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A ‘good guess’ but no answers as USS Stennis admiral is sent home to Bremerton

The U.S. Navy is investigating the commander of the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group, Rear Admiral Charles Gaouette. He has been removed from his ship - mid deployment - and sent back to the homeport in Bremerton. (US Navy photo)

The commander of the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group has been removed from his ship – mid deployment – and sent back to the homeport in Bremerton. The Navy won’t say why, but a military analyst says he has an informed guess.

It was just two months ago when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stood on the USS Stennis in Bremerton and gave more than 2,000 sailors a pep talk after he told them they’d be redeployed early.

“I’ve got a hell of a lot of great weapons in this position,” Panetta said. “I’ve got aircraft carriers. I’ve got great fighter planes. I’ve got great technology. I’ve got great weapons systems of every kind. But none of that, none of that is worth a damn without men and women in uniform who serve this country.”

Now one of the top men in uniform, Rear Admiral Charles Gaouette, commander of Stennis Strike Group, has been unceremoniously removed from his command.

He’s been sent back to the Stennis homeport in Bremerton pending an internal U.S. Navy investigation.

The Navy released one statement, saying they are conducting an investigation that involves “inappropriate judgment.”

Military analysts say it is unusual for the Navy to replace a Strike Group Commander mid deployment.

Retired Army Major Mike Lyons is a CBS News military analyst who says “inappropriate judgment” is likely related to sexual misconduct, or personal misconduct involving alcohol.

His speculation is based on a pattern with the Navy. That branch of the service is on track to fire a record number of commanders this year for bad behavior.

“The Navy this year has had a spike in firings of these kinds of officers. They’ve fired over a dozen so far with problems related to offenses about sexual misconduct, alcohol, or some other kind of personal misconduct,” says Lyons.

“To take a commander out of a combat zone right now is significant. It’s not something that’s done without significant investigation.”

This year 13 commanders have been relieved of duty, which essentially ends their careers.

The most recent was nuclear submarine Commander Michael Ward, who got his walking papers in August for what the Navy described as “allegations of personal misconduct.”

Ward was accused of getting a woman pregnant and then ditching her by having a buddy tell her he died in combat. Ward hasn’t been found guilty of anything, but he’s still out as top officer of the USS Pittsburgh.

Since the change in leadership with the Stennis group was labeled as an issue of “inappropriate judgment” some are wondering if this has anything to do with the latest controversy in Libya.

The Fox News agency says it has sources on the ground in Benghazi who said there was an urgent request from the CIA annex for military back-up during the attack on the U.S. consulate, but the CIA was twice told to “stand down” rather than help the ambassador’s team.

Another military source suggests Gaouette might have been moving the fleet closer to Libya during the Benghazi consulate attack and preparing to launch armed aircraft for air support.

Again, this is speculation. Neither the Navy, nor the Pentagon will discuss the case.

“If there was something to do with that stand-down order, he must have done something that threatened the morale or threatened chain of command over that situation,” says retired Major Lyons.

“To be physically removed from the deck means that he’s perceived to be someone that can no longer maintain the morale and discipline required to run that ship.”

Lyons believes liquor is a more likely explanation than Libya.

Other branches of the military haven’t been as aggressive with removing questionable officers as the Navy has.

Lyons says the Army tends to think twice unless behavior is “egregious.”

“With the Navy, they live in such close quarters that any time personal conduct bleeds over into professional life, the reaction is to remove the officer while they investigate the allegations,” he says.

In 2011, 23 Navy officers were fired. The Navy points out with 1,500 command positions, the annual firing rate was about 1.4 percent.

Lyons adds that a commander being relieved of duty isn’t necessarily guilty of inappropriate behavior. He can also be let go if there are “an inordinate number of complaints,” or a loss of confidence in their abilities.

Gaouette has led the Stennis Strike Group since April.

The Stennis deployed from Bremerton in late August, four months ahead of schedule, to maintain a two-carrier presence in the Middle East. The aircraft carrier made two port visits on its way to the Persian Gulf.


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