The Navy has fired nearly a dozen officers in command positions in less than three months, including five in one week, for “loss of confidence” in their ability to command — an unusual series of terminations across land, air and naval teams, experts said.
At least nine commanding officers and two senior advisers have been relieved of their duties since April, when a cluster of suicides aboard the USS George Washington sparked widespread fears of a mental health crisis.
The Navy said 13 commanding officers have been dismissed so far this year, including 12 in the Navy and one in the Marine Corps. Most recently, four Navy officers and a senior commander were ousted from June 8 to June 14.
It’s unclear what prompted the changes in personnel, which the Navy said were unrelated to each other. The Navy did not provide further details on the specific circumstances that led to the shooting, but it stressed the importance of “trust and trust” across all levels of the chain of command.
“The US Navy has long maintained high standards for all of its personnel. Those who do not adhere to these standards are held accountable,” He said Lieutenant Commander. Devin Arneson, a Navy spokesman, added that such action was “neither punitive nor disciplinary.”
None of the commanders served the George Washington, as at least five crew members died by suicide last year, angering some sailors and advocates working to reduce military suicides.
“How many military must die before the commanding officer can be held accountable?” Patrick Caserta, who and his wife advocated for better mental health treatment in the military, said after their son committed suicide while serving in the Navy in 2018.
“You can’t manually select some leaders as fallen men and leave others untouched,” Caserta said.
At least one sailor in George Washington, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, said he partially blames his commanding officer, Captain Brent Gaut, for a string of suicides, which includes three within a week in April.
Both Sailors and Casertas believe Chief Petty Officer Russell Smith should be fired after controversial remarks he made during a speech to a shaky crew in April. Smith, the commander in chief of the service, is responsible for matters dealing with enlisted personnel and their families.
The sailor said his shipmates were still talking about Smith’s comments that sailors should have “reasonable expectations,” and that they were not “sleeping in a ditch as a Marine does.”
In separate news statements, the Navy provided ambiguous explanations in at least four cases and blanket statements of “loss of confidence” for others.
She said an “assessment” of the current climate at the Naval Justice School prompted officials to dismiss both the commanding officer and the second-in-command on May 31. However, the Navy said neither officer was implicated in misconduct.
This commanding officer, Capt. Amy Larson, has held this position for approximately eight months. Officials said it was temporarily reassigned.
Earlier, a “command investigation” led to the April 28 termination of the commander in charge of a submarine training facility in San Diego, the Navy said.
In Hawaii, “a series of command and oversight failures” at the government-run bulk fuel storage facility in Red Hill led to the firing of the commanding officer of its Fleet Logistics Center on April 4.
Most recently, the Navy said the commanding officer and third in command of the destroyer USS Bolkeley were relieved on June 10 due to a loss of confidence in their “ability to function effectively as a commanding team.”
Military experts said it was common for commanding officers aboard ships to be fired, but it was rare to see them expelled from teams handling training, fleet readiness and supply posts.
The Navy said an average of 17 commanding officers have been dismissed each year since 2011. It is unclear whether the service plans to announce more terminations soon.
At least at sea, officers feel so comfortable that it has become a long-running joke among sailors, Benjamin Gould, who has been a Navy officer for nearly seven years, said.
Gould said dismissals are made easy, especially when complaints of discrimination, sexual harassment and working conditions are submitted to the Office of the Naval Inspector General.
“You always hear about Qatari employees being fired for one reason or another,” he said. “We describe driving at sea as a kind of driving experience.”
For commanding officers, Gould, who is now an attorney in military law, said there is a very low threshold for personal offense. He said, “You’re under the microscope. As you go up the ranks, the microscope gets tougher.”
Patrick Caserta, 57, and his wife Terry, 56, are puzzled that commanders aboard the USS George Washington are still on board the aircraft carrier when other officers lost their jobs in cases that did not involve the deaths of any sailors.
“They should be held accountable for this,” Caserta said. “What is more indicative of a leader? DUI or people dying under your command?”
The Castas said they know firsthand how poor driving affects a sailor’s decision to die by suicide.
Next week will mark the fourth year they have been without their son, Navy Officer 3rd Class Brandon Caserta, who committed suicide while serving in a naval helicopter combat unit in Norfolk, Virginia.
The Casertas family said their 21-year-old son, a flying electrician in a naval squadron, was chronically bullied and abused by a toxic order that denied his requests for mental health services.
The string of firings comes as Navy Secretary Carlos del Toro faces pressure to consider toxic leadership cultures.
On May 17, del Toro and Admiral Michael Gilday, chief of US Naval Operations, visited George Washington and spoke to the trapped crew members about living and working conditions.
At the time, a senior Navy official told NBC News that “several things” were in the works and that recommendations would be developed and implemented “as soon as possible.”
The Office of the Secretary of the Navy has not responded to multiple requests for comment on the status of these changes since then.
“There was no accountability, nothing, when all these changes could have happened,” Caserta said.
If you or someone you know is going through a crisis, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255or text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources For additional resources.