The month of August 2019 was one of the bluest in U.S. naval history. No fewer than five “senior officers” were relieved of their duties, three of them on the same day. Those swept away included the second in command on the fast-attack submarine Jimmy Carter; the commanding officer of the guided missile cruiser Antietam; the executive officer of the guided-missile destroyer McCampbell; the commanding officer of the Florida-based Navy Medicine Operational Training Center. That’s two lieutenant commanders, two captains, and Rear Admiral Stephen Williamson, fired as director of industrial operations at the Washington, D.C.-based Naval Sea Systems Command.
At the end of this command slaughter, the Navy public affairs office would only say the firings were “unrelated” and each was predicated on “a loss of confidence in [the officer’s] personal judgment, ability to command, or ability to fulfill his responsibilities.”
That’s the formula used in news releases by the public affairs offices of all the military services. Since 2015, the news site The War Horse found, at least 41 Navy commanders were fired, including 12 captains and five admirals. In all cases, the reason cited was “a loss of confidence.”
Over the same period, the Air Force, relieved at least 29 commanders. Five were generals. Ten others were colonels. In the Army, since 2015, more than a dozen senior officers, including six generals, have been relieved for — guess what —“lost trust and confidence.”
And in the Marine Corps 45 senior officers lost their commands, officially for the same vague reasons — loss of confidence and trust. Over all, since 2015, in nearly 130 known cases across the armed forces, the military released no information about why senior officers were relieved. Hidden by that word-blanket, criminal behavior is indistinguishable from poor performance.
In previous years, 2005 to 2013, the Associated Press found that roughly 30 percent of those losses of command resulted from charges of sexual impropriety. It was just such a case — a Marine battalion commander relieved after credible evidence convinced his commanders he had physically abused his wife for years — that triggered an investigative report in The War Horse.
Thomas Brennan is the founder of The War Horse, an award-winning newsroom educating the public on military service through journalism, public forums, and writing seminars. Brennan served as a U.S. Marine who fought during the Second Battle of Fallujah and suffered a traumatic brain injury on a foot patrol in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. Throughout my recovery, he wrote publicly about his mental health and moral injury in a series of award-winning reflections for The New York Times.