The Navy has fired nearly a dozen officers in leadership positions in less than three months, including five in one week, due to a “loss of confidence” in their ability to command — an unusual string of terminations across land, air and sea teams, experts said.
At least nine commanding officers and two senior advisers have been relieved of their duties since April, when a cluster of suicides on the USS George Washington warship sparked widespread concerns of a mental health crisis.
A total of 13 commanding officers have been fired so far this year, including 12 in the Navy and one in the Marine Corps, the Navy said. Most recently, four Naval commanding officers and a top leader were ousted from June 8 to June 14.
It’s unclear what prompted the personnel changes, which the Navy said were unrelated to each other. The Navy did not elaborate further on specific conditions that led to the firings, but stressed the importance of "trust and confidence" across all levels of the chain of command.
"The U.S. Navy has long maintained high standards for all its personnel. Those who fall short of these standards are held accountable," said Lt. Cmdr. Devin Arneson, a Navy spokesperson, who added that such an action is "neither punitive nor disciplinary."
None of the leaders served the George Washington, where at least five crew members died by suicide in the last year, angering some sailors and advocates who work to reduce military suicides.
“How many service members have to die before this commanding officer is held accountable?” said Patrick Caserta, who along with his wife has been advocating for better mental health treatment in the military, after their son died by suicide while serving the Navy in 2018.
“You cannot hand-pick some commanders as fall guys and leave others untouched,” Caserta said.
At least one George Washington sailor, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, said he partially blames his commanding officer, Capt. Brent Gaut, for the rash of suicides, which include three within a span of a week in April.
The sailor and the Casertas believe Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith should also be fired, following controversial remarks he made during an address to a fragile crew in April. Smith, the service’s senior enlisted leader, is responsible for matters dealing with enlisted personnel and their families.
The sailor said his shipmates still talk about Smith's comments that sailors should have "reasonable expectations," and that they were not “sleeping in a foxhole like a Marine might be doing.”
In separate news releases, the Navy gave vague explanations in at least four of the cases and blanket “loss of confidence” statements for the others.
It said an "assessment" of the current climate at the Naval Justice School led officials to fire both the commanding officer and her second-in-command on May 31. However, the Navy said neither officer was involved in misconduct.
That commanding officer, Capt. Amy Larson, had held the role for about eight months. She has been temporarily reassigned, officials said.
Earlier, a "command investigation" resulted in the April 28 termination of the commanding officer in charge of the Submarine Training Facility in San Diego, the Navy said.
In Hawaii, a "series of leadership and oversight failures" at the government-run Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility led to the April 4 dismissal of the commanding officer of its Fleet Logistics Center.
Most recently, the Navy said the commanding officer of the USS Bulkeley destroyer and his third-in-command were relieved on June 10 due to a loss of confidence in their "ability to effectively function as a command leadership team."
Military experts said it's common for commanding officers on ships to be fired, but that it’s rarer to see them booted from teams that handle trainings, fleet readiness and supply centers.
The Navy said an average of about 17 commanding officers have been relieved each year since 2011. It’s unclear if the service plans to announce more terminations soon.
At least at sea, commanding officers are relieved so frequently that it's become a long-running joke among sailors, said Benjamin Gold, who was a Naval officer for nearly seven years.
Gold said dismissals are easily triggered, especially when complaints of discrimination, sexual harassment and conditions of employment are filed with the Naval Inspector General’s office.
“You always hear about COs being fired for one reason or another,” he said. "We describe command at sea as kind of like an experiment in leadership.”
For commanding officers, there is a very low threshold for a personal infraction, said Gold, who is now a military law attorney. “You’re under the microscope," he said. "As you get higher up in the ranks, the microscope intensifies."
Patrick Caserta, 57, and his wife Teri, 56, are baffled that leaders on the USS George Washington are still on the aircraft carrier when other commanding officers have lost their jobs in instances that did not involve any sailor's death.
“They need to be held accountable for this," Caserta said. "What’s more indicative of a leader? DUI or people dying under your command?”
The Casertas said they know firsthand how poor leadership impacts a sailor's decision to die by suicide.
Next week will mark the fourth year they've been without their son, Navy Petty Officer Third Class Brandon Caserta, who took his own life while serving a helicopter sea combat unit in Norfolk, Virginia.
The Casertas said their 21-year-old son, a naval squadron flight electrician, had been chronically bullied and abused by a toxic command that denied his requests for mental health services.
The string of dismissals comes as Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro faces pressure to look into toxic command cultures.
On May 17, Del Toro and Adm. Michael Gilday, the U.S. chief of naval operations, visited the George Washington and spoke to beleaguered crew members about living and working conditions.
At the time, a senior Navy official told NBC News that “several things" were in the works and that recommendations would be developed and implemented “as soon as possible.”
The Navy Secretary's office has not responded to multiple requests for comment on the status of those changes since.
“There’s been no accountability, nothing, when all these changes could have happened,” Caserta said.