by J. F. Kelly, Jr. | Coronado

The commanding officer of a Navy ship exercises a truly unique degree of power, authority and responsibility. No other position is quite comparable. The remoteness, confines and potential hazards of shipboard life necessitate an unparalleled degree of autonomy. With that autonomy, necessarily comes unrelenting responsibility, not only for his own performance, but for the performance and safety of his ship and crew. The captain is ultimately responsible for any failures of his crew. He is responsible for their training and he cannot plead ignorance or preoccupation with other issues.

Command at sea is not for the faint of heart. But for those qualified and suited for the rigors and challenges of command, it should be the highlight of a Navy or Coast Guard career. There is no more demanding or rewarding military assignment, regardless of rank. It is an immense privilege to command a ship and crew, achieved by only a relative few. From his first day on board, the captain is the recipient of the good will of his crew. It is then his or hers to build upon-or diminish. The crew wants their captain to succeed because life is better for them when he does. The Navy has a rigorous and competitive command qualification and screening process and only the best fitted are selected. Usually, that is. Sometimes the process fails. When it does, neither the ship nor the crew prospers.

The Navy has a process for dealing with this, also. It’s called detachment for cause and it can be instituted when a commanding officer’s reporting senior looses confidence in a captain’s ability to properly command. It’s an administrative, rather than a punitive, procedure, although it can eventually lead to disciplinary action. In either case, it is usually career-ending. The process is used to quickly remove a captain whose continued presence could jeopardize the ship, crew or mission.

The Navy has, as of this writing, removed six commanding officers from command by this process thus far this year. One of them, and the only ship commanding officer among them, was Capt. Holly Graf, commanding officer of the guided missile cruiser Cowpens, home-ported in Yokosuka, Japan. The Navy doesn’t usually publicly announce reasons for these administrative actions, but in this case it did. Capt. Graf was relieved, in the final days of her two-year command tour, for “cruelty and maltreatment” of her crew, according to the Navy Inspector General’s report.

Capt. Graf was the first woman to command a guided missile cruiser. Previously, at the rank of commander, she had commanded the guided missile destroyer Winston S. Churchill .  (Officers of any rank while in command of a ship are called “captain”). She had also served as executive officer (second in command) in the guided missile destroyer Curtis Wilbur. She was, by training and experience, qualified for major command.  By temperament, however, she was not.

By way of background, I had a similar career progression in that I commanded a guided missile destroyer and guided missile cruiser after a tour of duty as executive officer of a guided missile cruiser. I was an early advocate for women in ships, having published, in 1979, an essay entitled “Women in Warships: A right to Serve”. I later helped manage the integration of women into ships of the Pacific Fleet and commanded a ship with women onboard. Only women fully qualified through experience and training were selected for department head, executive officer and command billets.

In the extensive press coverage of Capt. Graf’s relief, some have speculated that she was pushed too fast. The facts do not support this. A 1985 Naval Academy graduate, she assumed her first command seventeen years later, after qualifying tours as department head and executive officer. She was selected for major command after 23 years of service. Hers was a successful but not accelerated career progression. She received excellent training and experience and her three master’s degrees attest to her intelligence.

But experience and intelligence, while essential, are not enough. To be worthy of command of a ship and crew, one must also be a leader. If the inspector general’s report and any of the unsolicited reports from previous shipmates and subordinates can be believed, Capt. Graf was not. If she behaved in the bizarre manner described, she was a tyrant, not fit by temperament for command of anything, least of all a ship where there is no refuge from tyranny. Tyrants are not leaders because, while they might achieve results in the short run through fear and intimidation, they invariably leave a trail of carnage behind in the form of wrecked or voluntarily aborted careers and bitterness toward a Navy that permitted them to rise to command. The harm they do invariably outweighs their accomplishments. They generate, not healthy stress, but unnecessary stress that destroys morale and sometimes health without any permanent gains in performance.

Leadership, of course, does not automatically convey with command. It must be demonstrated. Leaders have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. They must be role models. They must care as much about their crews as about the mission. Since they may be called upon to lead them into danger, they must instill trust and confidence in their leadership so that their crews will follow them without hesitation.

In over thirty years of naval service, I’ve seen a few tyrants and screamers. I’ve seen the damage they caused. I thought they were relics of the past but apparently another screamer slipped through the system. Her past reporting seniors allowed her to. I blame it also on a promotion process that focuses too much on career building and not enough on professionalism. Command at sea is too important to be too easily conferred or regarded as a stepping stone to flag rank. Some are fitted by temperament, skill, judgment and leadership qualities to command ships and crews and to do it well. They should be recognized by longer and repeated command tours. Our ships and crews deserve the best, do they not? Then let’s give them the best captains we have and stop trying to train every unrestricted line officer for command. Potential tyrants should be recognized early in their careers and encouraged to pursue other careers, preferably far away from ships. CRO

copyright 2010 J.F. Kelly, Jr

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California.

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