Navy maneuvers after collision at sea Admiral's promotion divides Navy brass

March 12, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In the pre-dawn darkness of Oct. 14, 1996, the USS Theodore Roosevelt was maneuvering in the choppy Atlantic waters 100 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C. The carrier was "backing down" -- reversing -- when it collided with a cruiser, the USS Leyte Gulf, in a thunderous screech of steel that knocked sailors to the decks and caused $10 million in damage.

In the Navy, the reverberations of that October night are still being felt.

The commander of the carrier, Rear Adm. Ronald L. Christenson, a 1969 Naval Academy graduate, was later judged to be the most culpable for the collision and received a punitive letter of reprimand in November 1996, usually a career-ender.

But his reprimand hardly stood in Christenson's way. Two weeks before the incident, he had been promoted from captain to rear admiral, and despite a disciplinary action that would normally sink a promotion, Christenson was allowed to retain his new rank. When accidents occur at sea, generally the commander of the vessel at fault is relieved of command and sees his career end, Navy officers said.

Some critics say top admirals are trying to shield a distinguished officer from further punishment for the collision. The debate has pitted the Navy secretary against the service's top admiral, and the tight-knit aviation community against surface warfare officers. The two top officers aboard the Aegis-class cruiser Leyte Gulf -- Capt. Coleman A. Landers, the skipper, and Lt. Cmdr. Jose Vazquez Jr., the executive officer -- also received punitive letters of reprimand and were relieved of their command. But unlike Christenson, they have seen their advancement come to a crashing halt.

"We did everything we possibly could," Vazquez said, noting that he and Landers desperately tried to turn and back up the ship as the carrier loomed before them. Seconds before impact, Landers pulled a lookout to safety.

Christenson, 50, rotated off the Roosevelt as scheduled in late October -- before a board of inquiry had assigned blame for the collision. He is now stationed at the Pentagon, as head of the Navy's aircraft carrier program. Neither Christenson nor his lawyer would comment for this article.

For the past year, the Navy's hierarchy has been engaged in a bitter debate about whether Christenson's promotion should be revoked. Such a move would be highly unusual and could be made only by the president.

Adm. Jay L. Johnson, chief of naval operations, opposed a demotion for Christenson. So did a three-member board of admirals convened at Johnson's direction. But Navy Secretary John H. Dalton, a Naval Academy graduate who has made accountability a top priority, disagreed and recommended to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen in July that Christenson's promotion be "vacated."

"In my judgment," Dalton said this week, "Rear Admiral Christenson did not meet the high standards of professional competence I expect of a flag officer."

A month after receiving Dalton's recommendation, Cohen told the Navy that he favored allowing Christenson to keep his promotion, a senior Pentagon official said. "The judgment was this would be egregious double punishment," the official said.

Like Johnson, the Pentagon's top hierarchy other than Dalton favored keeping the promotion: Gen. John Shalikashvili, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; his successor, Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton; Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, vice chairman of the joint chiefs; and Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre.

Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., then vice chief of naval operations and a surface warfare officer, favored revoking Christenson's promotion and argued that point with Johnson. The Navy's top military lawyer, Adm. John D. Hutson, also recommended that Christenson be returned to a captain's rank, sources said. Both men declined to comment.

Insistent that Christenson lose his promotion, Dalton pressed his case with Cohen and Hamre without success. There is an 18-month probationary period in which a one-star officer's promotion can be vacated; for Christenson, that period will end April 1.

Double standard seen

But some within the Navy are troubled by what they see as a double standard: taking care of selected officers and setting others adrift. Both Christenson and Johnson are aviators; so are two of the three members of the senior officers' board that recommended that Christenson retain his rank. Some perceive an effort by Navy aviators to brush aside the cherished code of accountability in order to shield one of their own.

"Where's the fairness in all of this?" asked one Navy officer, who is a surface warfare officer.

"This is very offensive to some people in the Navy," added a Pentagon official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Some people have used the term, 'We've lost our integrity on this one.' "

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