Cmdr. Steve Fuller stripped his name from the upcoming weekend’s plan-of-the-day note March 8 and left the frigate Kauffman. There was no ceremony or turnover.
An experienced executive officer already chosen for command, Fuller saw his rise abruptly reversed when his commodore employed a new, last-ditch measure: ruling the XO unfit to take charge. Fuller was ordered off the ship.
Capt. John Fuller — the commodore of Destroyer Squadron 22 and no relation to the XO — reported that Cmdr. Fuller was unfit for command, according to a Naval Surface Force Atlantic spokesman.
Fuller is the one of the first executive officers in the surface Navy to be relieved under the new screening rules, Naval Surface Force Atlantic acknowledged, a rigorous process intended to weed out lackluster leaders before they get command.
“The XO has been recommended by his [immediate superior in charge] to be removed [from] the command-at-sea career track,” said SURFLANT spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban.
The firing, the fleet’s third XO canned this year, marks the latest turmoil for the Norfolk, Va.-based ship, whose crew members have had to contend with the relief of their commanding officer and a Board of Inspection and Survey assessment in the run-up to their deployment, slated for late March. The previous skipper, Cmdr. Corey Wofford, was fired in mid-February for what an official called “poor performance” after the frigate struggled through its work-ups.
The XO’s abrupt departure three weeks later mystified the crew, who were told of the relief by the ship’s new CO the following Monday, while the ship was consumed with preparations for its INSURV inspection a week away.
“It came as a bit of a surprise,” said one crew member, who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for career repercussions, in an email. “Cmdr. Fuller was well-liked by the crew overall.”
Fuller, a 44-year-old mustang, did not respond to emails and Facebook messages seeking comment by March 21. He has been reassigned to SURFLANT.
He enlisted in 1989 as an electronics technician and rose to petty officer second class, his official bio states. Fuller earned a bachelor’s degree and was commissioned in 1996 through the Naval ROTC. As an officer, he has served aboard the oiler Sacramento, frigate Ford and destroyer Curtis Wilbur. Fuller holds two master’s degrees and served on the chief of naval operations’ Strategic Studies Group, an in-house Navy think tank.
Fuller had been onboard Kauffman for a year. The new rules require that officers in a fleet-up billet for this long must to be certified as ready for command by their boss, or ISIC.
“The ISIC must decide if the member has the professional competence, intelligence, moral courage and personal honor needed for command,” the surface Navy’s new instruction states.
The commodore recommended that Fuller be stripped of eligibility to command a ship. The final call rests with the chief of naval personnel, as it would vacate the result of the screening board. Executive officers can be down-checked by their boss or can decide to opt out of command for reasons like family issues or professional competence. The decision on whether to remove them from their post as a result will be made case by case, explained the surface Navy’s top detailer, who noted that the XOs can submit a statement as it goes up the chain of command.
“The officer is involved in the discussion, and the officer is enabled formally to provide rebuttal and feedback if there’s a recommendation made for not fleeting up and for being de-screened,” said Capt. John Nowell, the head surface detailer.
There is another option short of de-screening: The chain of command can decide to send officers to other XO billets to prove themselves or get better mentoring.
“The expectation is that when you have one of these, no one would really be surprised,” Nowell said. “We would expect there would be some documentation and some discussion, and pretty robust, between CO, XO, the ISIC, with the type commander, kind of kept in the loop.”
Nowell said the fleet had seen both de-screenings and ship-to-ship transfers since the instruction took effect last June but wasn’t able to specify how many of each had occurred.
The frigate’s chief engineer, Lt. Cmdr. Jody Bronaugh, will serve as the acting XO until a permanent relief arrives, a SURFLANT spokesman said.