'Below decks' culture not for public consumption

The firing of Capt. Owen Honors from the bridge of the USS Enterprise for making raunchy videos to entertain his crew makes it very clear that what goes on in Vegas no longer stays in Vegas. Not even in the bowels of a ship at sea. Not in the Internet age.

That he didn't realize this when he produced, directed and starred in his gross movie night skits while he was the ship's second in command is all the evidence his superiors must have needed to relieve him of his duties — political correctness notwithstanding.

But since his dismissal, several thousand sailors have risen to support him on Facebook and in the media, including gay and female sailors. Not only did they find him an excellent leader, but they thought his movies were funny and good for morale.

Is it possible, then, that it was not gays, lesbians or women in the military who are outraged by Captain Honors' coarse sense of humor, but the general public? Was the captain fired not for offending his crew but for tarnishing the spit-and-polish reputation the military tries hard to maintain in front of its citizenry?

"Career military people always lead double lives on active duty," said Robert Bretz, who retired as a lieutenant commander after just short of 25 years in the Navy. He now works as a civilian at a Naval shore installation in Rhode Island.

I have known Mr. Bretz since we were kids in grade school, and I asked for his take on Captain Honors' movies, and on his dismissal.

"There is the parade ground persona that we always turn to the public. That's us manning the rails when the ship comes into port or leaves.

"Then there is what happens below decks, the frat house mentality that surfaces when any body of people work together that closely."

There has always been a very clear line, he said, between the dress-whites behavior and the work-hard, play-hard behavior that only those who are confined to a ship for months at a time can appreciate.

Mr. Bretz watched the videos Captain Honors made and which were released last week by The Virginian-Pilot, and I could hear him laughing over the phone.

"It is funny!" he said. "But it is only funny to someone who has been out there. And that's the problem."

The f-bombs, the gender-based slurs, the homosexual jokes, the sophomoric bathroom humor. That, Mr. Bretz said, might be as old as the Navy. What has changed is the ability to contain the knowledge of that behavior.

"It is private. It is meant for the crew. It should never have left the ship," said Mr. Bretz.

The captain, who was the ship's executive officer when the videos were made four years ago, was either unaware or indifferent to the possibility that they could get off the ship, and the consequences if they did, he said.

"We expect better public behavior of our military than any other profession," Mr. Bretz said. "We get paid to be disciplined. We are honored by the country for our discipline. The public has a right to expect better public behavior from its military.

"Do we therefore give them a little more leeway in their private behavior?" he asked. "It looks like the answer is no, because now you never know when the public is going to be listening and watching."

Mr. Bretz made one more point.

It is a truism in the Navy that a successful commander has to have good luck, and that there is no good excuse for bad luck.

"Captain Honors," he said, "didn't have good luck."

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her e-mail is susan.reimer@baltsun.com.

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