Capt. Honors Relieved Of Command In Video Flap
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Some will describe Captain Owen Honors as a victim of political correctness, pilloried by outsiders who simply don't understand life aboard a warship. Others will portray Captain Honors as an adolescent frat boy who showed inexcusably poor judgment.
Captain Honors made and starred in a series of videos shown aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise when he served as its executive officer, or second in command. Intended as lighthearted entertainment for thousands of young sailors on a long cruise, they included gay slurs and racy shower scenes, among other content that the Navy yesterday deemed clearly inappropriate.
Though the videos were made as long ago as 2006, they only became public a few days ago in the Norfolk, Virginia, Pilot as Captain Honors prepared to take the Enterprise on a cruise to the Middle East as its commander.
If you've served in the Navy, tell us about shipboard culture. Is this typical or unusual? Did this go over the line? Tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, authoritarian governments and the Net delusion. Evgeny Morozov joins us. But first we go to Ward Carroll, a retired naval aviator who few with Owen Honors. He's now the editor of military.com and joins us from his office in Maryland. And thanks very much for being with us today.
Mr. WARD CARROLL (Editor, Military.com): My pleasure, Neal.
CONAN: And we expect that the Navy will relieve Captain Honors of his command, that the Enterprise will sail without him as its captain.
Mr. CARROLL: Yes, that's our expectation.
CONAN: And is that the right thing to do?
Mr. CARROLL: I believe so. As you described in the lead-in, you know, the video was prurient enough and crossed enough line that his ability to command the ship has been undermined.
CONAN: Is that because it became public or because it - the video itself should be evidence enough?
Mr. CARROLL: I think the answer's yes.
CONAN: That it became...
Mr. CARROLL: It's both, right. I mean, it was never OK, but the fact that this is happening now is a function of it becoming public.
CONAN: Is this out of line? I mean, you do hear a lot about, you know, the way that executive officers in particular try to command the very young men who are often the core of the crew.
Mr. CARROLL: Well, I mean, let me put it in sort of pop-culture terms. So life aboard ship, in terms of the closed-circuit TV, is a PG environment. So the XO, the second in command, is charged with both being accessible, entertaining and getting his message across. That message is often very prosaic, like don't take long showers, wear your safety belt when you drive, behave yourself when we're in foreign ports, messages that the sailors have heard over and over again.
So, you know, I think what Captain Honors was thinking is I'm competing with the MTV2s, the "Jersey Shores," the "Nitro Circuses" of the world to get the attention of these 18- or 19-year-old sailors. So I'm going to do it in a way that's, quote-unquote, "edgy."
And, OK, so that's the premise. That does not give you the right or the ability to be so far over the line as to be, you know, offensive to the degree he was. And I think anybody who's seen the video could not defend the tone of it. It's just - it's over the line to a very inarguable degree, in my opinion.
CONAN: It raises some other questions. He was second in command. There was a captain of the Enterprise at the time. Is he not being held to account for this?
Mr. CARROLL: Well, that's the investigation part, right? So - and we're waiting for the Navy to pop up and start answering the questions here, and I think we will see that in short order with the announcement that's imminent.
But, you know, the question is: What was the CO of the ship circa 2006, 2007, aware of? And I will tell you, by doctrine, he doesn't have the ability to be unaware of what goes on on the ship. I mean, that's what you sign up for when you take command of the ship. You know, you need to know what's happening in the bake shop, you need to know what's happening on the flight deck, you need to know what's happening in berthing spaces. I mean, that's the responsibility of command.
CONAN: So just to draw a comparison: Had the ship run aground while the captain was asleep, it's still his fault.
Mr. CARROLL: Absolutely.
CONAN: All right. As the investigation continues - what kind of investigation? Is this criminal, or is this internal?
