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Report: Frigate XO 'bullied and humiliated' crew

May. 2, 2013 - 01:01PM   |  
Cmdr. James 'Slim' Pickens
Cmdr. James 'Slim' Pickens ()
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Executive officers are recognizable around the fleet for the heavy-duty flashlights they carry to inspect their ship's overlooked spots. But in the hands of an allegedly abusive leader, that tool took on a troubling role.

Executive officers are recognizable around the fleet for the heavy-duty flashlights they carry to inspect their ship's overlooked spots. But in the hands of an allegedly abusive leader, that tool took on a troubling role.

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Executive officers are recognizable around the fleet for the heavy-duty flashlights they carry to inspect their ship’s overlooked spots. But in the hands of an allegedly abusive leader, that tool took on a troubling role.

On Jan. 23, Cmdr. James “Slim” Pickens, XO on the frigate Gary, inspected the mess decks as he often did and was walking out when he noticed a sailor obstructing the doorway. The sailor was bent over, looking for noodles for chicken soup. Pickens didn’t say excuse me or wait for the sailor to move. Instead, he tapped the sailor twice on his butt with a Maglite, “directly on his anus,” an official investigation later said. The sailor shot up, shocked.

“Really, sir?” he said as Pickens walked past. “Really?”

“I was just checking if you still had your mojo, Jojo,” the XO is said to have replied.

Pickens thought nothing more of it and walked off. But the humiliated sailor alleged it had been a sexual assault, and a Navy captain arrived days later on the deployed frigate to investigate. The captain uncovered a string of similar allegations of unwanted touching, profanity and bullying during Pickens’ 15 months on board. One engineer reported that Pickens had pressed his groin into his back while he bent over a work bench and another witness recalled the XO placing his thumb on a male officer’s butt and saying, “Just checking your oil.”

Pickens’ behavior raised red flags for the investigator.

“He has repeatedly bullied and humiliated various members of his crew and clearly displayed that he has no filter concerning his thoughts and speech,” the captain reported in a Feb. 7 command investigation, obtained by Navy Times via a Freedom of Information Act request. The 109-page report details a cycle of misbehavior by the XO followed by warnings. Many crew members were left dismayed and with the sense that they had no choice but to endure it.

As the details of abuse became clear, the Destroyer Squadron 1 commodore fired Pickens on Feb. 3, midway through the ship’s six-month counternarcotics deployment to 4th Fleet.

Pickens admitted he tapped the sailor’s butt with his flashlight, but said the act was meant in jest; he denied telling the sailor that he was “just checking if you still had your mojo,” as another witness alleges he said. The investigator concluded that Pickens had not committed sexual assault as “he did not act with the intent to gratify his sexual desire.”

Pickens, 42, who has been reassigned to the DESRON 1 staff, did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment. The frigate returned from its counternarcotics deployment April 5 with an acting XO; a permanent relief is expected to arrive in May.

Capt. Michael Elliot, the DESRON 1 commodore, found Pickens guilty at a March 5 mast on two counts: violating a lawful order or regulation and conduct unbecoming. Furthermore, Elliot recommended Pickens be required to “show cause” to a senior officer panel for why he should be allowed to stay in the service, according to Naval Surface Force Pacific.

As a prior enlisted, Pickens said he had grown up in a more crude and more male Navy, adding that his intent had been to be funny, not hurtful.

“It just seems that my mouth has no filter connected with my brain, and too often things come out that shouldn’t,” Pickens said in a Jan. 31 sworn statement.

Warnings unheeded

The former cryptologic technician often roamed the deck plates talking to sailors and was known for his off-color phrases.

When he did this in the wardroom, one department head took to opening his hand like a flashing light and saying, “XO — career warning light.”

Even the commanding officer warned Pickens. After the ship failed a material inspection, Cmdr. James Brown issued Pickens a letter of instruction that addressed his behavior.

“Your actions and comments do not set the proper example ,” Brown wrote in the Nov. 30, 2012, letter.

In June, Pickens found a newly reported officer leaning against his mounted chair on the bridge. But he allegedly chose an inappropriate way to tell her it was off-limits: “Oh sweetheart, the only way you’ll be sitting in that chair is on my lap,” the officer recalled.

The San Diego-based ship was participating in the annual Rim of the Pacific exercise and was selling “no shave chits” to raise morale, welfare and recreation funds. At one point during this, he allegedly asked two female midshipmen onboard, “Have you all shaved your ass hairs today?” The mids were horrified. To shock them again, Pickens said: “I shaved mine.”

Pickens had a foul mouth. He peppered his speech with curses and lewd phrases, commenting on how a crew member’s “ass is too loose” or how a sailor supposedly used a “butt plug.” He referenced pornographic movies, recounted his exploits in Thailand and called officers foul names such as “d--- breath.”

When the investigator asked Pickens whether he had pressed his groin into a sailor’s butt, Pickens said he couldn’t recall. He also couldn’t recall what he had told the mids, sailors or female officers.

The investigator, who was an O-6 and the deputy commodore at DESRON 1, grew exasperated and felt that Pickens was missing the larger point.

“There was a time when this was appropriate but that was a long time ago,” the DESRON 1 captain told Pickens.”

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