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Did being gay sink this officer's career?

Prior-enlisted gay-rights advocate denied by O-4 board despite 'outstanding' reviews

Sep. 23, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
USS ANCHORAGE COMMISSIONING
Lt. Gary Ross salutes while rendering honors during the commissioning of the amphibious transport dock ship Anchorage in its namesake Alaskan city in May. Ross was dubbed the ship's top department head 'regardless of rank' by Anchorage's skipper in the most recent fitness report available to his selection board. (MC1 James R. Evans/Navy)
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Lt. Gary Ross, right, and his husband, Dan, posed for a NOH8 photo shoot as a 'way of using our voices and visibility to continue the fight for full equality,' the officer said. (Adam Bouska/Courtesy of NOH8 Campaign)

Going public

Lt. Gary Ross’ public advocacy began two years ago. He and his partner of 11 years flew from Arizona to Vermont so they could be the first military same-sex couple married when the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was lifted.
Ross became one of the Navy’s most prominent openly gay figures and used his status to advocate for fair treatment. A month after their marriage, Ross and his spouse joined with seven other gay military couples in a lawsuit against the Defense Department seeking benefits for their spouses: housing, health care and support for a surviving spouse, the same benefits that opposite-sex couples enjoy.
Legally married same-sex spouses will now get these benefits, the Defense Department announced in mid-August, after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Ross has given scores of media interviews about his experiences as an openly gay officer and has written about the struggle to hide under DADT, including having his partner, Dan, write “Danielle” as the return addressee on care packages.
The Rosses, who live in San Diego, also joined the campaign against California’s ban on same-sex marriage, known as Proposition 8. They were photographed for the NOH8 Campaign, which gathered tens of thousands of photos of celebrities and citizens opposed to the ban; each has duct tape covering his or her mouth in silent protest.
“We posed for the NOH8 Campaign because we understand the painful struggle to overcome hateful legislation like Prop 8,” the Rosses said in an explanation alongside their photos, published on the campaign’s website July 5.

He’s his ship’s go-to lieutenant. When it entered the locks of the Panama Canal on its maiden voyage last November, he was the officer of the deck. At the ship’s commissioning ceremony in May, he was the ceremonial officer watchstander, the face of the ship’s wardroom before thousands of onlookers. His latest fitness report ranks him as the top department head.

And yet, the 15-year career of Lt. Gary Ross went adrift in mid-July when he learned he was passed over for O-4. It had been his third — and final — chance.

For a Naval Academy grad with three years of enlisted service — one who holds the right qualifications, a master’s degree and glowing fitness reports — the news came as a shock. The O-4 board is regarded as a cakewalk and Ross knew of only two marks against him: A back injury that sidelined him for a year and being booted from the nuclear Navy five years ago. He felt he’d sufficiently recovered from both.

“Those shouldn’t be held against me,” Ross told Navy Times. “So what was?”

Ross, 35, suspects that bias stemming from his off-duty life may have tainted the selection board.

He and his longtime partner, Dan, married at a stroke past midnight Sept. 20, 2011 — the day the Pentagon’s ban on gays serving openly was lifted. The ceremony made headlines across the country.

Ross has since become a prominent military voice for same-sex treatment, joining a lawsuit against the Obama administration seeking equal benefits for same-sex spouses.

“If they’re familiar with the litigation that’s going on with the [Defense Department], as I’d assume most senior captains are, they might have a negative impression of me. ‘Hey, here’s a lieutenant who’s suing the SECDEF. Why would we promote him?’” Ross said in late August, after a day attending transition courses.

Ross said he has no evidence of bias by members of the 17-person board, whose proceedings are secret, but is seeking a special selection board from the Navy secretary because he believes these officers may have been influenced by their personal views of his public stances, or gave undue weight to one bad fitrep that’s five years old.

Some personnel experts had another explanation, saying Ross’ 2008 expulsion from nuclear power left a blemish that made him less competitive against his peers, and that the selection-board process wouldn’t allow its members to share their opinions of his off-duty advocacy.

Yet the same board selected other blemished officers. For example, on the promotion list is the chief engineer on the frigate Vandegrift, who got drunk and quarrelsome with his sailors during a port visit to Vladivostok, Russia, a year ago — misbehavior that contributed to the firing of his commanding officer and executive officer.

A spokesman for the chief of naval personnel said the selection board was conducted properly and reviewed afterward, but he was unable to go into details for privacy reasons.

