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Report: 'Feces march' on destroyer crossed line

Investigators detail punishment that led to 2 firings on Dunham

Mar. 31, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Former destroyer Dunham executive officer Cmdr. Kenneth Rice, left, and former Command Master Chief (SW/AW) Stephen Vandergrifft.
Former destroyer Dunham executive officer Cmdr. Kenneth Rice, left, and former Command Master Chief (SW/AW) Stephen Vandergrifft. (Navy pictures)
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Everyone at khaki call thought it was a joke.

But when a chief on the destroyer Jason Dunham told the assembled chiefs and officers that he was going to line up residents in two female berthings and make them march human feces down the pier to portable toilets, he was serious.

The chief was irate because the toilets in both women’s berthings had been used even though the ship’s sewage system was turned off for repairs during an overhaul, according to a Navy report.

The chief intended the task to teach the women a lesson in following orders and being considerate towards those whose job it is to fix the toilets. But to investigators, it crossed the line into humiliation and hazing that should have been stopped.

The Naval Surface Force Atlantic investigation found Cmdr. Kenneth Rice and Command Master Chief (SW/AW) Stephen Vandergrifft failed to take immediate corrective action when they had enough information to know lines had been crossed. Both lost their jobs. Officials pulled Rice’s command qualification and gave Vandergrifft nonjudicial punishment.

The report found that the decision to force 19 women, all E-6 and below, to clean feces out their toilets was an unsafe act of hazing. Navy Times obtained the roughly 250-page report via the Freedom of Information Act. Officials removed all names and titles except those of Rice, Vandergrifft and Cmdr. Michael Meredith, the ship’s commanding officer.

The incident was several days in the making, the report found.

The investigation found there were prior incidents of people using toilets that couldn’t be flushed, and each time a member of the ship’s repair division — damage controlmen and hull technicians — had to clean it up. The week before the incident, a sailor received the CO’s approval to make residents of the offending berthings help the hull techs clean up.

During an Oct. 15 general quarters drill, sailors were setting fire boundaries when they entered the female berthing and found fecal matter in another out-of-order toilet. It was festering on the plastic wrap covering the secured toilet.

A sailor reported it succinctly to the central control station then running the drill: “Berthing 5, on the plastic, man-sized gopher.”

A 'nasty' punishment

Further investigation uncovered unauthorized defecating in the secured toilets in both female berthings.

After the GQ drill, the residents of both berthings were mustered and told to clean it up. The investigation found that the chief yelled and swore at the women, telling them they were going to march it down the pier so everyone could see “how nasty you all live.”

Minutes earlier, the chief had announced his intention to march the women down the pier at the post-GQ debrief, which most took as a joke. After the khaki call, the chief told Rice that he would “take care of it,” meaning he would address the secured toilet issue with the residents directly.

The investigation found that the chief didn’t provide the women with the proper protective gear and equipment for handing human excrement. One witness said the feces were liquefied, filling the bowl to within two inches of the rim and having the “viscosity of a homemade milkshake.”

The women had to scoop out the feces with their hands, covered only with blue plastic bags meant for feminine products, and a stack of Dixie paper cups.

One woman stuck her hand into the feces, pulled out “a glopful” and immediately vomited into the bag full of excrement, according to the report. The smell was so overpowering that one woman stood behind the bathroom, spraying air freshener.

Witnesses said that once the women assembled on the pier holding double-bagged buckets of waste, a sailor called them to attention, yelled out “forward march” and began marching them down the pier calling out “left, right, left, right” as they walked toward the portable toilets.

One sailor with 26 years in, whose name was redacted, was overheard saying, “I thought public humiliation was a violation of the [Uniform Code of Military Justice],” going on to say that even in the “old Navy” that type of mistreatment was off-limits, the report states.

The male berthing toilets had been peed in, but no men were made to clean their toilets. According to an unnamed sailor, the urine was left in the toilets until the sewage was turned back on because people generally believed that urine was sterile and not a health risk. This led one sailor to file an equal opportunity report, which prompted to the investigation.

Later that evening, Vandergrifft, the CMC, sought out Meredith, the CO, to tell him of the incident. Vandergrifft, who had heard several versions of the incident from his chiefs during the day, couldn’t find the captain, so he informed Rice, the XO, instead, along with offering his opinion that the incident did not amount to an EO violation.

Meredith was not informed of the incident until much later, according to the report.

The investigation found that Rice should have taken action sooner and on incomplete information. He failed to recognize the seriousness of the incident, the report concluded. It also found Vandergrifft was negligent in fully recognizing the seriousness of the situation. He has since expressed regret for that failure, according to the report.

Meredith was issued a nonpunitive letter of caution for fostering a command climate in which he does not get informed of such incidents.

In addition to the firings, three sailors received nonjudicial punishment for dereliction of duty, making false official statements and violating the Navy’s hazing policy. They were recommended for separation or a show-cause board.

Four other sailors received letters of instruction for failing to report the incident when they directly observed the women forming up on the pier with the buckets of excrement.

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