The Navy tends to relieve leaders in clusters, and the firings have come thick and fast recently.

Since May 31, six commanding officers and one command master chief have lost their jobs: Capt. Amy Larson and Marine Lt. Col Bret Swaim were relieved as commander and executive officer of the Naval Justice School; Cmdr. Matthew McCormick was relieved as commander of Electronics Attack Squadron 137; Cmdr. Devine Johnson and Command Master Chief Earl Sanders were ousted as the skipper and senior enlisted leader of the destroyer USS Bulkeley; Capt. Jeffrey Sandin was fired as head of Recruit Training Command; and Cmdr. Peter Lesaca was relieved as commanding officer of the destroyer USS Preble.

In every case, the Navy said the five men were relieved “due to loss of trust and confidence” in their ability to command rather than providing the exact reasons why they were fired with the exception of USS Preble commander Lesaca, whom a Navy spokesman told the San Diego Union Tribune was relieved after he was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving.

The “loss of confidence” explanation for the firings is an empty phrase that all the military branches use whenever they publicly announce that an officer or senior enlisted leader has been relieved. It is rare for military officials to say what prompted the sudden loss of confidence in leaders that cost them their jobs, even though that information can later be obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, which is how Task & Purpose learned why leaders such as Marine Lt. Col. Benjamin Wagner and Sgt. Maj. Jayson Clifton were relieved.

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The Navy has relieved 13 commanding officers so far this year, including one Marine who was at a Navy command, said Navy spokeswoman Cmdr. Reann Mommsen.

“These reliefs are not related,” Mommsen told Task & Purpose. “Leadership decided to relieve these commanding officers for a number of different reasons. Historically, from 2011 through 2022, an average of about 17 commanding officers have been relieved per year. (Note, this does not include 2022 numbers).”

The Navy believes it is worth publicly disclosing whenever admirals in particular have been disciplined for misconduct in order to maintain the public’s trust and confidence in the Department of the Navy’s integrity, Mommsen said. Generally, that standard also applies in cases when allegations of misconduct against commanding officers, executive officers, and senior enlisted leaders have been adjudicated.

But when deciding how much information to divulge about why an officer has been relieved, the Navy has to weigh the public’s interest with the officer’s right to privacy on a case-by-case basis, she said.

“Any general public interest in mere allegations of wrongdoing does not necessarily outweigh an individual’s privacy interest,” Mommsen said. 

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Preble (DDG 88) prepares to moor at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam following an independent deployment to the Western Pacific in 2015.
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Preble (DDG 88) prepares to moor at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam following an independent deployment to the Western Pacific in 2015. (U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 2nd Class Johans Chavarro)

The Privacy Act, a federal law that protects personal information such as military service records, also prevents the Navy from publicly releasing certain documents. A 2012 Secretary of the Navy Instruction requires public affairs officers to conduct a “balancing test” to determine if releasing certain personal information would be an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

But Butch Bracknell, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and military attorney, said the Navy often misuses the Privacy Act to withhold information that may be embarrassing to the service.

“They use ‘Privacy Act’ as shorthand for: This is a private fact and we really don’t want to talk about it,” Bracknell told Task & Purpose.

The Privacy Act prevents the Navy from releasing information in protected documents such as personnel records without a person’s consent or under certain circumstances, Bracknell said. If the specific reason why an officer has been relieved is not in one of those records, it is not protected by the Privacy Act.

“You really have to determine where the source of the information is before you can make a determination about the Privacy Act,” Bracknell said. “Because that requires judgment about where did the fact come from, they treat everything like it came from a Privacy Act record – it’s wildly misunderstood.”

For example, if a Navy senior commander determines that an officer is a toxic leader, the reason for the officer’s relief of command would be that senior commander’s judgment, which does not fall under the Privacy Act, Bracknell said.

Bracknell also argued that Navy officers who are in command of billion-dollar warships and are responsible for the lives of hundreds of sailors should be considered public figures, just like admirals are.

While the Navy is allowed to withhold information that is not protected by the Privacy Act, the service should be clear in those cases that it has decided not to be transparent, he said.

“When the Navy says something is protected by the Privacy Act, my answer to that is: Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t – where did you get that fact?” Bracknell said.

U.S. Navy sailors stand at attention during the commissioning of the USS Frank E. Petersen Jr. in Charleston, S.C., May 14, 2022.
U.S. Navy sailors stand at attention during the commissioning of the USS Frank E. Petersen Jr. in Charleston, S.C., May 14, 2022. (Lance Cpl. Dylon Grasso/U.S. Marine Corps)

Teri Caserta, who leads an advocacy group fighting to end suicide deaths among active-duty troops and veterans, thinks the Navy owes the public an explanation every time an officer or enlisted leader is fired. Her son Brandon died by suicide in 2018 while he was serving in the Navy.

Caserta said it is unclear why the Navy disciplines some commanding officers and decides not to relieve others, such as her son’s leadership or the captain of the USS George Washington, which has lost several sailors to suicide in recent years.

That inconsistency means that where the Navy does decide to relieve leaders, the public is left to wonder why, she said.

“They always resort to ‘loss of confidence,’” Caserta said. “Well, what did they do that they lost confidence on? In my opinion, it appears that they pick and choose who they want to relieve.”

There are very few cases in which the details about a particular relief of command cannot be divulged to the public, said retired Navy Cmdr. Bryan Clark, a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, D.C.

Reasons for such firings typically include poor performance, errors in judgment, drunken driving convictions, and inappropriate relationships, Clark told Task & Purpose.

“I think the Navy should be more above-board about that because Congress and the public have to get a sense of: Is the system producing people that have bad character?” Clark said. “Do we have a problem with fraternization in the military? Are we firing people for good reasons or are we firing them for reasons that don’t really relate to their performance as a leader?”

The Navy owes the American public and taxpayers an explanation about whether reliefs of command show that the service is putting people with bad judgment in positions of power, he said.

“I think the public’s perception is: We’re holding people accountable, that’s great,” Clark continued. “But if we’re holding them accountable for a lot of actions that reflect on the core character of those officers, you kind of have to question what is the system we have in place that put them in command.”

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