“As with all of our boards, a review was conducted, and verified the fairness of this specific board,” Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello said in an email. “We remain confident in the thoroughness and fairness of our selection board process.”

'PROMOTE HIM NOW!'

Ross enlisted in 1995, advancing to fire control technician third class before entering the academy. There, Ross earned a reputation as a go-getter and surface warfare enthusiast, a branch that typically generates less excitement than Navy pilots or SEALs.

His senior year, Ross led the Yard Patrol Craft Squadron of training vessels and won the award as his class’ top ship-driver.

A systems engineering major, Ross was chosen for the academically challenging nuclear-power training program and entered it upon graduating in 2002. He completed it successfully and then reported to the cruiser Valley Forge, where he was the undersea warfare officer.

His next tour was more difficult. Ross joined the reactor department on the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis, his first operational nuke tour. He led the reactor laboratories division, charged with testing and monitoring the two reactors, and qualified as a watchstander. The fitness report for his first year aboard was positive, if lukewarm and vague. It was a “must promote” write-up — one category below the highest, “early promote” — that called him an “outstanding naval officer,” but scored him below average. Ross provided Navy Times with six years’ worth of fitness reports and his correspondence to the board.

Then, Ross had problems. He failed to prepare for his engineer’s exam, a make-or-break test that had to be rescheduled twice. And during a stressful training scenario, where both the reactors were scrammed, two of his sailors had a fistfight in the control room on Ross’ watch. The fight was broken up and Ross reported it. But the reactor officer pulled his qualifications and found him culpable.

The fallout was severe. On his next fitrep, Ross scored a 2.0 on the professional expertise, on a scale of 1 to 5. “Gary Ross is a conscientious officer who has displayed a desire to excel but has struggled with the technical rigors required of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program,” states the fitrep Ross signed in February 2008.

Ross arrived at shore duty that March, the same month that Navy Personnel Command stripped his qualifications and booted him from nuclear power. (Ross says this was by mutual agreement.) Ross did well at Recruit Training Command Great Lakes, Ill. He eventually oversaw five divisions and still found time to mentor sailors, volunteer and get a master’s degree in engineering management.

“Performing at an O-4 level,” his departing fitrep said. “PROMOTE HIM NOW!”

Ross next attended department head school in Newport, R.I., and was sent to a second shore duty assignment while he recovered from a back injury. He garnered high praise from his bosses at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., where he was a manager and troubleshooter for Joint Interoperability Test Command.

Cleared for duty, Ross returned to the fleet in April 2012. He reported to the amphibious transport dock Anchorage as its first combat systems officer and oversaw systems tests, the crew’s move aboard, acceptance trials and commissioning in its namesake city. Coming off shore duty at an Army base, Ross was back in his element. He thrived.

“He’s a prior nuke: Very competent, very educated, very capable,” said Chief Fire Controlman (SW) Joe Conroy, who works for Ross in Anchorage’s combat systems department. “I’ve really enjoyed working with him. We have a very successful department.”

Ross is widely viewed as a good shipmate with a dry sense of humor, but there are some Anchorage sailors who’ve been turned off by his outspokenness about his homosexuality. Ross, who talks about his spouse as any other sailor does, said he believes he is setting a positive example for all gay and lesbian sailors.

Ross’ performance on the job got top marks.

“MY #1 [SWO] DEPT HEAD REGARDLESS OF RANK,” wrote Capt. Brian Quin, his CO, in the most recent fitrep available to the selection board, signed Feb. 25. Quin’s write-up was loaded with praise: “Outstanding leader,” “expert watchstander,” “superb team player.”

Quin recommended Ross for fleet-up command jobs in an above-average, “early promote” ranking — the first of four lieutenants.

“Gary Ross has my strongest recommendation for immediate advancement to lieutenant commander and retention,” Quin wrote. “Don’t let the Navy lose one of its best department heads!”

Ross’ performance also prompted Quin to send a separate letter to the selection board that addressed his previous issues. Quin wrote that he believed Ross had failed to select at the previous year’s board, held in 2012, due to his performance on the Stennis four years before. “His record outside of that report is remarkable,” Quin wrote.

'The crunch'

Cmdr. Joel Stewart was on Anchorage’s bridge when the promotion list arrived in mid-July. A witness said that Stewart, who had relieved Quin in April, looked at the message and stormed off. He headed to Ross’ stateroom and knocked on his door.

“I thought there was a fire, he knocked so loud,” Ross recalled. “He said, ‘Gary, sit down.’”

Stewart told Ross that he hadn’t made the promotion list and that he wanted to tell him before he told the crew on the general announcing system.

