What do you do with a fired ship captain?

“What will we do with a drunken sailor?” asks the old sea shanty.

Well, if it is the ship’s captain and he or she perpetrates some incident or even soberly otherwise screws up those COs may find themselves tossed out on their hallowed keisters.

Near record numbers of Navy skippers have been relieved of duty in the past couple of years for a variety of infractions ranging from poor leadership to alcohol-related incidents. Firing of the very top dogs in business causes hardly a blink of the eye these days in the civilian world. But bosses of multimillion and even billion-dollar Navy ships and commands are something totally different. When leaders of ships with city-like populations such as aircraft carriers — considered more war platform these days than just ships — are stripped of their command it is indeed a totally different prospect.

Just as recently as Tuesday the commanding officer of the destroyer USS The Sullivans was relieved of command “due to loss of confidence in his ability to command,” said a press release on behalf of Vice Adm. Frank C. Pandolfe, U.S. Sixth Fleet Commander. “Cmdr. Derick Armstrong was relieved as a result of an unprofessional command climate that was contrary to good order and discipline.”

Armstrong was the 10th commanding officer sacked by the Navy so far this year and the third on The Sullivans to be fired in the past two years, according to Navy Times.

It is often the case that specifics are vague when the military announces any kind of infraction to the public of its personnel. But some of the circumstances brought to light through the media indicate the senior officers and top enlisted relieved of duty were replaced for a variety of transgressions.

In 2011, the widely-publicized firing of a female ship captain took place in which that CO was replaced for dereliction of duty, unprofessional conduct, favoritism and hostile command climate.

Cdr. Etta Jones of the amphibious transport dock vessel USS Ponce was relieved for cause after the U.S. Fleet Forces Command inspector general hotline received an anonymous call in April 2011 alleging “administrative and operational misconduct that included creating a hostile command climate, preferential treatment, safety and navigation violations, and manipulating reports/withholding facts to preclude outside investigation,” according to a blog post by the Fleet Forces Commander Adm. J.C. Harvey.

The Ponce was on station off Libya as part of the NATO effort to prevent weapons and “other material” from flowing into that country after the uprisings that eventually led to the overthrow of dictator Col. Mummar Gaddafi. An Admiral’s Mast held by then-Sixth Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Harry Harris found:

¬†“Cdr. Jones failed to report and take proper corrective action for hazing and for poor judgment during a security drill where she endangered two Sailors with a loaded (Condition 1) weapon,” according to Forces Commander Harvey. “Upon conclusion of the Mast, Vice Adm. Harris relieved Cdr. Jones of her command due to loss of confidence stemming from the aforementioned Mast, unprofessional conduct, rendering her chain-of-command largely ineffective by marginalizing her senior leaders and displaying blatant favoritism to select junior officers, and for cultivating a hostile work environment permeated by verbal abuse, fear, and intimidation.”

The “Condition 1” weapon referred to an incident during a ship’s security alert in which Jones allegedly waved around a loaded 9-mm pistol with its safety off while in the same room as two sailors before handing the firearm over. Security alerts are either drills or actual breaches in shipboard security when a ship is in port. I took part in security alerts as a petty officer of the watch on a destroyer. When a security alert was sounded I would be tasked with standing watch over the ship’s brow with a a cocked .45-caliber pistol. Since these were meant for threats to any potential nuclear weapons we had on board — which we always could “never confirm nor deny” — my orders were to shoot anyone who threatened our security. I never did even though we did have one actual “breach” which turned out to be a sleeping Philippine shipyard worker. Knowing the Navy in those post-Vietnam days, if I had fired my .45, I probably¬† would have been toast even if I was in the right.

In the case of Jones, the former amphibious ship captain was allowed by a three-captain panel to retire at one grade below, as a commander.

A debate has been touched off as a result of the high number of skippers, XOs and senior enlisteds being fired. Some say it is a crisis in leadership. One very frank and illuminating paper penned by a captain for the Navy War College suggests the cause is a complex set of cultural factors which include the power itself that is given to a Navy commanding officer. Although these factors cited by Capt. Mark Light in the war college paper includes a prevalence of sexual harassment and inappropriate relationships in the transgressions committed by COs, the causes interestingly enough have nothing to do with mixed male-female crews on ships.

Some unfamiliar with the Navy or its intricacies may either shrug or mouth defensively at why the numbers of CO sackings are news. The reasons are that the Navy has traditionally and continues to place an enormous responsibility on commanding officers. Harking back to an aircraft carrier — the USS Enterprise skipper was fired for showing his crew raunchy videos while serving as XO — the captain has the ability to launch attacks that can decimate many nations. Traditionally, and no sacrilege meant here, the captain is God as far as a ship and its crew is concerned.

News of such actions that get captains fired and the news that they are indeed “out of here” are as well buoyed by the prevalence of the Internet and social media these days. This was something not seen not so many years ago but rather were whispered about by crews or from ship-to-ship.

Even the greatest “dirt bag” on board knows that while a slack captain might be fun, one wants the Old Man — do they call women captains the “Old Woman” (and survive) these days? — to be an adult. As is the case in any job, there is play time and there is serious time.