Promotion in the US Navy from Commander to Captain is hardly automatic. Promotion boards are legally constituted, and screen the records of officers eligible for promotion, according to law, directives, and guidance from the Secretary of the Navy. Few systems of promotion in America are more carefully designed to give every person a fair, unbiased review. In general, it is a fair process. Unfortunately, it is also an imperfect one.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus stopped Cmdr. Jana Vavasseur’s promotion to captain pending the outcome of a review from his office, said Cmdr. Chris Servello, spokesman for the chief of naval personnel.
“Cmdr. Vavasseur’s name is being withheld from the promotion list sent to the U.S. Senate for confirmation while the Secretary of the Navy’s Office considers the report of the investigation into the helicopter accident that occurred while Vavasseur was in command of USS William P. Lawrence,” Servello said in a statement.
After recovering its helicopter, but before securing it in the hanger, Lawrence executed a change of course and speed. As a result, the helicopter was washed overboard, and LCDR Landon Jones and CWO3 Jonathan Gibson were lost at sea.
CDR Vavasseur received a non-punitive letter of counseling from Pacific Fleet Commander, ADM Harry Harris.
Three things- first, because the counseling was non-punitive, it was not available for the promotion board to consider when screening for promotion. It is a likelihood that at least some members of the board were aware of the accident, but we believe that the board remained true to its mandate, and gave CDR Vavasseur the same consideration given to other officers, and made its decision based upon the evidence officially available to them.
Second, Secretary of the Navy normally doesn’t interject his judgment into the promotion lists send through his office to the Senate for confirmation. But in this case, he has, and rightfully so. He has the statutory authority to do so, and a moral mandate as well. One hopes his consideration of this matter results in a decision to deny her promotion.
Third, we believe ADM Harris erred in issuing non-punitive counseling to CDR Vavasseur. That’s not to say every fatal accident should result in the commanding officer’s relief. That would result in such a risk-averse fleet that it would be too scared to leave the pierside. But in an era when commanding officers are routinely fired for non-operational reasons, sometimes for seemingly trifling ones, failure to impose any punishment at all for a failure of basic seamanship in the Surface Warfare community sent the clear message to the junior ranks, and to the other warfare communities in the Navy, that competence is decidedly of secondary importance in the matter of career progression.