Sailors cry foul over 7th Fleet liberty rules

By Gidget Fuentes - Staff writer
Posted : Monday Dec 3, 2012 8:45:43 EST

Top Navy leaders, reacting to a half-dozen alleged crimes by drunken U.S. service members in Japan, have imposed some of the toughest liberty restrictions ever, prompting outcries from sailors angry at more intrusions into their personal time.

Drinking has to stop at 10 p.m. for all personnel under 7th Fleet and Naval Forces Japan under a Nov. 23 order. And by 11 p.m., you had better be back on base or in your off-base government quarters.

These and other tough rules are required of sailors who fall under 7th Fleet’s 48 million square miles, which encompasses some of the world’s best ports, such as Hong Kong; Phuket, Thailand; and Perth, Australia.

The crackdown is the latest move of flag officers wrestling with the misconduct of a handful of troops and the growing mistrust of U.S. service members by the Japanese.

U.S. Forces Japan already implemented an 11 p.m. curfew in October, after two sailors were arrested and accused of raping a local woman in Okinawa. The Oct. 16 attack intensified anti-U.S. protests, drew complaints from Japan and Okinawa officials and led to apologies from Air Force Lt. Gen. SalvatoreSamAngelella, the senior U.S military commander in Japan, and U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos.

Vice Adm. Scott Swift, 7th Fleet’s commander, announced the new, tougher rules for sailors. He deemed it a prudent move, given the spate of embarrassing liberty incidents, and acknowledged the majority would have to suffer for the acts of a few.

“I recognize the decisions I am making will negatively impact the quality of life for some of our sailors,” Swift said in a fleetwide message. “This is the price being levied on us by those few who refuse to comply with the standards of conduct that has defined the United States Navy throughout its history.”

This so-called “collective punishment” has plenty of sailors furious, and they say these broad restrictions are nothing but knee-jerk reactions. They said the new rules are crushing morale of the rule-abiding sailors.

“Sure, in a shipboard environment, that type of mentality makes sense. One person could potentially bring down an entire ship with their actions or negligence,” said a master-at-arms second-class in Japan. “However, we apply it to everything, unlike any other business or corporation. It really is unfair in my eyes to punish an entire fleet over the actions of the few who make bad decisions. We have a large population of do-good sailors that are unable to live a normal life now.”

Worse, he said, the liberty policies “seem to change daily,” and junior sailors are feeling the pinch from the chief’s mess and wardroom. These older sailors are “pissed off” because they want to travel and drink but can’t because their junior shipmates have failed them, the second class said.

Others echoed the sentiment.

“The sailors of 7th Fleet are shocked that they are being punished for actions they did not commit,” a petty officer assigned to a ship in Japan wrote to Navy Times. “The restrictions mean that personnel cannot see their families, cannot reside off base in hotels, and must be ready to be recalled to the ship even in leave status. My shipmates and myself acknowledge that the actions portrayed in the most recent incidents are unacceptable. But it doesn’t make it OK to punish 50,000 people for the actions of a few.

“The sailors of Seventh Fleet want their rights back. We have served our country, been deployed away from our families for months, and now that it’s time to return home to see them again, we find that we can’t even be with them,” the sailor added.

The fleet commander “holds us responsible for not stopping our shipmates and fellow Marines from committing these actions. The message we send back is: How can we have prevented them, when we were deployed at sea following your orders? Don’t punish everyone. Punish those who have committed the actions.”

Others aren’t surprised to see stricter rules and blanket punishment.

“It is a necessity to keep unit cohesion known that your actions affect your unit,” said an aviation electronics technician third class in Guam. “As enlisted personnel, the most we can do is hope it was given proper consideration. The actions of those members that resulted in this new liberty policy coming about have done nothing to bolster international relations.”

One senior enlisted leader thinks the top commanders are taking the wrong approach.

“Instead of searching for the root cause, there is an immediate need to overreact. This only enflames the issue,” said Senior Chief Diver (MDV) Michael Allison, a master diver with Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 8.

“When you start a curfew and treat sailors this way, they will just get as drunk as they can until they hit their curfew time,” Allison reasoned.

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens called the recent incidents “unfortunate” and noted that “the vast majority of our personnel stationed abroad understand the responsibility that comes with their assignments and represent U.S. forces overseas with only the highest levels of professionalism.”

“Sometimes, though,” he added, “it only takes a few incidents to create the impression that we have a larger problem.”

Addressing personal behavior
Over Thanksgiving weekend, sailors were involved in a liberty incident, marking the sixth case of alleged misconduct by U.S. troops since the 11 p.m. curfew was implemented.

Two sailors from the aircraft carrier George Washington, fresh off its fall patrol, were involved in an incident in Yokohama, and local police arrested one of them for alleged public urination and nakedness at an Internet cafe.

