Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Headline of the Year (And It's Only March)

We did a double-take after spotting this one in Time:

"Sexism and the Navy's Female Captain Bligh"

The Captain in question is Holly Graf, dismissed two months ago as commander of the USS Cowpens, a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser. The gang at MilitaryCorruption.com led the pack in documenting Graf's reign of terror as skipper of the Cowpens and before that, the USS Winston S. Churchill, a guided missile destroyer.

Captain Graf's conduct makes Bligh look like a boy scout. As the Navy Inspector General documented, Graf (at various times) spat in the face of a crewmember; choked a junior officer under her command, hurled ceramic coffee mugs at subordinates and heaped withering verbal abuse at scores of sailors, petty officers and commissioned officers who crossed her path. Officially, Graf was fired for "cruelty and maltreatment" of her crew and conduct unbecoming an officer. Admittedly, our knowledge of Navy dismissals is limited, but we can't recall the last skipper who was relieved for "cruelty and maltreatment," giving Graf a very dubious distinction, indeed.

And amazingly, Holly Graf is still in uniform. She has been reassigned to the Navy's Aegis BMD command, headquartered at Virginia's Dahlgren Navy Base. Of course, it doesn't hurt to be an Annapolis product (Graf graduated from the boat school in 1985), with an older sister who happens to be an admiral. A lesser mortal would probably face a courts-martial, or at least the end of their career. To be sure, Holly Graf will never advance beyond her present rank--or hold another command--but she's still a Captain in the U.S. Navy and will (apparently) be allowed to finish her tour at Dahlgren.

The real question, of course, is how she made it that far in the first place. A former officer (who requested anonymity) told MilitaryCorruption.com that Graf seemed "unstable" when they served a sea tour as lieutenants. The former shipmate told the website that she brought Graf's behavior to the attention of the ship's executive officer, but no action was ever taken. Holly Graf receiving glowing fitness evaluations and continued her climb to the top, culminating in command of the Churchill and later, the Cowpens.

Which brings us back to Time and their explanation for the rise (and fall) of Captain Graf. According to the magazine's normally-capable defense reporter, Mark Thompson, the case of Holly Graf can be explained (in part) by the long history of sexism in the Navy's ranks, and the service's desire to overcome that stigma. At various points in the account, Thompson speculates that Graf was rushed into command to improve diversity among the service's operational commanders, with little regard for her obvious problems. Time also wonders if a male officer--with the same, toxic leadership style--would have suffered a similar fate.

To be fair, there is an element of truth in Thompson's first hypothesis. But his conjecture also does a grave disservice to other female Navy officers who have commanded ships and performed superbly in those assignments. While Holly Graf was the first woman to command a cruiser, the novelty of a female "skipper" has long since worn off. The idea that Graf's assignment on the Cowpens was part of damage control from the Tailhook scandal is far-fetched, at best.

More bizarre is the notion that Graf's dismissal was unique, or rooted in her gender. As we've noted in previous posts, the Navy is quick to fire ship commanders who don't measure up; given her track record, it's amazing that Holly Graf survived her first tour on the Churchill and got a second command in a cruiser.

We believe Captain Graf's perseverance was the result of several factors. First of all, don't underestimate the ability (or willingness) of the Annapolis fraternity to look after fellow graduates. There's also speculation that older sister Robin used her influence as a flag officer to look after her sister. Now a Rear Admiral (and married to another flag officer), Robin Graf is Deputy Commander of the Navy's Recruiting Command. Oddly enough, Admiral Graf is a product of Officer Candidate School and spent most of her career in communications and maintenance positions.

And finally, the failure to identify Holly Graf's problems--and keep her out of command billets --is indicative of something common in many organizations, i.e., a lack of leadership. Past supervisors were aware of her issues and failed to act. Making matters worse, they provided the sterling fitness reports that put her on the command track, setting the stage for her stints on the Churchill and the Cowpens.

On the whole, we'd say the military's system for evaluating and promoting commanders works, and works rather well. But the system is far from perfect, and the occasional bad apple manages to slip through, sometimes with disastrous consequences. At least Captain Graf didn't kill anyone with her bully behavior and marginal ship-handling skills, though she came close on at least one occasion.

We refer to the "drag race" between the Cowpens and the destroyer USS John McCain last February. MilitaryCorruption.com was the first to publish a photo of the race, taken from the bridge of the McCain. Maneuvering at high speed, the Cowpens nearly collided with the smaller destroyer, coming within 300 feet of the McCain. In case you're wondering, the drag race incident was conspiciously absent from the Time account.
The lack of senior leadership was also on display--with far more serious consequences--in the case of Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter. Yesterday, the Washington Times published portions of e-mail exchanges between Hasan's former supervisors.

