As the United States Navy continues their deep dive into issues within the Pacific Fleet, one thing is clear: the problems that led to accidents at sea, training, morale, crew exhaustion, are all directly related to command climate. Liberty Nation covered the Navy’s various struggles, and the steps they are taking to remedy them in detail — but new developments have shown just how deep the roots of this issue go.
Enter the USS Shiloh, a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser stationed at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan. The ship made headlines in June of 2017 when Petty Officer 3rd Class Peter Mims, presumed lost at sea, was found hiding in the ship’s engine room. He later admitted to avoiding searches during the week he concealed himself. Mims was charged with Articles 86 and 92 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), absence without leave (for abandoning watch) and dereliction of duty respectively.
While Mims’ actions are reprehensible, they beg the question as to whether life on the USS Shiloh was so bad that one would want to go underground to get away from it all. Recent reports and command climate surveys have revealed that under the two-year command of Captain Adam M. Aycock the ship was known as the USS Bread and Water.
Arcane Punishments and Low Morale
Bread and water are one of the Navy’s oldest and most antiquated of punishments, hearkening back to the days of wooden ships and iron men. Instituted as a replacement to flogging (yes, flogging) bread and water have been on the books as for over a century. It is a non-judicial punishment under Article 15 of the UCMJ, sailors at the rank of E-3 or below, attached to or embarked on a vessel, may be put in the brig for three days and given nothing but bread and water to eat.
Capt. Aycock was known to favor this punishment and delivered it with such frequency that the ship became known as the USS Bread and Water. His first usage of bread and water was a mere two weeks after taking command. Reports indicate that as “master and commander,” Aycock was a harsh and strict commanding officer, meting out Article 15 punishments for infractions that could have been handled at the lower enlisted level.
Aycock was counseled for low morale a few months after taking command, but his propensity for “old-school” punishment was undeterred. Command climate surveys demonstrate a clear shift in morale between Capt. Aycock’s command and that of his predecessor, Capt. Kurush F. Morris. To the question “I trust that my organization’s leadership will treat me fairly,” 63% responded in the affirmative under Capt. Morris with only 31% responding the same way under Capt. Aycock. The drop was across the board on key survey questions. “I feel motivated to give my best efforts to the mission of the organization” showed a 69% to 37% drop. “I am proud to tell others I belong to this organization” had a 68% to 35% drop, and “I trust my organization’s leadership will represent my best interests” had a 51% to 23% drop.
The Government Accountability Office’s report on the Navy showed an increased operations tempo, lack of training, and maintenance overruns as key reasons behind the accidents that have plagued the Navy this year. The Shiloh was no different. Crew members report Capt. Aycock was submitting inaccurate reports to higher headquarters on the readiness of critical systems onboard, pushing his vessel to take missions and execute maneuvers when it wasn’t ready to do so safely or effectively.
Not only was Aycock covering up his command’s failures, but he was also putting personal pet projects ahead of mission-critical tasks. During a port of call in Singapore, Capt. Aycock instituted a “Commander’s Cup” athletic tournament (with mandatory participation) instead of having his crews perform much-needed maintenance and repair operations.
Mission. Men. Me.
A longstanding principle in military leadership is the inverted preference in personal priorities. The mission comes first, then the needs of those you lead, then the needs of the leader. Leaders eat last. Captain Aycock’s command is a prime example of toxic leadership in action. Toxic leaders place their own goals and glories above the organization and achieve their wants and desires at the cost of their men and of the mission.
According to The Navy Times, Aycock’s decisions not only put his ship and sailors at risk, but it also threatened the strategic mission of the United States. The USS Shiloh is a vital part of the regional defense against North Korean missiles. A ship underway with a severely degraded crew and systems readiness is a recipe for disaster if, God forbid, we go to war.
The Navy has a lot of work to do. The accidents this year have not only cost lives, but they also revealed the dark underbelly of life within the 7th Fleet. What steps do you think the Navy needs to take to examine its policies, procedures, and leadership? Tell us in the comments!