Mr. CARROLL: No, it's administrative. You know, and - now, depending on what the findings are along the way, it can turn into a JAG Manual investigation, where it could have criminal implications. But my guess, you know, looking at the evidence and whatnot, is this will be an administrative investigation that could result in punitive actions against not just Captain Honors but the former CO, who is now an admiral, Larry Rice, another Tomcat guy, and the two flag officers who were aboard the ship during the time that these shows aired.
CONAN: Another Tomcat guy, you refer to the F-14 fighter that I guess you flew, as well.
Mr. CARROLL: Yes, we've all seen the greatest movie ever made, "Top Gun," yes, and yeah, so Captain Honors and I were instructors in the F-14 in the mid-'90s, and I had the opportunity to fly with him and on his wing and participate in training missions, you know, during that time.
CONAN: And what kind of an officer was he then?
Mr. CARROLL: Fantastic. I mean, a great aviator, a very skilled fighter pilot and the kind of guy you would want to hang out with when you had some downtime.
CONAN: Let's see if we can bring another voice into the conversation. Joining us from member station WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee, Captain Rosemary Mariner, retired. She served as a naval aviator herself, the first woman to command a U.S. aviation squadron. Nice to have you back on the program with us.
Captain ROSEMARY MARINER (Retired Naval Aviator): Good to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: And I wonder what you - I'm sure you've probably seen the video or clips of the video. What do you think? Did it go over the line?
Capt. MARINER: Oh, absolutely. And I agree with Ward why it went over the line. It's very entertaining in a lewd, Judd Apatow kind of way but completely inappropriate and especially for the executive officer of a ship.
CONAN: The executive officer of a ship, remind us: What's the executive's officer's role?
Capt. MARINER: Well, he or she is essentially the enforcer to maintain good order, morale and discipline. So you do not want them violating the very standards that they're trying to enforce on the ship.
But they are not in command. They do answer to the captain, and the captain in turn answers to the battle group commander.
So one of the interesting things to watch for in this investigation is how far up it goes, what was known at the battle group level or perhaps the fleet level, and was anybody potentially covering up? Again, that's what the investigation will determine.
And it is important for the investigator to be senior to the most senior person that will be answerable in this investigation and hopefully to use sworn testimony.
CONAN: And just to explain again, there was the executive officer, Captain Honors, and then there was the commanding officer of the Enterprise. Also aboard the ship was the commander of the battle group task force, and that would have been a two-star admiral?
Capt. MARINER: I'm not sure who it was at the time.
Mr. CARROLL: I think they're generally one-stars, Neal.
CONAN: So rear admiral, lower half...
Mr. CARROLL: Yeah.
CONAN: ...as they're called in the Navy. OK. Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. We'd like to speak to those of you who've served in the Navy. Is this unusual? Is this typical? Did it cross the line?
And let's see if we can begin with - this is Tyler(ph), Tyler with us from Richmond.
TYLER (Caller): Well, I would like to express my wholehearted support of Captain Honors. And I have to say I haven't served with him personally, but I did serve in our Navy for 22 years, had command of a small ship.
And having served on an aircraft carrier, I know that the format of the video system typically has the XO come on just before the evening movie and provide in some cases some pretty boring information about some of the latest hygiene issues or sometimes about a safety issue or something like that.
And you'll see the officers that are using this site TV system employ some satirical humor sometimes to get the attention of the crew and maybe get them to lighten up a little bit.
It's a very intensive environment when you're out on an aircraft carrier and you've got missions to do, especially during wartime, and I think that what the Virginian-Pilot showed was a chopped-up version of many different videos held together, and they didn't put it in the proper context, where this guy was just using a little bit of satire.
And I don't think it's inappropriate, as they say over and over again. I think it has to be held in the context of who you're talking to and what location. This was a closed system of people on a ship serving together, and he was employing his talents, including the use of satirical humor to get the crew involved in some activities to pay attention to what's being put out on the site system, and I don't see any of that as being the least bit inappropriate.
He was forming his team. He was keeping those guys motivated out there, and we want people like that.
CONAN: Captain Mariner, I wonder: How would you deem this inappropriate?
