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Bye-Bye, Captain

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USS San Francisco Cmdr. Kevin Mooney lost his job earlier this year after his nuclear submarine slammed into an undersea mountain in the Pacific Ocean, killing one sailor, injuring 98 crewmen and nearly sinking the vessel. His firing was one of the highest-profile dismissals of a skipper in recent years, partly because of the strong backing he received from the submariner community to keep his job.

Several retired submariners offered spirited defenses of Mooney, arguing the Navy was blaming him for its own outdated maps. Even the father of the sailor killed in the collision initially backed the commander. But these testimonials had little impact on the Navy's investigation of the crash, which found Mooney should have looked more closely at navigational charts, checked water depth more frequently and traveled at a slower speed.

Adm. John Nathman, head of the Navy's Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., criticizes those who rallied around a skipper they liked without knowing the facts about the accident. "If we believe that as a commander you are responsible for the command, then what goes along with that is if you don't deliver, you are probably going to go away," Nathman says.

The Navy has long had a reputation for giving broad authority to its commanding officers-who number nearly 1,300 today-but holding them to exacting standards in which a single mistake can end a career. Lately, however, the service has gained more attention for ousting commanders for personal misconduct, ranging from extramarital affairs to alcohol abuse.

A recent report by the Navy inspector general's office found that commanding officers were more likely to be fired for improper behavior than for poor job performance. In 2003 and 2004, more than half of the 38 commanders fired were removed be-cause of misbehavior. In 2001 and 2002, such issues accounted for less than a third of all firings.

Navy leaders asked the IG to investigate the reasons behind officers' dismissals after more than 30 captains, commanders and lieutenant commanders were removed between February 2003 and June 2004. Historically, the Navy ousts about 12 commanding officers annually.

The IG found no single cause for the increase in top officers losing their jobs, but noted that a "CO's failure to follow established regulations, laws, moral or ethical principles, occasionally after being counseled, was the primary cause of most" of the actions. The report also found that most dismissals for misbehavior involved adultery or alcohol abuse.

The IG did not find evidence of systemic problems and did not make sweeping recommendations for change. But the report did call for better risk-management training for commanding officers, refresher courses on creating the proper command climate, self-assessment training, and the use of "360-degree" reviews, in which subordinates anonymously rate their bosses' job performance.

Nathman, who was the vice chief of naval operations when the report was released in late 2004, says the service will implement its recommendations. He says the report largely put to rest concerns among some admirals that the pace of war and an increase in the rate of deployments of Navy ships and personnel played a role in the dismissals. He adds the spate of firings probably was no more than a statistical anomaly that will correct itself during the next few years. Still, he says, the officers in charge of the service's various commands, such as aviation and surface warfare, should use the report to reinforce the need for ethical behavior among the Navy's commanding officers.

Successful COs will always welcome the Navy's demands on them, Nathman says. "When you leave command for a noncommand [job], it feels like this pack fell off your back. You feel like you are free," he says. "It's a nice feeling-and it lasts about a week until you want to command again."

 
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