A 35-year career came down to one crushing confrontation last summer for Command Master Chief (SW) Rick Helwick.
It was the morning of Aug. 6 and the destroyer Shoup was deployed to 5th Fleet in the midst of a 10-month cruise. Helwick arrived at the combat information center looking for a senior chief when he spotted a seaman seemingly in violation of the hot weather uniform regulations that had gone out on the 1MC.
This seaman — who, according to one witness, had “bad blood” with Helwick — was wearing his Navy working uniform blouse, and Helwick didn’t like it.
When instructed to correct himself, the seaman pushed back, which Helwick took as a challenge to his authority.
And that’s when Helwick blew it. He lost his cool and grabbed the seaman’s right shoulder twice, pinching the blouse and, in the process, the sailor’s skin.
“He started to yell at me in an extremely aggressive manner about wearing my blouse in CIC,” the seaman said in a statement to investigators. “Before I could reply, he grabbed my uniform by my shoulder and began shaking it in his hands.”
Left behind was a 1-inch red mark and bruising, witnesses said, according to the command investigation. The incident went up the chain of command and the ship’s commanding officer fired Helwick and served him with a letter of reprimand to carry with him for what remains of his career.
When news of Helwick’s firing broke, it became one of the most-viewed NavyTimes.com stories of 2013. Hundreds of readers were incensed: How could a CMC get sacked for exerting a modicum of force on a junior sailor?
“Sad day for the Mess,” one commenter said at NavyTimes.com. “Softness and complacency breeds the same. The force will become weak without heavy hands.”
There were others who said the chief should have known better, especially in today’s zero-tolerance Navy.
“I don’t know the entire story, but you should never grab another person by their clothing in the process of discipline,” another commenter wrote. “It is a display of threatening, tyrannic, demeaning behavior that is not included in the curriculum at Command Leadership School.”
Helwick initially declined comment for this story. The chief said he and and his family were trying to move on and he’d rather not go on the record.
“I don’t feel I was treated properly, but that’s sort of beside the point right now,” he said.
Helwick, selected for the CMC program in 2009, did not respond to subsequent telephone and email requests for comment.
Cmdr. Jill Cesari, Shoup’s CO, also declined comment.
However, the Navy’s command investigation provides new insight into the incident, one that witnesses believe evolved from a mutual dislike between the CMC and the seaman.
In June, Cesari instituted a “5th Fleet Warm Weather Uniform” rule to account for the heat and humidity. The uniform consisted of unbloused NWU pants, belt, boots and a Navy blue T-shirt.
After the rule dropped, there was a lot of confusion onboard about the proper wear, the investigation found.
Helwick himself had sent an email to try to clarify, and, on the day of the incident, a clarification had gone out on the 1MC.
So when Helwick saw the seaman in the CIC with his blouse on, he got upset.
“The master chief approached me aggressively and grabbed my right shoulder and told me I needed to ‘take this f---ing blouse off, right f---ing now,’ ” the seaman said in his official statement.
Helwick, in his statement, denied saying this exact phrase but acknowledged he used profanity.
“I probably told him he was wearing the wrong f---ing uniform, so if I did use the ‘F’ word. That was the manner that it was used. I never told him to take his blouse off in any manner.”
Witnesses weren’t close enough to hear what Helwick was saying, but it was clear the seaman was in trouble.
According to the report, the seaman pushed back and said the rule allowed him to wear the blouse while on watch indoors.
Helwick took offense.
“So now I have an E-3 questioning the master chief in front of junior sailors,” Helwick told the investigator.
He said that he grabbed the seaman’s collar and “in a very gruff manner” told him it was the wrong uniform.
Witnesses to the incident encouraged the sailor to get medical attention, after it was discovered that Helwick’s grab had left bruises. The seaman didn’t get medical attention but filed the report.
“I don’t think he meant to hurt me, but I don’t understand why he would touch me when we just sent another shipmate to mast for pushing someone 2½ weeks ago,” the unnamed seaman said in the report.
There are no indications in the report that Helwick had a history of losing his temper. Witnesses said they had never seen nor heard of any other incidents of Helwick abusing sailors.
When asked whether Helwick had a habit of picking on him, the seaman answered “on a daily basis,” but did not provide specific examples. Witnesses add some credence to this notion, however.
One witness said there was so much back-and-forth regarding the uniform policy, it seemed leadership was “bickering” over the wear rules. And the seaman wasn’t the only sailor wearing his blouse in CIC, yet Helwick never approached those sailors, a witness added.
Helwick told an investigator he had his own suspicion why the seaman complained.
“I think it has everything to do with the fact that the night before, I had found his girlfriend, who is supposed to be standing watch ... all the way across combat with him. ... They were hanging out on watch, she was doing a crossword puzzle away from her watch station.”
