Navy tries to stave off commanders' career-ending missteps

Friday - 4/13/2012, 5:44am EDT

Jared Serbu, reporter, Federal News Radio

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The commanding officer of the Navy's Health Clinic New England was removed from her post last week, the sixth commanding officer to be fired by the Navy since the year began, according to media tallies.

Capt. Marcia "Kim" Lyons was relieved of her command, as was the clinic's top enlisted sailor after a survey of the clinic's staff led superiors to lose "confidence in the CO's ability to command." A statement from the Navy did not elaborate further.

Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations, said the Navy has been carefully tracking the trend of commander firings for years.

"The disturbing trend is that the cause [of the dismissals] is behavior, and it's across the board," Greenert said at a Thursday breakfast event sponsored by Government Executive magazine.

According to statistics compiled by the Navy Times newspaper, 22 commanding officers were removed from their positions in 2011. The precise reasons for their firings and the details behind them aren't usually made available to the public, but Greenert said the offenses of relieved commanders run the gamut, and they run across all of the Navy's mission areas.

"It's drinking, it's fraud, it's sexual misconduct, it's adultery, it goes on and on," he said.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert answers questions about the Navy's expanding global role from moderator Tim Clark of the April 12 Government Executive Media Group as part of the Government Executive Military Leadership Series in Washington, D.C. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter D. Lawlor)

Greenert said he thinks commanders with poor leadership traits make up only about 1 percent of the Navy's cadre of roughly 1,500 commanding officers.

Nonetheless, he said, the Navy is trying to make sure its younger officers who are about to take command responsibilities know the potential pitfalls of leadership. Four star admirals now visit all of the Navy's command school sessions to discuss the issue with soon-to-be commanders.

"It's a one-week course, but we spend about four hours with them to talk about the kinds of things we're seeing that cause (commanders) to fail," Greenert said. "It's not a finger pointing exercise, but it's to warn them that when you get command it's an intoxicating kind of thing. It's the Bathsheba Syndrome."

In those sessions, Greenert said, incoming commanders hear testimonials from some of the dozens of senior leaders the Navy has had to fire in recent years.

"We let them read the thoughts of those who were caught up in it and actually got fired. We want to help them develop their personality, help them develop their ability to handle stress to that they don't become screamers or drinkers or carousers as the result of the stress of command, and sometimes the loneliness of command."

Command climate is one factor Greenert acknowledged as a factor in another pervasive problem across the military: sexual assault. In fiscal year 2010, there were 610 sexual assaults in the Navy alone. Greenert said the Navy still averages one to two every day.

"We've had sexual assaults in the Navy for years, and we've just not recognized it," he said. "When I came in as (Vice Chief of Naval Operations) in 2009, I went to a two-day seminar, and I was kind of astounded at the numbers. The whole concept of a sailor attacking another sailor was just foreign to me.

Greenert said up until recently, the Navy didn't even have sufficiently reliable ways to track sexual assault or adequate means for sexual assault victims to report the crimes without fear. He said the service has made some progress on those two fronts.

The Navy and other military services offer two reporting channels for servicemembers who are victims of sexual assault. The "restricted reporting" mechanism lets them seek confidential counseling and support without going directly to their commanders and being identified by name; they can make a decision later about whether to pursue prosecution against the offender. "Unrestricted" reports go directly through a servicemember's chain of command.

Greenert said internal Navy polling shows victims generally feel that they're being treated fairly.

"But what isn't changing is the numbers," he said. "Right now, I'll be honest with you, I don't believe my commanders and senior enlisted leaders fully grasp the significance of this. That this is occurring every day in their Navy, where one sailor is sexually assaulting another. We've got to look at the occasions that tend to precipitate it. We've got to have the guts to stop being bystanders and start being interventionalists and stop it. I think it could be a challenge for our time. It's eating away at us underneath in a way I don't think I fully understand yet."

One thing the Navy does understand is that drinking is a factor in many of the assaults. The service's own statistics show that alcohol is involved in 46 percent of the cases for which it has detailed data - the cases reported through the unrestricted channel, where report their cases through their commanders and can seek prosecution.

Greenert said in most of those cases, the perpetrators are using alcohol, as, in effect, a weapon.

"In the vast preponderance of these cases, it's somebody who is older, more experienced, and very deliberately feeds alcohol to a potential victim," he said. "It's a very predatory kind of approach, a premeditated approach.

April is sexual assault awareness month. In the Navy, that means every single sailor is receiving two full hours of mandatory training on sexual assault awareness and prevention. Commands have the option of offering those two-hour sessions all at once, or preferably, according to the Navy, breaking the training into four half-hour sessions in order to keep the topic fresh in sailors' minds.

Earlier this year, the Navy launched a new effort to realign its programs under the heading of the "21st Century Sailor and Marine Initiative." The initiative includes a new policy that requires all sailors reporting aboard a Navy ship to submit to an breath test. Top Navy officials said at the time that irresponsible alcohol use was a common thread in a number of the social problems the service faces, including sexual assault, domestic violence and DUI.

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