Capt. MARINER: Well, for the same reasons you wouldn't want somebody like that making those videos in a high school. That might - you know, that kind of humor is important in videos, or those kinds of representations are important to morale of the crew, but they can be done in such a way in which they are not that lewd; these were bad. And they can be done in such a way that you are not making fun at other members of the crew, such as surface warfare officers, among others.
But also because what happens aboard a ship, if you do have somebody, you know, the pervert, so to speak, who wants to hear what he wants to hear, and he sees the XO doing that, then maybe he will decide that it's OK to go spy in the showers or worse things.
CONAN: Just to clarify what Captain Mariner just said, there was - there were gay slurs directed at, as a class, surface warfare officers, and Ward Carroll, there is a not-so-nice rivalry sometimes between aviation people in the Navy and surface warfare people.
Mr. CARROLL: Yeah, I mean, those are age-old sort of fun rivalries. You happen to have it between various squadrons. You know, Captain Mariner's a C2 driver. I'm a Tomcat guy. We would josh about each other's warfare specialties in our communities in a, you know, good-natured way.
But I think when you, in your capacity as XO, when you refer to - I mean, never mind the gay issue circa '06 or '07, when you refer to his favorite things are chicks in the shower, right, he said that, and he said I got a lot of complaints for this. And then he - you know, they went to - they cut away to the scenes of two guys lathering each other up and then two girls, and never mind it was from the neck up.
You know, I don't know how you go to NJP, the non-judicial punishment that might occur after that, and punish a sailor for gender bias. You know, you sort of undermined any ability you have to maintain good order and discipline, not to mention I don't think it was funny.
I mean, the scatological references, the other stuff, it just - never mind it being rude, it just wasn't even funny.
CONAN: We're talking about controversial videos made by Captain Owen Honors and what, if anything, it tells us about the culture aboard U.S. warships. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Captain Owen Honors likely will not be kicked out of the Navy but is expected to lose his command of the USS Enterprise. The military called the videos he made and broadcast to his sailors, clearly inappropriate.
A bit of background on Captain Honors: He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1983, was designated a naval aviator. Two years after that, he reported as executive officer, second in command of the USS Enterprise in 2005. The videos we're talking about were made shortly afterwards.
In his career, he was awarded a Legion of Merit, Bronze Star and other awards. As we've heard, he was also considered an excellent F-14 pilot.
If you've served in the Navy, tell us about shipboard culture. Is this typical or unusual? Did this go over the line? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guests are Ward Carroll, a retired naval aviator who flew with Captain Honors, now editor at military.com; and retired Navy captain and aviator Rosemary Mariner, now resident scholar at the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
This email from Keri(ph) in Atlanta: While it is true there were some wild things done on my ship, USS Ranger CV-61, to break the monotony at WESTPAC, I do not believe any fleet officer would have made a video like this during my time in the Navy, let alone the XO. This would be considered a breakdown of good order and discipline. I think he's talking about USS Ranger, he's probably talking about Vietnam War days.
This from Clint(ph) in northern Kentucky: I was in the enlisted military, and all too often, officers, especially higher up the chain of command, seemed out of touch, aloof and cold. I saw the video and thought the sailors probably loved him and felt a closeness other commanders wish for or maybe should wish for.
Captain Mariner, we should note there's been a Facebook site set up to support Captain Honors, and it includes statements from many of those who served aboard the Enterprise, saying: This was terrific. We thought he was wonderful, including some women.
Capt. MARINER: Well, that doesn't surprise me. But, you know, XOs are not supposed to be popular. And so that is really irrelevant. And the issue is his ability to command, his judgment and obviously his lack of situational awareness, especially as someone who, in his career, served during the Tailhook era.
I did want to correct Ward on one thing. I flew A-7s.
Mr. CARROLL: Oh, OK, sorry. It was an insult, see?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Capt. MARINER: See, now we're going to get into...
