This post originally appeared on the USNI Blog here.
I was doing pretty well. Doing my goat yoga. Thinking positively about our culture. Seeing an upward trend. New CNO. New outlook on life. Future so bright I had to wear shades . . . that sorta thing.
Then I read that the Navy is convening a Board of Inquiry for Commander Bryce Benson, commanding officer (CO) of the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) during the 2017 collision, to make him “show cause” as to why the he shouldn’t be kicked out the Navy. Here we go again . . .
Ok, as you know, I’m a millennial, so I offer my unsolicited opinion on all sorts of random topics and I wield a questioning attitude like a dachshund wields a roman candle in his teeth. So eventually I’m going to go too far. Well, this seems as good a hill as any to die on. Plus I’ve had about five kombuchas so I’m feeling extra salty.
- Last month, the Commander of Naval Special Warfare (NSW) admitted publicly “we have a problem” after a series of discipline-related incidents involving SEALs, going on to say they “have failed to maintain good order and discipline, and as a result and for good reason, our NSW culture is being questioned.” Excellent!
- Two weeks ago: “Departing top admiral acknowledges Navy’s struggle with character issues”. Good!
- This week, at the Naval Aviation Tailhook Convention, the moderator asked a panel of eight junior aviators whether they thought their community was ready for a high-end fight. They all answered “No.” At least the junior part of that community is willing to say something!
- Submariners? Well, who the heck knows. There’s a reason they’re called the silent service. Well played, bubbleheads.
Meanwhile, the surface force quickly issued a comprehensive review two years ago, then almost as quickly declared “mission accomplished” and went back to focusing public comments on great power competition. It seems like Navy leaders are talking more to Congress than sailors. It’s hard to listen to our leaders tell us we’re facing serious threats for the first time in decades, when the last few years show us we have more work to do on the basics. I guess “we need to practice our basic shiphandling, navigation, and unit self-defense” just doesn’t open up congressional pocketbooks. For example, how goes the Readiness Reform and Oversight Council (RROC)? And why was it formed in the first place if the events of 2017 were isolated incidents? A steady drumbeat of comments on the RROC’s work would instill confidence in sailors, Congress, and the American people that we are committed to improving on a fundamental, cultural level and earning the title of “World’s Best Surface Navy.”
Culture is the bedrock of any organization. We KNOW this. Yet, here we are, on the heels of the darkest four years in recent memory for our Navy, and we are more focused on defending the Navy’s “good name” and going after a single person who (I will concede) fell short royally but, more importantly, stood up to the Navy when our leaders drug his “good name” through the mud injudiciously. I mean that literally—the Navy dropped all charges against Benson when leaders realized they had tainted the court martial process so badly with public comments of condemnation that Benson could no longer receive a fair trial. The whole process was such an embarrassing farce that the whole Navy justice system is now under review. The Eddie Gallagher case didn’t help. (Spoiler alert: its broken)
Remember that Commander Alfredo Sanchez, the CO of the USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) at the time of the collision that killed ten sailors, received a no basis ruling in his “show cause” Board of Inquiry. In other words, the Navy didn’t kick him out. The big difference between Sanchez and Benson is that Sanchez didn’t fight back. He pleaded guilty and the Navy retained him. On the other hand, Benson took the extraordinary measure of issuing a public rebuttal to his SECNAV Letter of Censure. That’s egg in the Navy’s eye, for sure, but it doesn’t make him any more guilty. To what end does the Navy seek this officer’s separation? What signals and strategic impacts are we creating, especially if the board finds in Benson’s favor?
To cut straight to the point, HOW does the Navy see this Board of Inquiry as anything other than retribution? We already took him to court-martial and failed to find him guilty. What is constructive about pursuing his administrative separation? SECNAV said he dropped legal charges in “the best interest of the Navy, the families of the Fitzgerald sailors, and the procedural rights of the accused officers.” Yet, here we are again in the headlines. Perhaps we’re still convinced that his ship’s collision, and the other three in 2017, were individual problems and not part of a systemic issue. Despite the National Transportation Safety Board report. Despite the ProPublica investigation. Despite Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin’s article. Despite what ANY officer serving in Seventh Fleet in 2017 will tell you!!! Sure, ok, just a bad apple.
Um, but what about Fat Leonard? What about all those senior officers and admirals that compromised their ethics for personal gain? What about the Farsi Island Incident of 2016, and the following investigation that condemned the widespread lack of adequate training in riverine squadrons (the first one, that is)? What about the USS Nitze (DDG-94) not detecting cruise missiles that Houthi rebels shot at her formation in the Red Sea in 2016? What about rising suicides? Sexual assaults? Body fat?
My point in asking these questions is to demonstrate that we have a cultural problem. It will not be solved overnight, or even in the term of one CNO. It will take just as long to solve as it took to develop, and we can look back several decades to find its origins. We have to embrace the fact that we have a deep-rooted problem and set ourselves on a course to fix it. Retribution, and a rapid review process to get all our “stoplights to green,” will not help. We can be elite, but we have to be willing to admit that, right now, we are not.
I’ll end with a bit of anonymous feedback I received from the fleet last week, before the news broke about Commander Benson’s Board of Inquiry:
Really there is still a culture that breeds a fear of failure. One screw up, one mistake, one missed milestone and your career is over. There is no path to redemption, no recourse or correction. Too many in critical leadership positions are concerned with meeting the milestone and making it through their job instead of developing future generations and creating a path to excellence. No one is perfect and no one is good at everything right away. Mistakes will happen, it shouldn’t be the end, we should be able to learn and grow and develop.
I’m not defending Commander Benson’s actions in command of the Fitzgerald, but we tried and failed to hold him accountable for the collision. I can’t say the same for those Navy leaders who cultivated a culture that would put such unprepared people on watch that night. Let’s leave Commander Benson in the past or, even better, maybe even learn from him without absolving him of his share of the burden. Let’s learn from NSW and admit we have a problem before it gets worse. Then, let’s look forward and let the last four years be our Navy’s low-water mark.