“I think it’s a travesty,” Ross recalls Stewart saying, adding that the new CO called his lieutenant “an incredible officer.”

Stewart and his executive officer — Lt. Cmdr. Jen Forbus, another prior enlisted whom Ross considers a mentor — said they were unable to comment about Ross and referred requests to the Navy’s chief of information.

The chief of naval personnel is unable to discuss specific board decisions out of privacy concerns and the fact that the board’s deliberations are secret and not recorded.

Selection boards are conducted in a secured briefing room known as “the tank” in Millington, Tenn. Each officer is sworn to secrecy. Then photos and summaries of eligible officers are projected onto an overhead screen, while a board member presents the officer’s highlights to the rest of the panel.

They vote by tapping one of five keys under a sheathed keypad. Their choices range from 0, for “do not select,” to 100, for “absolutely select.” Once they’ve gone through the list, the board agrees to promote some number of the top-ranked officers and then runs through the rest again.

This is “the crunch” — the gray zone where most officers rank. The panel members keep making cuts until they hit their quota.

Board members can ask the briefer questions or even make positive statements on the officer’s behalf. They are barred, however, from saying anything negative about him that is not included in the record.

For this reason, one former screening board expert said it was “highly, highly unlikely” that a board member would have discussed Ross’ media appearances or gay advocacy. But it is still possible that these feelings influenced individual board members.

'De-nuke' demerits

Three retired Navy captains reviewed Ross’ records for red flags, and each independently concluded that the biggest red flag stemmed from his 2008 troubles on Stennis. Ross had made it through the nuke pipeline, including the arduous academic work and operating a prototype reactor. If you fail after getting through all this and are “de-nuked,” there’s a presumption that the problem’s not with the program — it’s with you.

“That glaring 2.0 is a red flag that is just too hard to ignore,” said one retired nuke SWO O-6, who reviewed Ross’ records. He added that this mark made it certain that Ross would not be chosen in the first review, instead being relegated to “the crunch,” where he would have to surpass other mid-ranked performers for the remaining promotion slots.

The screening board expert, who is also a retired captain, took issue with Ross’ letter to the board, where Ross wrote that dropping out of the nuclear Navy came by mutual agreement. The expert said he didn’t buy Ross’ characterization, which leads to other questions, like, “What happens the next time he does not like something?”

All three captains noted a rebound in his performance in the past years, but said it may not be enough against a competitive field.

To be sure, O-4 selection boards are getting tougher than four years ago, when promotion rates for SWOs were north of 95 percent and black shoes joked that all a candidate needed to do was “fog the mirror.” The last three boards have hovered between 80 percent and 73 percent for SWOs. The latest one, which passed over Ross, had a 73 percent promotion rate — or nearly three out of every four SWOs.

“I thought for sure he was going to make it,” said one Anchorage officer, who asked to remain anonymous due to pressure on his ship not to talk to Navy Times.

“It seems like some people that deserve to make it aren’t,” said this officer, adding: “Maybe this can give Big Navy a heads up that, hey, we know there’s something wrong with our [selection] process.”

'A fair shake'

Ross intends to request a special screening board from Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. To do so, he will have to plausibly argue that the board acted “contrary to law, or involved a material error of fact” against him, per the instruction. He has two main contentions.

■The board’s president and three of its 10 captains were nuclear-trained officers. Ross believes that this was an overrepresentation of nukes, a group likely to consider his “nuclear attrite more severely than warranted,” Ross said in an email.

■Ross also believes members could have been swayed by his gay marriage and the lawsuit, both of which have received wide coverage in the press.

“Because of the media attention that Dan and I received — front page of Stars and Stripes, Navy Times, TV, you name it — because my picture was flashed up in front of the board and my name’s up there in front of the screen, some members of the board probably knew who I was,” Ross said. “The probability exists that many of them did know who I was and it could have swayed their vote.

“I don’t want to say it happened or not,” Ross added. “I’m saying it’s probable that the people on the board knew who I was and knew what I was doing and therefore I may have not gotten a fair shake.”

Even if he gets a special screening board and prevails, Ross will be out of uniform for the better part of a year. He said he’s started interviewing for jobs and planning for what comes after Jan. 31.

After nearly two decades in uniform and the hope of reaching retirement, Ross feels put out by the whole process — especially that an officer will never know why he was rejected.

“It’s so secretive. You never know why they voted the way they did,” Ross said. “Unfortunately, I’ll never know.”

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