Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Conduct unbecoming

By Capt. John Byron, U.S. Navy (Ret.) Best Defense department of officers and gentlemen It’s a tough competition, the contest for the military’s most egregious example of conduct unbecoming. All fiction entries are likely to be rejected: You just can’t make up tales as lurid and stupid as we’ve seen in real life. My list ...

U.S. Navy
U.S. Navy

By Capt. John Byron, U.S. Navy (Ret.)

Best Defense department of officers and gentlemen

It’s a tough competition, the contest for the military’s most egregious example of conduct unbecoming. All fiction entries are likely to be rejected: You just can’t make up tales as lurid and stupid as we’ve seen in real life.

My list of the leading entries (some not widely known) is included below, true tales that are the gold standard for abuse of privilege and sexual misconduct by military men in leadership (and missionary?) positions.

I’m sure many other like these could come to mind and that the future holds still more titillation and stupidity. But we now have before us what seems to me the winner for the ages: The worst case of conduct unbecoming an officer, of dishonorable behavior, of simple wrong behavior by an officer in authority that ever we’re likely to find. And the case illustrates not only how far from honor an officer can move himself, but also how incredibly tone deaf is the military system, unable to find the correct answer in situations where an officer judged useful for professional skills is given a bye on a matter directly challenging his honesty and trustworthiness in a position of authority in our nation’s military.

Here’s the story. A civilian academic with a Ph.D. in physical oceanography and a distinguished career falls in love with a senior Navy officer holding command of a warship. Perhaps some naiveté involved, but clearly an affair of the heart on the woman’s side. It’s permanent. They get engaged. They will be married. He says his next duty station will be Guam and so at his insistence she leaves the mainland and moves there for a life together, taking an administrative post at the University of Guam.

Then, having turned her life upside down for this man, she finds out that her hero has rejected her and hung her out to dry. Her soulmate is not coming to Guam. He’s dumping her. Too, it turns out: He’s also got elsewhere a second girlfriend he’s been deeply entangled with (and engaged to), another female he’s deceived and he had just discarded her in the same disgraceful way. In short, he is an equal-opportunity cad, dishonorable in his treatment of both women and at the same time.

The first woman is devastated (the second, too, but this is not her story). Right away she goes to the officer’s chain of command and to the DOD inspector general asking if this is approved conduct…and they gaff her off. She then hires an attorney and they contact both the head of this coward’s warfare community and the chief of naval operations. And they gaff her off too.

And then she does something of incredible courage: She documents the tale in a lengthy letter published in the Spring 2013 issue of Naval War College Review on page 133. She and the editors take pains to avoid disclosing the miscreant’s name or even his warfare community, but the use of “boat” to describe his command, the length of his command tour, and absence of any senior jobs on Guam for aviators or surface warfare officers pretty much lets the cat out of the sack: He serves in the submarine force (I have other confirmation also).

Is she credible? I’ve corresponded with her and find she is, a tough, smart professional paying a personal price for falling in love and trusting an officer to be a gentleman. The editors at the Review did their due diligence as well and they put their journal’s reputation behind this person’s truthfulness.

The wronged woman claims she’s not seeking revenge and the facts bear this out. Instead, citing Captain Mark Light’s great study of the topic, she wonders if in matters of sexual conduct, the Navy even cares about honor and honesty and proper ethical behavior, and if so, why does the system have an officer of such low character still on active duty and moving forward in his career.

I have the same questions, a challenge to the CNO and the secretary of the Navy to answer why such a moral midget remains a commissioned officer in good standing, and to the leaders of the submarine force on why it continues to retain and advance officers like this dirtbag.

Fairness requires opportunity for the harming party to have his say, to explain why he thinks it OK for a Navy officer to lie and cheat and devastate two innocent women…and still wear a cover with a gold chinstrap. It’s open-mike time, buddy: Post here why you did what you did and why you’re still a wonderful guy.

A final note. Fellows, let’s not screw this up with in-blog towel-snapping that makes a joke of a sad situation. We habitués of this blog are a great group, funny, clever, and deeply interested in our nation’s defense. But at times we do get a bit frisky in our comments. In this case I ask you to respect the courage and honesty of our heroine and leave off attacking her or commenting unfavorably on her conduct. Her personal and professional lives have suffered great harm at the hands of a despicable officer — she deserves respect and praise for the classy way she found the high road to seek redress. Frankly, I find her most admirable.

And I am appalled at her treatment by a fellow submariner.

This is a rare opportunity to look hard at how the military services deal with matters of honor. It stands on its own and deserves direct answer from the system. In the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Article 133 proscribes conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. If this ain’t that, the law is meaningless.

Some goodies from the past:

  • The captain of a major surface ship caught in his in-port cabin doing the deed with a junior enlisted female while underway.
  • The overseas rear admiral dismissed from service for his weird and repeated stalking of an enlisted dental tech he became fixated on after she’d cleaned his teeth.
  • The second admiral fired from another high visibility overseas post for cavorting with a junior officer under him (tee hee).
  • The chief petty officer relieved of his duties after he drunkenly tried to grope a civilian stranger in the seat next to him all the way across the Pacific on a commercial flight.
  • The flag-bound submariner of fantastic promise who got off track after telling his immediate superior that he’d ended his affair with the female lieutenant on their staff — and then got caught by that same senior canoodling with the lieutenant on the golf course.
  • The two captains stationed in the Med who got sacked because of Navy’s puritanical standards finding disfavor with them for openly swapping wives.
  • The admiral in charge of Navy recruiting fired when he was found boffing the wife of one of his recruiter-of-the-year finalists in the hotel parking garage as the ceremony was being held.
  • The flag-bound O-6 engineering-duty officer with a Ph.D. arrested as the Burke Lake Flasher.

Moving to more recent times,

  • The submarine skipper who lasted only seven days in command, fired for having a pregnant 23-year old mistress who he misled with fantastic tales of daring-do on secret assignment and then faking his own death.
  • The 33 Air Force drill instructors undergoing courts martial for using their female recruits as sexual pawns.
  • The Air Force general in trouble for mindlessly dismissing all charges against an officer convicted in the military
    justice system of raw sexual harassment of a junior.
  • The other Air Force general who downgraded a likewise valid sexual misconduct conviction after magically determining on no apparent basis that the abused was less credible than the accused and to hell with the due process that said otherwise.
  • Yet another submarine skipper recently relieved for inappropriate intimate relations with a junior.
  • May 2013: the Air Force lieutenant colonel in charge of that service’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response unit…until his arrest for drunkenly groping a women — total stranger — in a parking lot (see: you can’t make this up).
  • And this just in: The DOD study estimating that last year 26,000 service personnel were victims of “unwanted sexual contact” from fellow servicemembers, a 35 percent increase from the year before and a situation egregious enough to infuriate the Commander In Chief.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1