CONAN: We're going to hear from Greyhound drivers, OK. We've just heard, by the way, Admiral John Harvey just formally and permanently relieved Captain Honors of command, citing his profound lack of good judgment, and I have lost faith in his ability to command the Enterprise.
And Ward Carroll, that does not mean he has to leave the Navy. It effectively, though, means his career is over, no?
Mr. CARROLL: Exactly. Yeah, he'll be put in some administrative job, maybe, at air(ph), land(ph) or some other command and just sort of bide his time.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Chris(ph) and Chris with us from Griswold in Connecticut.
CHRIS (Caller): Thank you for taking my call.
CHRIS: I served in the Navy for 32 years on a submarine. And we had a thing on our boats called the chief petty officer - chief of boats, a COB. And I believe on aircraft carriers, they have what is called a command chief petty officer, who has an unrestricted access to the captain or the XO if he feels it necessary.
The thing that worries me the most about this is the snide remarks he made about people who complained. The fact that when he had heard their were complaints, he didn't rethink it; and that his - the senior chief petty officer of that boat didn't have or feel comfortable to say: Sir, you really can't do this.
Do you know - I could use this as what not to do for sexual harassment training. Are you crazy? A COB could do that on a sub if the - we didn't have closed-circuits on subs, but we did some wild and crazy things on midnight patrols. But we didn't have women on board.
CONAN: That's likely to change in the next several months, anyway, but...
CHRIS: Yeah, I'd like to make a comment on that. They're talking about it's going to cost a fortune to refit subs. No it's not: a couple curtains.
CONAN: Ward Carroll, I wanted to ask you about - what does it say about the command structure aboard the Enterprise that this only became public, well, four years after some of this happened and evidently after some complaints had been made?
Mr. CARROLL: Well, you know, at a glance, it was broken. You know, and this is what the investigation will reveal in time. You know, again, when I watched the video for the first time, and he says that caveat, which is - you know, Captain Honors states that the skipper and the admiral don't know anything about the contents of this, I mean, it's curious in my professional mind, because that's doctrinally impossible.
You know, as the captain of the ship, you're responsible for everything: What airs on TV, what happens in the bake shop, what happens on the flight deck. You know, this is what you sign up for. So for XO Honors to say, you know, don't blame him, it's me is professionally negligent.
So again, how that played out in terms of the complaint that was rendered at the time and the correction will come out in the investigation. I'm thinking that it wasn't to the satisfaction of the complainant, obviously, because they kept going until they - you know, now it's really gone high order, as we say.
CONAN: Thank you very much for the call, Chris, appreciate it. Captain Mariner, what does it say about - I've read some crewmates of Captain Honors saying this was somebody clearly out to get him just a couple of weeks before the Enterprise left port.
Capt. MARINER: Well, obviously one of the question is how have things gone in command. But it does raise a lot of questions about what happened when people did complain, and I absolutely agree with our previous caller, that there are many people, including the chief petty officers, that would have raised warning flags and gone up the chain of command. So it'll be interesting to see what happened.
Another point I'd like to make is that the Navy, since I've retired, has done a tremendous job of holding commanders accountable. There have been something like 20 commanding officers of ships and other commands fired just this last year alone, from everything from running the ship aground to abusive behavior by a female commanding officer.
So I think this higher-up leadership takes this very, very seriously, and the expectation would be that once they lose confidence in the judgment of that commanding officer, that he or she would be relieved.
CONAN: I wondered - earlier, Captain Mariner referred to Tailhook, and Ward Carroll, you know what that means. It's an association of naval aviators, but several years ago, there were several raunchy incidents, seemed to be way beyond whatever happened here, at a Tailhook convention in Las Vegas.
There cannot be any naval aviator who's not aware of that.
Mr. CARROLL: No, and in full disclosure, Neal, I am a member of Tailhook. I imagine Rosemary is, as well.
Ms. MARINER: Yes, I am.
Mr. CARROLL: And, you know, Tailhook '91 was a watershed moment for the culture of naval aviation. Whether you agreed with the outcomes or not, you certainly knew where the lines were, and so for Captain Honors to wantonly go across those in this way is amazing to me.
