, our connectivity has risen to a point where we actually have invented elaborate procedures designed to clamp down our sailors’ massive and immediate ability to connect with the shore.Back then, if a captain behaved poorly while deployed, no one really knew. Now, with unlimited access resulting from unlimited communications, everybody can know. Accusations can be instant and anonymous. And, if those accusations involve a commanding officer, they are treated with utmost gravity. According to Commander, Naval Surface Forces, every hotline complaint against every CO is investigated.

So, what has changed is this: Every year, a number of commanding officers are relieved for “inappropriate relationships” with their crew members. Likewise a number are relieved for what are deemed to be insensitive actions or statements. More are fired for what their seniors perceive to be errors in adjudicating matters related to inter- or intra-sexual issues.

And, of course, captains are held responsible for what happens in their commands. A commanding officer of a destroyer was relieved not because he was personally involved in any misconduct and not even because he was aware of misconduct and failed to act. Instead, it was discovered that, unbeknownst to him, a number of chief petty officers were engaged in inappropriate relationships with enlisted women in his ship. He was relieved because his senior had a “loss of confidence” in his leadership.

In short, a new and more complex standard is now being set and enforced for our commanding officers. Not only are captains expected, as throughout history, to be excellent in terms of their ability to command a ship, but now they are on the front line of making a fully integrated crew work in seamless, sexless harmony.

Until some sort of equilibrium is reached, our captains will continue to live in positions of exquisite vulnerability. That’s the cost of making things work. Rather than be upset, best to simply accept this new reality. Rather than reacting with scalded-cat alacrity whenever a captain fails to handle integrated crews, we simply need to accept these firings as a new cost of doing business.

This post originally ran on Sunday in the San Diego Union-Tribune in cooperation with the U.S. Naval Institute.

  • DJ

    I served under Capt Eyer when he had command of CHANCELLORSVILLE in 2007. He was the Captain’s Captain – absolutely phenomenal – had an incredible down-to-earth mentality and was somehow able to motivate everyone. I asked him once what his chances were on making Admiral, and he sort of laughed and said he had no desire to be an Admiral whatsoever. I didn’t really understand then but I understand now. Wrapped in the Navy political system, he wouldn’t have been in a position to express great independent thoughts like these without taking a hit from someone above him. He’s (unfortunately) better off making the Navy a better place from his retirement home. Thank you for your service, Captain.

  • TheMightyQ

    “Simply put, you cannot put young, healthy men and women into a small
    box, send them away for extended periods of isolation, and not expect
    them to interact dynamically with one another.” – It’s almost as if someone is using logic when discussing male-female interaction onboard ships! A first in naval history! Huzzah!

  • JayhawkNavy02

    Well said, straight to the point. Thank you for the superb article Captain.

  • ActiveOfficer

    “Rather than reacting with scalded-cat alacrity whenever a captain fails to handle integrated crews, we simply need to accept these firings as a new cost of doing business.”

    That’s a typical thoughtless big navy answer for leadership that is out of touch with reality.

  • BH

    Definition of insanity–the classic Einstein version–applies here. As a retired 30-year Master Chief, I can only say that the decision to follow a “politically correct” path to admit women into deployed & combat situations has done more to destroy careers of otherwise superior leaders than just about anything else.

    As a percentage of their respective gender, which CO group has endured a greater number of relief for cause–male or female? It’s a somewhat rhetorical question, as in the end it’s not going to be used as a data point, but I’ll wager the numbers show that male CO’s have been the subject of a greater number of relief(s) for cause (other than groundings) than female CO’s. Why? Vindictiveness, pure and simple.

    In the battle of the sexes (testosterone vs estrogen), it’s a losing battle. Even if a CO is PERFECT in all respects, when men & women mix in stressful environments, natural hormonal instincts will override the most intense focus on how to avoid or ignore those natural callings. How a CO handles these situations is a very thorny issue, and I’ll say here that many reliefs for loss of confidence have come about because someone involved in a shipboard “relationship” did not like the disciplinary actions taken and set about to undermine the CO, with the intent of negatively impacting that CO’s command and career.

