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Fired Navy Captain created ‘toxic’ climate, grabbed and struck crew on duty

Capt. Danielle DeFant struck or grabbed officers on the USS Lake Erie at least twice and once yelled at a sailor for pointing out dolphins.
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Captain Danielle DeFant was relieved as commander of the USS Lake Erie in October. A report found she had created a "toxic" command climate with frequent yelling and a quick temper. Navy investigators found she struck or grabbed officers on the ship's bridge and once yelled at an officer for pointing out dolphins swimming near the ship. US Navy photo.

A Navy captain’s yelling and public “humiliation” of her officers and crew was so severe and frequent — once for the mistake of pointing out dolphins swimming nearby from the ship’s bridge — that sailors were afraid to bring bad news to her attention. That “fear culture” aboard the USS Lake Erie, a scathing Navy investigation found, could have created “a higher risk of having a safety or operational mishap” and an “unsafe command environment where sailors do not … exercise sound judgment.”

The command investigation appears to have led to the firing last year of Capt. Danielle DeFant as commanding officer of the USS Lake Erie, a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser.

As the commander of the Lake Erie, the report found, DeFant grabbed or struck her officers while they were on duty on the ship’s bridge, alienated the ship’s senior enlisted crew known as the Chief’s Mess, overreacted to minor transgressions like pointing out the dolphins, and in a briefing to an admiral failed to mention abysmal feedback she had received from the crew.

The admiral who eventually fired DeFant wondered if she had “deliberately whitewashed” the crew’s comments.

The investigation of DeFant was first reported by KPBS in San Diego, which received the report via a Freedom of Information Act request.

DeFant was relieved of command of Lake Erie by Rear Adm. Christopher Alexander, on October 12. Alexander, the commander of Carrier Strike Group Nine, endorsed the findings of the investigation on October 5.

DeFant was the captain of the Lake Erie for almost two years. The investigation was launched, the final report says, about 14 months into her command, after three anonymous complaints of “toxic command climate and sexual discrimination.”

Sailors man the rails of the guided missile cruiser USS Lake Erie, June 16, 2014, upon the ship’s return to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Diana Quinlan.

The report found that DeFant had created a toxic command climate on the Lake Erie, but did not find that sexual discrimination occurred under her command.

Investigators interviewed 49 crew members who served on the ship at various times under DeFant, 44 of which were officers, along with DeFant.

Investigators reported dozens of accounts of DeFant losing her temper, screaming at crew and belittling subordinates, sometimes for serious matters of safety or operations, but frequently for minor miscommunications or even trivial moments of annoyance.

Striking and Grabbing Bridge Officers

At least twice, investigators found, DeFant grabbed or hit an officer on the ship’s bridge, while they were on duty as the ship’s Conning Officer, the watch position directly responsible for the heading, speeding and steering of the ship, who is said to “have the conn.”

In November 2022, as the ship sailed near San Diego, the Conning Officer had trouble hearing a helmsman repeating back steering orders (the redacted report did not identify any crewmembers by name).

“When [the officer] did not hear the helmsman’s repeat-back, [DeFant] smacked [the officer] on her collar bone and said ‘Pay attention.'” The officer said the smack did not hurt but “freaked her out” and she momentarily considered leaving her post by turning the conn over to DeFant. Several crew on the bridge confirmed the incident to investigators.

DeFant told investigators she did not recall this incident.

Another time, DeFant was on the bridge as the ship was mooring to a buoy off San Diego, with one officer serving in the conning position and another as the Officer of the Deck, or OOD, the role that directly oversees a ship’s watch.

As the ship maneuvered, DeFant aske, “Do I have a safe bearing?”

The Conning Officer responded in the affirmative — a response which, according to several witnesses cited in the report, set off DeFant.

“In response, [DeFant] approached [the Conning Officer], grabbed him by his uniform near his collar, pulled him towards her, and whispered in his ear, ‘Was I talking to you…You’re not the [OOD] …I was talking to the OOD…don’t ever interrupt me again’ or words to that effect.”

DeFant told investigators she recalled grabbing the officer “on his arm in an effort to re-focus his attention.”

Conflict with the Chief’s Mess

DeFant also set the enlisted crew on edge early in her command, according to the Command Master Chief, the ship’s senior enlisted leader.

During the ship’s first underway period in 2022, investigators found, DeFant addressed the Chief’s Mess, the corps of the ship’s senior enlisted leaders. Good relations between a commander and the Chief’s Mess are considered vital in Navy command structure.

The meeting did not go well.

DeFant, sailors told investigators, “‘came in hot…she was screaming…she was yelling what her expectations were to the team.” Afterwards, the reports said, “the whole team was in shock.”

The guided missile cruiser USS Lake Erie (CG 70) returns to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Hawaii, June 16, 2014, from a four-month deployment. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tiarra Fulgham.

DeFant is a ‘mustang,’ or naval officer who began her career as an enlisted sailor. As an officer, she commanded the USS Paul Hamilton from March 2016 to December 2017 before eventually taking over the Lake Erie.

But her enlisted background did not win over the chiefs, one of whom said that if he “ever addressed his team like [DeFant] just did, he would have been investigated.”

At least one senior sailor met with the ship’s Command Master Chief in his office and asked, “What the hell are we going to do? How are we going to function this way?”

Dolphins and PowerPoint

Among minor incidents, investigators found that DeFant “began yelling” at a junior officer for pointing out dolphins while on the bridge, an incident after which the officer said he “wasn’t doing very good for the next few weeks.” At least one other officer told investigators they had been troubled by DeFant’s severe public reaction.

Another minor moment that DeFant reacted to with “inappropriate” anger came during a routine briefing involving 10 of the ship’s senior officers. When an officer failed to adjust a document on a laptop during the slideshow, DeFant took over the laptop, ordered the other officers to leave the room and berated the officer loudly enough to be heard several rooms away.

DeFant, the report said, told the officer “‘when I say I’m tired of this problem, I’m really saying I’m tired of you’ or words to that effect.”

DeFant told investigators that she reacted strongly during the briefing because she had told the sailor to make a correction four times.

Incomplete Report to an Admiral

In late 2022, the crew of the Lake Erie filled out command climate surveys, a routine survey used in all military services to assess how troops feel about their commanders.

According to a memo attached to the final report from Admiral Alexander, DeFant’s scores were terrible. The Lake Erie crew rated the ship as “very low” in 11 of 11 “protective factors” and “very high” in 10 of 11 “risk factors” around the ship’s leadership.

DeFant specifically received 70 negative comments to 9 positive ones, many of which cited her “yelling or being too quick to anger.”

In January 2023, DeFant briefed the then-commander of Carrier Strike Group Nine, Rear Adm. Robert Chadwick, on the ship’s survey results — but left out any mention of the negative comments and concluded that “Lake Erie’s overall climate is healthy.”

Alexander, who took over for Chadwick in June 2023, took a dim view of DeFant’s ommissions.

“In the most favorable light,” Alexander wrote in a memo endorsing the larger investigation, “CAPT DeFant missed an opportunity for constructive feedback and mentorship by not discussing the negative aspects of the [surveys] in her debrief with RDML Chadwick. In the least favorable light, CAPT DeFant deliberately whitewashed the results of her [surveys] in her debrief with RDML Chadwick for the purpose of concealing results which reflected negatively on her leadership.”

Alexander fired DeFant a week later.

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