Helwick said he instructed both of them it was inappropriate to socialize on watch.
“I think that embarrassed her, and it embarrassed him. It was meant to be embarrassing,” he said. “I think that this is his opportunity to get revenge on me, to stick up for his girlfriend.”
Helwick added that the watch supervisor was also out to get him, and that they “have been looking for a chance to do this because I have basically been in their Wheaties for the past few weeks for having their significant others on watch with them.”
Cesari wrote in the report that she didn’t believe Helwick meant to harm the seaman, but the bruising required an assault charge.
She emphasized that the incident was “compounded by the fact that he chose to correct the sailor in public while on watch, with others watching their interaction.”
Helwick was found guilty of violation of Article 128 (Assault) under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
“The position of command master chief is one of special trust and responsibility within the chain of command, and as such the CMC must be the role model of exemplary conduct,” Cesari wrote.
He was sent back to Everett, Wash., on Aug. 26, with a new assignment at Destroyer Squadron 9, where he’s rated a master chief operations specialist, according to Naval Personnel Command.
The mess weighs in
Navy Times asked Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens to share his thoughts on the case. While he declined to address the case specifically, deferring to Pacific Fleet, he was willing to discuss the issue of correcting junior sailors, in general.
“I was taught and believe that we should do our best to praise in public and counsel in private, always keeping dignity and respect at the forefront,” Stevens said in a statement.
And on the other end, if a junior sailor believes his superior is mistaken, he should deal with it professionally, as well.
“Unless it involves safety, I would always advise a junior sailor to request to talk with their supervisor one on one,” he said. “This typically sets the conditions where a professional conversation can take place.”
Above all, MCPON said, it’s important to think before you react.
“Regardless of rank, I advise every sailor to step back, take a breath and seek advice from a trusted adviser or mentor,” he said. “Do not engage until you’ve formulated a professional plan on how to proceed. We shouldn’t let the heat of the moment get the best of us.”
A retired senior chief boatswain’s mate, who spoke to Navy Times on the condition of anonymity, agreed with Cesari’s conclusion.
“Because this guy was a command master chief of the ship, without a doubt, he needs to set that tone and example,” he said.
The retired BMCS added, however, that Helwick’s behavior wouldn’t have always been considered out of the ordinary.
“I’ve seen that type of thing happen back in the Vietnam era. Throwing stuff and, you know, vulgar language, you name it,” he said. “At that particular time, it would depend on who witnessed it. But in today’s Navy, it would definitely get you in trouble, regardless.
“There’s still no excuse for doing that,” he added. “He needs to show some constraint and control himself.”
In that situation, he said he would have gone directly to the seaman’s chief, rather than call him out in public.
An active-duty master chief machinist’s mate who has spent 20 of his 29 years in the Navy as a chief — and also requested his name be withheld — said he’s had a few situations where he needed to correct a junior sailor.
“[One] time I walked out of the room, I walked up to my office, called the kid’s chief and had him and the chief come into my office, and we could sit down and talk civilly.”
That has its downside, however.
“You’re not really saving face, because if it happens in front of other crew members, it’s done. They don’t know what happens later,” he added. “My thing is, I have to make sure that whoever this happened in front of knows that this guy got punished for being disrespectful.”
Openly challenging chiefs has increasingly become a problem, he said.
“When I was an E-3, the very thought of smart-talking to a master chief is just — I couldn’t even fathom that,” he said. “When we went through boot camp in the early ’80s, they used to just beat the hell out of us. Not physically, but you know ...we were scared to death of those guys.
“It’s almost a whole shift of the pendulum to where now, senior enlisted are scared that the younger guys can get them in trouble, where it used to be the other way around,” he added.
And, as a junior sailor, he experienced the other side of the equation.
“I got snatched up by my second class, but I kind of had it coming,” he said. “And I never smarted off to that guy again.”
He also pointed to Cesari, who he said is working in a climate where CMCs, COs and executive officers are fired for “one little mistake.”
“This CO, if it gets out that she didn’t fire him — she’s just kind of protecting herself, too,” he said.
One sailor from the chiefs’ mess chimed in online, in defense of Helwick.
“When I was selected for chief, I chose him to be my sponsor because he was hard, fair, and, above all, an outstanding leader,” Bryan Keiper wrote. “He was one of the best warfare experts I’ve ever known and one hell of a guy. I would gladly sail into harm’s way with this man.”
Navy Times reached out to Keiper, who declined to comment further.
“As much as I would like to speak about how wonderful Rick is, I do know that his family is trying to put this ordeal behind them and be done with it,” he said.