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Confidence Lost – Why Is the Navy Firing So Many Commanders?

Active Military
Active Military
January 1, 2024
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“Loss of Confidence” is often the refrain you hear when the military fires a commanding officer, and the higher the rank of the person relieved, the less detail the Pentagon is willing to give. As is often the case, the military maintains a ‘keep it in the family’ mentality towards discipline concerns which occur outside of the public eye. Understandable under some circumstances, as there are some errors in judgment that can be remediated absent ruining the reputation and future ability to lead of the individual in question, this practice is also rife with questionable judicial decisions.

In 2023, the Navy fired more than a dozen commanding officers from their posts. For some cases, such as Cmdr. Steven Green of the Transaction Service Center in Great Lakes, Illinois, the details were apparent whether the Department of Defense wished to comment or not. Cmdr. Green was “administratively reassigned to higher headquarters” in October after several errors led to the delay of pay, housing allowances, and separation paperwork for a large number of sailors for months. In the digital age, there is no real excuse (aside from Congress) for these issues to persist, and the Navy reshuffled officers to reflect this displeasure.

Cmdr. Adam K. Pendleton was removed from his position as the Commanding Officer of Navy Talent Acquisition Group Pacific in early December. Cmdr. Pendleton’s case follows a more familiar pattern, with the Navy’s official comment as to the reason “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to fulfill the responsibilities as commanding officer.” That answer seems… Uncomfortably vague.  

Other examples are equally unclear, which is worsened by the more serious nature of their commands. A CO of a recruiting station or a pay office can cause harm to those in their charge or sphere of influence, but what about those who operate billions of dollars of equipment and weapons with hundreds or thousands of sailors in open waters? Cmdr. Angela Gonzales lost her command of the destroyer USS John Finn in May, and Cmdr. Kenji Igawa of the destroyer USS Howard in August, both stationed at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, once again for “loss of confidence.” The rhetoric is so boilerplate that the statement is almost by rote: 

“The U.S. Navy holds its leaders to very high standards and will hold leaders accountable when those standards are not met. These leaders are entrusted with significant responsibilities to their Sailors and their ships. They are expected to maintain the Navy’s high standards for leadership, demonstrating competence in their duties at all times.”

I can’t speak for anyone else, but that answer doesn’t fill me with any level of confidence. Did they get drunk and punch someone out on town, dink the ship into another ship leaving port, or sleep with the wrong admirals’ daughter? Were the men and women under their commands in danger, or was it a personal squabble among officers? 7th Group to whom these vessels belong, have seen a fair bit of issues recently, but the leadership is happy to leave us in suspense, it seems.

Another piece to the puzzle is why such a high number were fired in 2023. The complicated answer is… That number isn’t high. From 2011 to 2022, an average of 17 commanders per year have been “administratively reassigned” for various, often unstated reasons. 

Does this indicate an issue of the quality of Naval officers, a tendency of Navy leadership to overreact, or that the firings are more public, as being the commander of a warship is a more visible posting than whatever Lt. Colonel is in charge of which infantry unit? Those can to a limited degree be true. As a former Combat Instructor at The Basic School, where newly minted Marine officers learn to be infantry platoon commanders, we certainly had a percentage of students who perhaps should be employed elsewhere… But that is true of every schoolhouse in the Department of Defense, enlisted and officer alike.

The truth is that except in situations where the offense is made public or a Freedom of Information Act request is filed, the world may never know. As I said earlier, in some cases that level of discretion is a net positive. Remediation will occur and the officer and the service will be better for it. Other circumstances, where harm was done to the sailors under their command or property costing the taxpayers a few more million dollars was damaged, perhaps it's time to make a few examples. What form that takes would be a far more complex issue than I have the column inches to write, but sunlight can be an excellent disinfectant, and nothing is worse for the morale and discipline for the unit than the stink of back door deals made to save collar devices…

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