WASHINGTON -- In the pre-dawn darkness of Oct. 14, 1996, the USS Theodore Roosevelt was maneuvering in the choppy Atlantic waters 100 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C. The carrier was "backing down" -- reversing -- when it collided with a cruiser, the USS Leyte Gulf, in a thunderous screech of steel that knocked sailors to the decks and caused $10 million in damage.
In the Navy, the reverberations of that October night are still being felt.
The commander of the carrier, Rear Adm. Ronald L. Christenson, a 1969 Naval Academy graduate, was later judged to be the most culpable for the collision and received a punitive letter of reprimand in November 1996, usually a career-ender.
But his reprimand hardly stood in Christenson's way. Two weeks before the incident, he had been promoted from captain to rear admiral, and despite a disciplinary action that would normally sink a promotion, Christenson was allowed to retain his new rank. When accidents occur at sea, generally the commander of the vessel at fault is relieved of command and sees his career end, Navy officers said.
Some critics say top admirals are trying to shield a distinguished officer from further punishment for the collision. The debate has pitted the Navy secretary against the service's top admiral, and the tight-knit aviation community against surface warfare officers. The two top officers aboard the Aegis-class cruiser Leyte Gulf -- Capt. Coleman A. Landers, the skipper, and Lt. Cmdr. Jose Vazquez Jr., the executive officer -- also received punitive letters of reprimand and were relieved of their command. But unlike Christenson, they have seen their advancement come to a crashing halt.
"We did everything we possibly could," Vazquez said, noting that he and Landers desperately tried to turn and back up the ship as the carrier loomed before them. Seconds before impact, Landers pulled a lookout to safety.
Christenson, 50, rotated off the Roosevelt as scheduled in late October -- before a board of inquiry had assigned blame for the collision. He is now stationed at the Pentagon, as head of the Navy's aircraft carrier program. Neither Christenson nor his lawyer would comment for this article.
For the past year, the Navy's hierarchy has been engaged in a bitter debate about whether Christenson's promotion should be revoked. Such a move would be highly unusual and could be made only by the president.
Adm. Jay L. Johnson, chief of naval operations, opposed a demotion for Christenson. So did a three-member board of admirals convened at Johnson's direction. But Navy Secretary John H. Dalton, a Naval Academy graduate who has made accountability a top priority, disagreed and recommended to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen in July that Christenson's promotion be "vacated."
"In my judgment," Dalton said this week, "Rear Admiral Christenson did not meet the high standards of professional competence I expect of a flag officer."
A month after receiving Dalton's recommendation, Cohen told the Navy that he favored allowing Christenson to keep his promotion, a senior Pentagon official said. "The judgment was this would be egregious double punishment," the official said.
Like Johnson, the Pentagon's top hierarchy other than Dalton favored keeping the promotion: Gen. John Shalikashvili, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; his successor, Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton; Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, vice chairman of the joint chiefs; and Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre.
Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., then vice chief of naval operations and a surface warfare officer, favored revoking Christenson's promotion and argued that point with Johnson. The Navy's top military lawyer, Adm. John D. Hutson, also recommended that Christenson be returned to a captain's rank, sources said. Both men declined to comment.
Insistent that Christenson lose his promotion, Dalton pressed his case with Cohen and Hamre without success. There is an 18-month probationary period in which a one-star officer's promotion can be vacated; for Christenson, that period will end April 1.
Double standard seen
But some within the Navy are troubled by what they see as a double standard: taking care of selected officers and setting others adrift. Both Christenson and Johnson are aviators; so are two of the three members of the senior officers' board that recommended that Christenson retain his rank. Some perceive an effort by Navy aviators to brush aside the cherished code of accountability in order to shield one of their own.
"Where's the fairness in all of this?" asked one Navy officer, who is a surface warfare officer.
"This is very offensive to some people in the Navy," added a Pentagon official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Some people have used the term, 'We've lost our integrity on this one.' "
What is "unusual" about the case, according to a Senate source familiar with the matter, is the way Christenson became an admiral before the Roosevelt accident. The Navy does not generally promote ships' commanding officers to an admiral's rank until their tour ends. Though he was eligible for promotion on Oct. 1, Christenson was not to assume his rear admiral's rank until after his change of command Oct. 28.
Navy personnel officials sent him the routine paperwork for his promotion, which Christenson accepted and signed by the Oct. 1 date, sources said. He then became an admiral, though he had yet to put on his star, according to officials and Navy documents.
During the accident inquiry, Navy officials delayed his formal assumption to admiral. Only when officials recognized that Christenson had already been "locked in" to the post did they let him assume his rank. Christenson finally put on his admiral's star on Dec. 10. Now, the only way to take it back would be to persuade President Clinton to rescind the promotion.
Christenson was asleep in his cabin the night of Oct. 14, 1996, when the Roosevelt began conducting maneuvers in the Atlantic off North Carolina. The carrier began reversing without warning the Leyte Gulf, which was steaming behind the Roosevelt. The accident caused millions of dollars in damage to the Roosevelt's stern and the Leyte Gulf's bow.
In November, after the accident investigation, Christenson, Landers, Vazquez, and an unidentified watch officer aboard the Roosevelt received letters of reprimand. All were pronounced "derelict in the performance of their duties" for "negligently hazarding their vessels."
Landers and Vazquez were then "detached for cause" -- removed from their posts on the Leyte Gulf. But Christenson escaped such punishment, having rotated off the Roosevelt as scheduled in late October. Some Navy officers argue that this, too, was unfair. No one disputed that the Roosevelt had backed into the Leyte Gulf: Christenson could have been temporarily removed from command, even before the inquiry had ended, so his record could have reflected that he, too, had been "detached for cause."
Question of culpability
A final review of the accident investigation by the Atlantic fleet's top commander, Adm. J. Paul Reason, completed in January, placed the blame mostly on Christenson. Since Christenson was in charge of the exercise and responsible for the maneuvers, Reason determined, he was ultimately responsible.
But the three-member admirals board set up by the Navy to review Christenson's promotion found that he was not "directly culpable." The accident investigation, they noted, had placed blame mostly on the Roosevelt's officer of the deck that night and others on watch.
The board saw the collision as a "single incident," and not part of a pattern of problems on the Roosevelt. Christenson's career was "characterized by outstanding performance," they reported. As executive officer of the Roosevelt in the Persian Gulf war, he was awarded a Bronze Star and later commanded the carrier during bombing runs in Bosnia.
Landers and Vazquez also appeared to be outstanding officers.
Landers, 48, rose from enlisted man to captain, the second African American to command an Aegis guided-missile cruiser. He was picked to attend a coveted strategic studies course in Newport, R.I., that is a breeding ground for admirals. He was pulled from that post as a result of the collision and now has a desk job at a Navy-supported research institute in Virginia. He declined to comment.
Vazquez, 37, was a fast riser. Selected early for a commander's rank, he was also chosen to become a congressional liaison fellow. Then the accident occurred.
Still, Navy investigators found errors with the Leyte Gulf's response to the accident and said the ship could have avoided the collision. "We did have some problems; we're not perfect," conceded Vazquez, now relegated to a shore position in Norfolk.
Pentagon sources say Johnson has recommended to Dalton that Vazquez's name be removed from the promotion list. Does Vazquez see a double standard between how Christenson and the Leyte Gulf officers were treated?
"Some people see that," he said. "What do I think? I don't want to comment on that right now. I'm waiting for the Navy."
Pub Date: 3/12/98