In one message, the supervisor of the psychiatry residency program at Walter Reed Medical Center suggested that Hasan be placed on probation and have his residency "extended" for chronic unprofessionalism and a poor work ethic. But the plan of Major Scott Moran was rejected by his superior, who worried about having to convene a "relook" board if Hasan was put on probation. Instead, the Army psychiatrist completed his residency on time, received promotion to Major and was even selected for a prestigious fellowship.

The Army is considering sanctions against Hasan's former supervisors at Walter Reed. Some of the comments in the Times' report came from Major Moran's civilian attorney, which speaks volumes about how the investigation is proceeding. When in doubt "fry" the guys at the O-4 and O-5 level. But the e-mails suggest that Moran was trying to do his job and got no support from officers higher in the chain-of-command. It will be interesting to see if anyone at the O-6 (or flag level) is implicated in this mess, and what sort of punishment, if any, they receive.


lgude said...

Compared to Major Hassan's murderous acts at Ft. Hood, all this seems a minor incident that MAY have an element of political correctness. Or as you suggest the old school tie and influence in high places may explain most of the problem. I'll say this though. I have never served in the military but I have encountered a captain Bligh or two in civilian life. There is something in some people that goes crazy when they are given authority and I would think being a Naval captain is one of the most absolute positions of authority in our society.

Claude said...

This Blog covers a lot about Capt. Holly Graf. Many comments by those who served under her command. Also, insightful comments on PC that has infiltrated the Navy and Military in general. http://bit.ly/4DhNFm

The Laughing Man said...

Considering that Bligh was slandered during the trial of the mutineers of the Bounty, much of his negative reputation is undeserved. In face he was unusually soft in the late 18th Century British Navy. Just before they left Tahiti, he had recaptured some men who had deserted the ship. Instead of hanging them (the proscribed punishment by the Navy itself), he flogged them instead. Caroline Alexander's excellent history on the subject does much to clear his name.

Captain Graf's behavior is much more in line with Edward Edwards, the man the British Admiralty sent to recapture the mutineers of the Bounty, and his officer on his ship the Pandora, Lt. John Larkan. Unfortunately for her, she will have to settle with the rank of Captain when she leaves the service; even Edwards made it to Vice Admiral.

The real question is if she could make it as far as Captain of a Ticonderoga-class while displaying such unacceptable (and obviously "unstable", as it was put) behavior, how many more people of her low caliber are there in the service?

mariner said...

I believe anyone who has been a Naval Officer in the last thirty years understands that a man would never have remained in command for so long as Captain Graf, especially if he had treated women the way Captain Graf treated men.

dbfcaye482 said...

The Old Submariner say:

The magic phrase is "political correctness" which is causing more than it's fair share of problems. The more you read about Major Hassan, & especially with the release of the e-mail exchanges, you see PC causing inaction. Early on in answer to the question of how this could happen, the PC line was dominant - & fear of losing one's job/bad fitness report for pointing a finger at him could/would be seen as anti-Muslim.
There is little doubt that a male officer would have been relieved long ago. There was a skipper & the Command Master Chief relieved because of "excessive fraternization" on a ship just returing from the Med. Neither of them were accused of actually violating the frat rules. They had been too lenient in their enforcement of the rules. Five Chief Petty Officers are being processed out of the navy because they were actually involved in the various frat situations. Others may follow.
I served with some really fine lady officers when I was ashore. One of them became the first officer to run the ladies after they did away with the WAVE designation. If she were in the position to deal with Graf, she would have her for lunch. It is too bad that, just as in the civilian world, the bad apples get so much coverage while those that make a real difference often receive little of the recognition they deserve. Seeing as how it is 25 years since Graf left the canoe club, they should just tell her to retire. A court martial would do little unless they reduced her a rank & made her go out as a Commander. The sooner they can separate Navy & Graf the better for all concerned.

Anonymous said...

Graf was given a General Discharge and was allowed to leave the Navy with her four stripes and pension intact. She received more than a modicum of preferential treatment. In light of her shoddy record as a Skipper, and her equally shoddy, degrading and horrible treatment of subordinates, Graf should have been demoted to Lieutenant Commander, or even Ensign. It would have served her right. Yep, PC saved Graf from receiving the punishment she so richly deserved and almost certainly would have received had she been a man.