The raunchy, ribald antics that cost Capt. Owen P. Honors his command have a long history in the U.S. Navy, where leaders have routinely tolerated such behavior in the name of maintaining morale at sea.
But the Navy fired Honors on Tuesday, two days after a series of videos he made in 2006 and 2007 surfaced on the Internet, removing him from the helm of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise just weeks before it was to head to the war in Afghanistan. Honors made the videos when he was the ship’s executive officer, or second in command.
“While Capt. Honors’s performance as commanding officer of the USS Enterprise has been without incident, his profound lack of good judgment and professionalism while previously serving as executive officer on Enterprise calls into question his character and completely undermines his credibility to serve effectively in command,” said Adm. John C. Harvey Jr., commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command.
Harvey will lead a broader investigation into whether other senior Navy officials knew about the four-year-old videos, which aired on the ship’s closed-circuit television, and why they failed to take disciplinary action against Honors. The probe is likely to focus on whether Rear Adm. Lawrence Rice, who was captain of the ship in 2007, and his immediate commander, now-retired Rear Adm. Raymond A. Spicer, had seen the videos or received complaints about them.
In the frequently profane videos, Honors is seen pantomiming masturbation and peering into the shower stalls at pairs of male and female sailors who are depicted showering together as part of a send-up of the ship’s water conservation efforts. Although Honors uses an anti-gay slur on several occasions, the videos don’t appear to have been intended to demean gays and are mostly juvenile in nature.
“The line is pretty clear: If sexual innuendo is involved it is out of bounds,” said retired Vice Adm. John Morgan, who commanded the USS Enterprise Carrier Strike Group in 2001 and 2002. “What bothers me is that Capt. Honors’s behavior set a standard that allowed for sexual innuendo.”
Many fellow sailors on the Enterprise leapt to the defense of Honors in the wake of his dismissal, describing him as a funny, caring and conscientious officer. A Facebook page that was created in his honor showed 2,700 supporters by day’s end.
“I have nothing to gain or lose by saying that Capt. Honors did wonders for the morale of our ship,” said one sailor who served on the Enterprise when the videos were made and declined to be quoted by name because he remains on active duty. “I’ve been in for 13 years and never had an officer that I felt was more approachable.”
Other former Navy officers acknowledged that ribald humor, similar in nature to the sexual innuendo in Honors’s videos, is a storied part of Navy tradition. For decades ships have held elaborate “Shellback” ceremonies for sailors making their first trip across the equator. These rituals typically have involved young sailors in drag and licking grape jelly from the belly button of a fat sailor who is dressed in an oversized diaper.
The Navy has made periodic efforts to clamp down on the Shellback initiations, urging commanders to dispense with belly-licking and “beauty contests” in which male sailors dress up as women. Navy commanders also have begun to play a more prominent role in monitoring the shipboard ceremonies to ensure that sailors aren’t offended.
“The videos were badly out of step with the current mood of the Navy,” said retired Capt. Kevin Eyer, who last commanded a cruiser in 2009. “It is inexplicable to me that [Honors] didn’t understand that he was in deep water.”
Indeed, many Navy officers said the video escapades strayed far beyond what is considered acceptable in the Navy today. “I pray to God that the videos are unusual,” said retired Rear Adm. Stephen Pietropaoli, former head of Navy public affairs. “It is not unusual for us to have edgy or ribald humor. The key is knowing where that line is.”
In firing Honors, senior Navy officials concluded that the videos had made it impossible for him to lead or discipline his subordinates. Many current and former Navy officers were particularly offended by the dismissive tone he seemed to take toward sailors who had relayed concerns about his previous videos.
“Over the years, I’ve gotten several complaints about inappropriate material during these videos — never to me personally, but gutlessly through other channels,” Honors said in one of the videos. “This evening, all of you bleeding hearts — and you, fag SWO boy — why don’t you just go ahead and hug yourselves for the next 20 minutes or so, because there is a really good chance you’re going to be offended tonight.” SWO is the Navy acronym for Surface Warfare Officer, the large branch of the Navy dedicated to overseeing the service’s fleet of ships.
The Navy moved swiftly to replace Honors with Capt. Dee Mewbourne, who previously commanded the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier and has a reputation as a hard-working and cerebral officer. Mewbourne has spent most of the past eight years at sea and will leave with the Enterprise for a seven-month deployment in a few weeks.
“He has been a superstar since we were all mids at the Naval Academy,” said Ward Carroll, editor of the Military.com Web site and a former Navy aviator. By contrast, Honors was always “one of the boys,” Carroll said.