“Your character is like a muscle,” Richardson said, speaking in his office last week, where framed pictures had already been taken off the walls in preparation for his departure. “It sort of gets stronger when you train it, and then it gets fatigued when you strain it and you use it a lot.”
Richardson, who will retire, handed over the reins as chief of naval operations to Adm. Michael Gilday on Thursday in a ceremony in Washington. He became the service’s top officer in 2015, presiding over a challenging period that included growth in the Navy and two disasters in which destroyers collided with commercial vessels, killing a total of 17 sailors.
In the Special Operations force, several Navy SEALs have faced criminal charges this year, including two who were accused in the death of a Green Beret soldier, Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar, in Mali in 2017. One of the SEALs in the case, Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Adam C. Matthews, pleaded down to lesser charges, while Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Anthony DeDolph still faces trial.
In another incident, a platoon of Navy SEALs was sent home from Iraq last month after a female service member working with them was allegedly sexually assaulted by a senior enlisted member of the platoon. The investigation into that incident is ongoing.
Richardson said an ethics review of all Special Operations units that was launched by Army Gen. Richard Clarke, the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command, will inform how the Navy looks at the issue. Clarke said the review will address aspects of Special Operations culture that include education, recruiting and training.
Some Pentagon officials have said that they do not see a link between frequent deployments in recent years and bad behavior, but Richardson posited that it could at least be a contributing factor.
“If you think about when you and I go home each night, you know, we are with our friends and our families and those sorts of righting forces keep us centered, and it’s all reinforcing,” he said. “It strengthens our character. But when you get way forward-deployed for a long time, those forces aren’t as strong.”
The ethical issues stretch beyond the SEALs.
In the recent court-martial of Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward “Eddie” Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who faced a murder charge for allegedly stabbing a wounded Islamic State fighter in Iraq, Navy officials allegedly used a tracking bug in an email to spy on defense attorneys and a Navy Times journalist, prompting a public outcry and the removal of a prosecutor in the case.
Gallagher was acquitted of most of the charges he faced in July. Richardson assumed control of that case and two others this month and launched a review of the Navy Judge Advocate General Corps. The admiral said the service will bring in outside experts to offer opinions.
In a separate action, the Navy recently completed a review at Richardson’s direction that examined administrative actions to better handle bad behavior that falls short of criminal conduct.
The effort was launched after Richardson said in an email to other admirals in May that there are incidents in which the Navy’s policies for addressing misconduct are “too cumbersome and slow,” leaving the service to retain people “we’d rather see dismissed from our ranks.”
He referenced the case of former Missouri governor Eric Greitens, who joined the Selective Reserve about a year after he resigned his post in June 2018 amid allegations that he had sexually assaulted a woman. Greitens denied the allegations but faced impeachment.
The resulting changes in the Navy include the introduction of an administrative letter of reprimand that will allow the service to document misconduct in cases in which other punishment is not warranted or possible. Richardson said he wants to give sailors who deserve a chance at rehabilitation an opportunity to continue serving and to move on more quickly from those who do not.
“It’s obviously in the best interests of the Navy, but I think it’s also in the best interests of that sailor to get out of limbo, if you will, and onto whatever path of recovery that they may take,” Richardson said.
Another piece of unfinished business: The Navy is reviewing the size and composition of its forces, a process that Richardson said could be completed within a month or two.
In 2016, the Navy found that it should have at least 350 ships, up from the about 270 it had at the time. The service has about 290 ships now, and Richardson suggested more changes are likely. “The security environment hasn’t gotten any less challenging,” and technology is increasingly important, he said.
“I want to let the team do their work and come with their best assessment of: ‘What does that Navy look like?’” he said. “We’ve got to be, again, careful not to get too captivated by ship count. Because what is on each one of those ships? It has to deliver some relevant power to provide real options to our leadership that is more than just, ‘Okay, that is one hull.’ ”
The collisions involving the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain in 2017 exposed gaps in how the service was training crews and preparing ships to go to sea. Richardson said he will have failed if it is determined that crews deploying now are not ready to do so.
“Not a day goes by when I’m not asking myself that exact question because what an amazingly high price we paid for that — those 17 sailors who gave their lives,” he said.