    Until androids or eunuchs are able to man ships of the USN, the grand experiment of mixed crews will continue to provide opportunity for perfectly good commanders to have their careers abruptly ended. It’s time to re-evaluate the wisdom of what the mixed-crew concept has meant without the gender-equity “fudge factor” being forced into the mix. Try manning 2 otherwise equal ships with all-male & all-female crews and let them prove which can get the job done.

    • Kurt Jennet

      For people who constantly quote Einstein, I believe the quote is actually from a novel written by Rita Mae Brown who even she did not compare herself to Einstein. Often times quotes are credited to people who would appear to make the quote sound more intelligent. No quote regarding insanity has ever been accurately attributed to Einstein, I didn’t know this either until I did the research to see if it was true or not.

  • vincedc

    The world is changing. It’s time for leadership to adapt. Read Rick’s book The Generals.
    We need to set up a system where relief is not a career buster.

  • Bill Penrod

    The Dear Captain has to have a blame for his peers. (?? idea) hey lets blame women cause his peers can’t keep their peters in-check……………….

  • Phlyer

    Applying the logic of a CO being relieved for misconduct he was unaware of, and subsequently failed to act on, should mean by extension his immediate superior should also be relieved.And the CNO. And for that matter the Commander in Chief! The PC brigade is turning the Navy, and the US for that matter into a laughing stock!

  • Jim

    My opinion Kevin, these Officers are actually not the best we have! Also, that the scrutiny should extend to those Officers who selected them and the screening of the record those Officers had available to them for their selection. The selection process goes to the highest Officials of DoN/DoD and to the Senate for confirmation. Just in the past month we have had the highest of our Naval brethren (Ret) not be able to answer the simplest of Yes/No questioning during The Benghazi Saga; and a Deputy Commander of U.S. Strategic Command (a former COS of ADM Greenert, while at C7F) let go for counterfeit chips of all things – which is not in the keeping of the highest traditions of the Naval Service. It would be rare indeed, to find any Sailor that is so pure as to never have committed any transgression, however slight, while they were in uniform!

  • K

    This is why I am unlikely to renew my 25 year old subscription. You hve published basically this same piece annually for the past three years, blaming personal failures in leadership on the presence of women. They would be saints if it were for those darn females on board…really? I firmaly believe in freedom of speech and opinion and an independent forum. I do NOT believe in repeatedly publishing this exact argument from this author.

  • Joe Killough

    It didn’t happen so much before there were mixed crews and everything became PC. This is just my opinion.

  • Bob

    You can thank the Femminazi’s for this.

  • wdb

    The US Navy had signs long ago about the quality of some of their COs. just look at the USS VANCE. Of course the US NAVY covered all of this up: then blamed the XO.
    I talked to sailor on that ship when it happened and the CO was nuts. I was in the same DER group out of pearl. I saw the USS Vance many times.

  • Rsford

    As the CMC on Frank Cable in Guam it was an eye opening experiance. We had 200+ women aboard. We deployed some years 235 days. The previous CO/XO/CMC were all booted. I had orders to the Phillipine Sea but was asked to go to Cable to help fix it. When i arrived it was senior enlisted (E-9) and below in a few departments taking every advantage of 17 year old women and up. Needless to say we laid waste to those that we could. I could not get BUPERS to provide any senior enlisted female leadership for over a year and then only one or two. As males we have well over 200 years of leadership however our female counterparts do not have this same base line which compounds the issues when we throw this mix together. The Captain’s comments were on the mark but I feel we have not provided them all of the tools for success be it senior enlisted/officer leadership as well as a Flag level knowledge of what these Commanding Officers face. Zero tolerance has a place however relieving a Commanding Officer should not be the automatic response given this newish world.