While Swift did not cite details of all six incidents, media reports have covered a few other notable examples of misconduct. Some critical of the new rules point out that a lot of the reported incidents haven’t involved sailors. Other cases:Marine Pfc. Gregory Carson II, 20, was arrested in Okinawa on Nov. 22 for trespassing in a building, according to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. He reportedly wanted to backflip on the roof.

• A Marine lieutenant was arrested Nov. 17 for allegedly trespassing in a home in Okinawa. Local police said 1st Lt. Tomas Chanquet, 24, reportedly admitted he got drunk and went into the home in Naha, according to The Associated Press.

• Earlier in November, according to several news accounts, an airman assigned to Kadena Air Force Base reportedly broke into a home.

Roughly 40,000 sailors are in the 7th Fleet region at any given time, many forward-deployed in Japan, where the U.S. maintains about 50,000 troops along with 5,000 Defense Department civilian workers and 43,000 family members. The largest military concentration is on the island of Okinawa, where anti-U.S. groups have waged long-running protests of U.S. military presence since a sailor and two Marines raped a local schoolgirl in 1995. The latest incident there, in particular, resurfaced old wounds and criticism.

If there’s another incident that is viewed negatively by a host nation, it will immediately be connected back to this rape, Swift said. “There’s an immediate snap back to that... [It’s] kind of the here-we-go-again syndrome.”

That’s why Swift said he wanted to tackle the problem before it got further out of control.

“I refused to let the 40,000 sailors in 7th fleet to be defined by that event,” he said. “We are allowing ourselves to be defined by a very, very small minority of 7th Fleet sailors.”

But some sailors argue he’s doing just that by putting the entire fleet under the label of troublemakers.

“They think they can correct the stupidity of a few with ‘good leadership and policy’ when it’s the underlying behavior that people were raised to have,” one Japan-based sailor told Navy Times. “That’s what angers me about the stricter policies and all of the awareness classes I’m forced to go to, when I have never and will never go drinking and driving or any of this other stupid nonsense. People who want to get drunk and be stupid will do so.”

While the 7th Fleet orders might be unpopular on the deck plates, Swift said he considered it a pre-emptive strike. He had concern U.S. Forces Japan would implement tougher, permanent rules.

“Our concern was, if there was another event, then measures to be taken might be dire that, quite frankly, I believe … would have been counterproductive,” Swift said in a Nov. 27 interview with Navy Times. “And I want to protect the majority of sailors out there.”

He’s hopeful the latest restrictions won’t be permanent.

“There will be a steady process that we will march back down to our standards,” he said.

He was planning to hold a “personal behavior” summit Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 that will wrap up a weeklong commanders’ conference in Yokosuka, and he expected to get good feedback and ideas on easing the restrictions.

But Swift is also making no promises.

“We just have to work through this rightful indignation and angst on the part of certainly the Japanese people and probably others in the region about what the hell is going on with 7th Fleet sailors,” he said.

If the Okinawa rape and misconduct cases had not arisen, sailors would be celebrating relaxed liberty rules.

Just days before the alleged rape in Okinawa, Swift and Rear Adm. Dan Cloyd, the Naval Forces Japan commander, agreed to ease the administrative burdens of the liberty card program that commands must maintain. They felt that most all sailors in Japan behaved professionally and appropriately and wanted commanders to manage their programs as they see fit.

“I think the controls that we had in place before the rape are absolutely appropriate. I am very proud of our sailors out here,” said Swift.

The honor system
While the new rules, like no drinking after 10 p.m., are tough, enforcing them could be tougher.

This has not been lost on sailors, who have posted criticism online and joked about military police searching quarters for drinking, or the admiral’s wife snatching a drink from his hand when the bell tolls 10 p.m.

Swift said he’s keenly aware of this criticism.

“People talk about that, ‘Hey it’s not enforceable,’Ÿ” he said. But “we have had great leadership management tools available to us in the military. For those that say how are you going to enforce it? Honor, courage and commitment. That’s the culture, that’s our tradition.”

Just the night before, Swift hosted 50 guests at his Yokosuka home, an evening event after an exercise with his task force commanders. “We had served alcohol, and I had two or three beers last night, probably,” he said, adding, “The party was done at 8 o’clock.” And no one had alcohol after the cutoff of 10 p.m.

For enforcement, Swift is counting on the honor system and peer pressure to get sailors to follow the rules.

“How do we enforce speed limits? Ethics is defined by what you do when no one else is watching,” he said. “I’m not going to walk into people’s houses, and I’m not going to send the masters-at-arms in there for spot checks. I’m confident the 99.9 percent of sailors and their families out there will respect this rule.”

But early curfew poses another problem, sailors told Navy Times. It’s driving sailors to binge in the limited window they have to drink.

“They are making things worse because giving a shorter time to drink is turning people into power drinkers. They drink really fast and just get even more intoxicated,” wrote a master-at-arms based in Yokosuka. “I see it every night I work.”

Many sailors also think the restrictions mean they must rat on their friends or face getting in trouble for not reporting a violation.

