A Feb. 8 report ruled that Rear Adm. Chuck Gaouette’s offensive email and racial comments each violated Navy policy. (Navy)
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“Exemplary conduct” is the expected standard for the Navy’s commanding officers, and there Rear Adm. Chuck Gaouette fell far short.
A Navy investigation has found that Gaouette, ousted from command of the Stennis Carrier Strike Group in October, made a host of potentially offensive comments that his rivals in the deployed strike group pounced on to get him relieved: He swore profusely, flipping off lieutenants, speculated that black admirals were chosen because of their race and sent six white officers a racially tinged email about a black sailor.
Interviews with strike group sailors and leaders “left little doubt they would not choose to behave in the same manner as did their commander,” the Naval Inspector General concluded in its Feb. 8 report, which ruled that Gaouette’s offensive email and racial comments each violated Navy policy. Adm. Jon Richardson reprimanded Gaouette on March 25 and ordered that the investigation be attached to his service record. Reached at his home in Bremerton, Wash., Gaouette declined to comment on the release of the report or say what he plans to do next.
With the release of the report Friday, the Navy hopes to close the chapter on the unsightly spectacle of strike group leaders feuding on a deployment to the Persian Gulf over allegations that turn on erratic ship-driving through a strait, private conversations about race between senior officers, a “Foc’sle Follies” skit, and lines from the 1974 Mel Brooks movie “Blazing Saddles.”
The IG report referenced that comedy to assess the email Gaouette sent Oct. 5 to “six white senior members of strike group leadership,” it said. Gaouette took a photo of a black flight deck sailor with a refueling probe between his legs.
“I believe this speaks for itself,” Gaouette wrote in the email, insinuating that the “refueling probe was a giant penis emanating from the sailor,” as the report put it.
“I see a photo contest. First up: It’s twoo, its twoo,” Gaouette wrote in a follow-up. Those lines reference a scene in “Blazing Saddles” when a white woman with a German accent exclaims, “Oh, it’s twoo” after a black character reveals in a dark room that he has a large penis.
Gaouette also allegedly expressed racial views that weren’t intended to be funny. He told the complainant — a senior naval aviator who is reported to be Capt. Ronald Reis, the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis CO — that minority officers were “bringing down” the quality of the surface Navy’s admirals and had been selected largely on the basis of their skin color. This isn’t a problem with pilots and naval flight officer flags, Gaouette continued, “because the aviation community takes care of that. They either can’t get in or they’re not getting through the flight school.”
Gaouette also singled out Vice Adm. Michelle Howard, the deputy commander of Fleet Forces Command who is the first black woman promoted to three-star rank, criticizing her for saying in a news article that she had been promoted despite barriers. Gaouette speculated that her race may have aided “in her speed of selection” to vice admiral.
When investigators asked, Gaouette denied making statements that were racially based about any admirals but admitted that his comments about Howard were “petty.” He mentioned that he believed Howard had ended the careers of two of his friends, who he considered to be fine officers. Gaouette told investigators he would personally apologize to her.
Tensions arose between the carrier skipper, an EA-6B pilot, and Gaouette, a former destroyer skipper who felt he could drive the ship better. That animosity boiled over on the navigation bridge Oct. 6, while the ship was moving at nearly 25 knots through the Strait of Malacca. One officer on the flag bridge saw the ship’s track cross the lane for ships going the other direction to maneuver around slower traffic. Gaouette was unsettled. He rushed up from the flag bridge to confront Reis; the name of this officer has been redacted from the report, but a Navy official familiar with the report confirmed it was Reis.
“Slow the [expletive] down,” Gaouette told the carrier skipper.
Witnesses recalled seeing a look of shock spread across Reis’ face.
Reis later recalled that Gaouette “blew up at me and launched into a tirade in front of my junior enlisted personnel. [It] was a clear attempt to debase me in front of my bridge team at a very critical time of the transit.”
The IG disagreed. After interviewing Gaouette and other witnesses, they concluded that Gaouette had spoken in a quiet, measured tone after motioning others away.
It had been a “one-way, senior to subordinate, conversation,” the IG concluded.
The strike group’s top officer had a reputation for off-color language. He swore frequently to make points and dropped F-bombs occasionally. After being roasted at a “Foc’sle Follies” skit Oct. 16, Gaouette stood up and flicked off the aviators, which he said was done in jest.
“I don’t know who I’m going to [expletive] more, [VFA-14 or VFA-41], but we’ve got eight months to figure it out,” Gaouette recalled saying according to the IG report.
Most aviators didn’t object to Gaouette’s comments, which were made in the same vein as the skit. But one commander who was present later said that he still felt it was unbecoming of the strike group’s senior leader.
“My sense was that he was trying to bring himself to the level of his lieutenants,” the unnamed officer said in the report.
Gaouette also swore to motivate sailors about their mission. Not long after deploying, Gaouette told thousands of sailors mustered in the hangar bay that the strike group should be ready to “kick the living [expletive] out of the enemy.”
After dozens of interviews, the IG determined Gaouette had not been an abusive leader but often was abrupt and abrasive and didn’t make his goals clear to those who worked for him. A decade before, he won the Stockdale Award for Inspirational Leadership for his command of the destroyer Oldendorf.
Gaouette’s style “is not the leadership style that the Navy currently preaches,” one of Stennis’ officers said. “But, I mean, if you fired everybody for being a jerk, we wouldn’t have very many people in the Navy.”