CONAN: The Tailhook, of course, the feature on naval aircraft that hooks onto the wire at the back of the aircraft carrier so it can land safely.
Anyway, let's see if we can go next to Adam(ph), Adam with us from Provo in Utah.
ADAM (Caller): Hi, how's it going?
CONAN: Very well, thank you.
ADAM: Well, I served, I did two deployments, one combat and one pre-combat, and I kind of respect what this officer was trying to do. When I was serving, my father came aboard for what they call a tiger cruise, and he mentioned that -how the officers didn't even look at us. There was no interaction.
And the fact that this guy is trying to lighten people up and, you know, connect on their levels, which, you know, they're kids, and so sometimes you've got to be - do some kid-like things.
CONAN: Do some kid-like things. Your XO, or your officers, were completely unlike this, Adam?
ADAM: They were very dry. I mean, you - you might walk by them, and they wouldn't even look at you. So the most that, you know, you got was a handshake if you were lucky.
CONAN: And did that detract from the operations of the ship?
ADAM: I believe it was the horrible morale. This is when the war first started, and it was just a really intense environment, and there wasn't much break from that.
CONAN: I wonder, Captain Mariner, what Adam is talking about and whether the morale of the sailors aboard cannot be improved by officers who - as you say, XOs are not necessarily supposed to be liked - they're supposed to be efficient. But they're also the busiest people on the ship - but officers, in general, connecting with members of the crew.
Ms. MARINER: This is one of the hardest things about command and one of the hardest things to understand. But the captain of a ship is in a position where he or she can give orders, even in peacetime, that can get people killed. And one of the reasons why we have all these restrictions on undo familiarity, fraternization between juniors and seniors, is so that you can actually maintain that professional detachment.
The captain of a carrier sleeps in separate quarters, does not eat in the same wardroom as the rest of the officers. So they - that aloofness is on purpose. The dynamics - you can have a respectful relationship of all your crewmembers without being their best buddy and everybody has to come up with their own style to make that work.
Mr. CARROLL: Hey, Neal.
CONAN: Yes, go ahead, Ward Carroll.
Mr. CARROLL: We have breaking news here. The Navy has just officially announced his removal. And just as sort of a detail here, Captain Dee Mewbourne is going to be the new CO of Enterprise. I know him very well. He's an academy classmate of mine so...
CONAN: Another aviator?
Mr. CARROLL: Yeah, another aviator.
CONAN: All right. Adam, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.
ADAM: Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an email from Karen(ph)) in Fairfield, Connecticut. This is really a question of leadership and judgment for someone to state he had gotten complaints about something then continued on doing something he'd received complaints about defies logic and certainly questions his ability to be a leader despite his intentions. He's not there to be popular. He's there to be a leader.
This from Ramon(ph) in Gainesville. I was a Marine infantryman aboard naval vessels during deployment. I never heard anything from the Navy, but in my infantry unit, degrading gays, women and Jews was very common. This came not from officers in command. It was usually done by noncoms at unit level.
And this from Michael(ph) in Shade, Ohio. I served as a petty officer in the Navy from '71 to '75 aboard three ships. During that time, an event such as what occurred on the Enterprise would not have aroused much attention. The environment in today's Navy is completely different, though, and the captain's behavior is completely inexcusable.
Shane(ph) in Fairfield, California: I was an enlisted in the Navy from 2000 to 2004, served aboard USS Nimitz during Operation Iraqi Freedom. I can attest to the somewhat raunchy environment aboard an aircraft carrier, but usually this type of behavior is limited to the enlisted, not the officers. I can understand the officers wanting to entertain and improve morale for the enlisted men and women. I do agree these types of videos are inappropriate for a professional environment.
We've heard several people say, Ward Carroll, that, you know, well, you've got to appeal to the young men and women who serve as the foundation of the crew. You've also got to lead those young men and women. Do you lead them by acting their age?
