The Navy reprimanded the skipper and chief weapons officer of the USS Stark yesterday and allowed them to quit the Navy rather than face a court-martial for failing to take defensive actions against the Iraqi warplane that attacked the ship May 17, killing 37 sailors.
Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, censured the officers after they "admitted and accepted accountability for the lack of readiness and inadequacy of measures taken to protect the Stark."
Kelso said he rejected a Navy investigation board's court-martial recommendation partly because of "extraordinary and heroic" efforts by the skipper, Capt. Glenn R. Brindel, 43, of Pittsburgh, and weapons officer Lt. Basil E. Moncrief, 32, of Corpus Christi, Tex., to save the ship and crew after the Persian Gulf attack.
Navy officials said yesterday that Brindel has requested retirement after 22 years in the service and Moncrief, the tactical operations officer of the Stark when it was hit, has asked to resign after eight years in the Navy.
The officers' requests were made several days before Kelso convened the closed-door, nonjudicial administrative hearing -- an "admiral's mast" -- yesterday morning in Norfolk, officials said. Neither officer appeared at the hearing, but had written letters to Kelso accepting responsibility for the ship's failure to take action against the attack, Navy officials said.
Brindel and Moncrief could have elected to face a court-martial rather than accept the administrative decision, Navy officials said.
Kelso, in a statement, said he imposed the nonjudicial punishment because "the degree of culpability is mitigated by the unique circumstances of the incident and its aftermath."
Kelso added, "The actions of Stark personnel under the leadership of Capt. Brindel and Lt. Moncrief and their respective personal efforts in saving Stark and preventing further loss of life were extradordinary and heroic in the face of extreme personal peril."
The admiral also said he was concerned that "the prolonged nature of courts-martial proceedings would cause intensified grief on the part of the families of the victims of the attack and stress to the Stark crew."
The attack occurred shortly after 10 p.m. on May 17, as the frigate was steaming in the Persian Gulf off the Saudi Arabian coast, outside the war zones declared by Iran and Iraq, which have been fighting each other for seven years.
An Iraqi F1 Mirage fighter fired two French-made, antiship Exocet missiles that skimmed 10 miles over the ocean's surface and slammed into the port side of the Stark's hull just below the bridge. One missile exploded in a crew's bunk area, killing 37 sailors and injuring 21. Another missile failed to explode.
At the time of the attack, Brindel was in his cabin, having just told Moncrief, stationed before radar screens in the ship's sophisticated Combat Information Center, "to keep a close eye" on the fighter, according to investigative reports.
A third officer who was relieved of duties aboard the Stark after the attack, Lt. Cmdr. Raymond Gajan Jr., 35, of Rockville, will be dealt with separately, Navy officials have said. The allegations against Gajan, the Stark's executive officer, or second in command, were far less serious than those against Brindel and Moncrief, Navy officials said.
"A lot of people will cry whitewash," said one Pentagon official familiar with the proceedings. "But it's a no-win situation. Those guys were put in jeopardy by the nature of the environment and less-than-direct rules of engagement" for launching counterattacks.
The three officers were relieved of their shipboard duties and reassigned to desk jobs. The Navy investigation's criticism of the officers included their failure to warn away the Iraqi pilot by radio when he was not yet close enough to fire and their negligence in preparing the chaff dispenser designed to confuse radar-guided missiles like the Exocets fired at the ship, Navy sources have said. As the missiles approached, none of the ship's guns was ready to fire.
Navy officials said Brindel and Moncrief had been on the "fast track" of naval careers before the attack. Brindel, who was promoted to captain on Jan. 1, will retire at the lower rank of commander because he has not served in the higher rank for the required three years to receive full retirement pay, officials said. That will mean he will receive $2,061 per month in benefits rather than a captain's $2,646 monthly rate, an estimated $100,000 loss over his lifetime, Navy officials said.
Moncrief had been on the promotion list to lieutenant commander before the attack, Navy officials said. "He's giving up the promotion and the career," one Navy official said. Moncrief has not been in the Navy long enough to qualify for retirement benefits.
The five-year-old Stark, after undergoing temporary repairs at Bahrain, is slowly crossing the Atlantic Ocean and is scheduled to reach its base at Mayport, Fla., Aug. 5, the Navy said.