“That is a big issue,” Swift said. “What it comes down to is peer pressure, it’s the buddy system. It’s hard to get out there and tell your buddy you’ve had too much to drink.”

“We are asking people that are very peer-conscious and peer-sensitive to go against their peers and to do the right thing,” he added. “That is very hard.”

Punished for the past
Sailors who have been on Class C restriction, the most limiting liberty status, any time in the past three years have been either returned to that status or will remain there. Their immediate commands will review their case and decide what liberty restrictions are warranted, if any.

Class C sailors are deemed liberty risks, meaning they have gotten into trouble while on liberty and are considered at high risk of another incident. They usually are restricted to their base. When he directed the new rules, Swift asked his commands to check their rosters and report how many personnel have been on Class C restriction in the past three years. As of Nov. 28, Swift said, it was 787 sailors.

“It’s 787 sailors out of 40,000. That doesn’t sound like to me that we are holding the majority responsible,” Swift said, addressing criticism that his directive was widely punitive.

“It might be unfair to some of those 787,” he said. “But I want to hold that to the lowest percentage of innocent sailors at risk, to give us breathing room until we can figure out what the ... near-term control measures need to be ... to rebuild that sense of trust in us, as sailors.”

But even sailors who’ve kept their noses clean say it’s unfair.

“We are talking about someone who may have had a minor alcohol incident three years ago [and is] now back on restricted liberty because of this, and for what reason?” asked the MA3 in Japan. “These policies and restrictions are over the top and only raise the bar for the next major incidents that will occur in the hopefully very far distant future.”

Other sailors see it as double jeopardy, being punished twice for the same crime.

Swift said all’s not lost for those Class C sailors.

“I’m ready to provide relief,” he said. “I’ll cut a special liberty chit for any sailor a command comes up and says, ‘This sailor should have the same restrictions that sailors that haven’t had an alcohol-related incident in the last three years.’Ÿ”

He said he already approved special leave requests for some. When the cruiser Shiloh returned to Yokosuka recently from fall patrols, the families of three crew members with Class C restrictions met them at the pier.

“They were all excited,” he said, but the sailors were not allowed to go home with them. Shiloh, he noted, has had a more restrictive policy that kept those sailors aboard the ship.

But Shiloh’s captain requested special liberty chits for those sailors, and the request arrived on Swift’s desk. He approved those, he noted, “because that captain said, ‘I think those three sailors are not at risk of creating another incident with our host nation here and are deserving of special liberty.’ ”

Swift also approved special liberty for another shipboard sailor, a geographic bachelor whose wife came to Japan for two weeks. They planned to stay in the Navy Lodge, but the sailor had a prior liberty incident.

“The command submitted a chit, and I approved it,” he said. “So that sailor, rightfully so, is with his wife.”

‘Real deck-plate leadership’
As Swift travels the region this month and conducts town hall meetings, he expects to field many questions about the liberty rules from sailors and families.

Regarding a more permanent policy, Swift said, “We owe it to the sailors out there to give them some specificity. I told the sailors that this is an interim solution.”

Some veteran sailors question whether leadership will figure better ways to get good behavior without the constant hammering of “don’t screw up.” Leadership by fear doesn’t work, they say.

Collective punishment “is virtually guaranteed to fail,” said retired Capt. Jan van Tol, who knows firsthand.

When he took command of the amphibious assault ship Essex nearly a decade ago, he inherited a number of sailors facing felony charges on crimes ranging from theft to attempted rape. He was appalled, but he set out to restore order and discipline.

“It was really doing the simple things,” he said, like treating everyone professionally (not like children), punishing the offenders (not everyone), acting quickly on mast (within three days), rewarding those who do well and empowering the Chief’s Mess so “chiefs discipline the ship.”

Liberty incidents disappeared. Van Tol realized he’d done something right when the Sasebo senior police inspector, on a chance encounter on a city street, told him:Thank you for bringing Essex under control.”

“Most of the sailors are responsible adults and behave that way,” said van Tol, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

Too often, though, sailors hear the wrong message coming from the top brass. Training and classes on ethics constantly remind them of the troubles that service members cause.

“Like many problems, the situation did not begin the moment the sailor cracks open a beer. It begins with the culture that is instilled the moment that sailor reports to their command,” said Allison, the senior chief. “For days and weeks prior to a port call, sailors are ‘preached at’ repeatedly (on shipboard TV) about what will happen if they make a misstep.”

But “real deck-plate leadership,” he said, can set the example, “teaching them right from wrong and empowering them to make good decisions instead of micromanaging them.” It’s not the “intrusive leadership,” cited by Swift, which Allison called Draconian.

“We have the ability to create a culture that fosters mental and physical fitness, quality of life and job satisfaction,” he said. “This, in turn, will create sailors that can accomplish the mission and manage to get through a weekend without getting arrested.”

Staff writer Mark D. Faram contributed to this story.