Mr. CARROLL: No. Absolutely not. And, you know, I think those who would assert that you do have never had command, like Rosemary. I mean, this is the balance you have to strike. You know, you can't just be by the letter of the law sort of a plain vanilla leader because morale suffers, as the caller said. At the same time, you can't be one of the gang and sort of create sides and use bad language and, you know, create an environment that undermines your ability to stand in judgment of those people sometime in the future.
You know, command is a lonely place. And as we just said, it's not a popularity contest, as one of the people emailing in said. So, you know, I mean, that's the trick. I mean, we've all worked for charismatic leaders that did it right, and that's sort of what you should petition yourself to be in the event you get in those positions.
You know, so you can have fun on ship's TV and just imagine some of the visuals that were in those videos were pretty funny. You know, the three - him times three was a great production vehicle. Why did he have to use the language and why the gestures and some of the other scenes? You know, I just think that -that's - something else was going on there that the atmosphere is, you know, funny.
And to speak to what the guy was talking about in terms of the chief of the boat in submarines, well, I think in this case, the command master chief was giving bad input to the XO, which is to say that he was - and I'm guessing here - but he was saying that the crew likes it. You know, I'm hearing from the chief's mess that they watch the show - they never did before - so let's keep it going. So I think he was probably ill-served by that, you know, feedback loop as well as anything else.
CONAN: That's Ward Carroll, a retired Navy aviator who flew F-14s with Captain Owen Honors, now the editor at Military.com. Also with us, Rosemary Mariner, retired naval captain, who now is a resident scholar at the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we can go next to - this is Ian(ph). Ian with us from Norfolk.
IAN (Caller): Hi, Neal.
CONAN: Hi, Ian. Go ahead, please.
IAN: I was on board the Enterprise in '06 and '07, and I have to admit that I had found that some of the videos were a little over the top. But the video that the pilot posted was - that was his last video, and he probably went a little beyond what he should have. Most of the videos that he created weren't that - they weren't nearly that bad, that distasteful, I suppose you could say. Honestly, the XO movie night gets - are one of the most talked about things on the ship. Everybody loved them. They thought that, you know, they were -everybody was waiting to see the next one.
I was in security, and I got to work with - I was witness to a couple of XOIs. It's the step before the sailor would go to NJP, the captain's...
CONAN: The non-judicial punishment. Yeah, the captain's mast, it...
CONAN: ...used to be called, yeah.
IAN: And I (unintelligible) that there was a difference between the Captain Honors that you saw on the TV and the Captain Honors that was dealing with the crew under those circumstances. He was a very completely different guy, much more - he was absolutely professional and, in my opinion, had good judgment and he - I think this is just a little - this is being blown way out of proportion. But, you know, I'm just an enlisted guy, and, you know, that's what you expect to hear from us, right?
CONAN: Well, we expect to hear what you thought, and we're glad you called and told us what you thought. And in retrospect, did it seem like this ought to have been the behavior that would cost him his career?
IAN: No, I don't think so. Like, yeah, being a leader isn't a popularity contest. That's true. But at the same time, that doesn't mean that you can't be a fun guy also. It's - it was two long arduous cruises back to back, and I think everybody on the ship, for the most part, you know, 98 percent of us were very thankful for what the XO did on the XO movie night so...
CONAN: Ian, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
IAN: You're welcome.
CONAN: Ian calling us from Norfolk and a former sailor aboard USS Enterprise. Our thanks as well to Ward Carroll, now editor at Military.com. Appreciate your time today.
Mr. CARROLL: OK, Neal. My pleasure.
CONAN: And nice, Captain Mariner, to talk with you again.
Capt. MARINER: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Rosemary Mariner. Mariner served as a captain in the U.S. Navy, a naval aviator, A-7 commander and resident scholar now at the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. A-6, I think. Now, we're going to go - talk about "The Net Delusion" with Evgeny Morozov when come back after a short break. This is NPR News.
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