Navy ousts ailing warship skipper

SAN DIEGO — A Navy investigation finds the ailing skipper of a San Diego-based Navy cruiser retreated to his cabin for several weeks in the middle of a deployment, leaving the 330-member crew leaderless.

The probe also revealed that the skipper of the USS Cowpens, Capt. Gregory Gombert, was having an improper and “unduly familiar” relationship with the cruiser’s acting executive officer, U-T San Diego reported Wednesday.

The Navy removed Gombert and the ship’s command master chief, Master Chief Petty Officer Gabriel Keeton, from their positions on June 10. The reason given at the time was poor ship condition.

Gombert’s medical problems were not disclosed, but investigators said they should not have left him unable to lead. They also shouldn’t have required him to retreat to his cabin from early January through March, officials said.

“The violations revealed by the investigation, especially the blatant abdication of command responsibility on the part of the (commanding officer), are among the most egregious I have encountered in my 32-year career,” wrote Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, the three-star admiral in charge of the Navy’s Pacific surface ships.

At a July 25 administrative hearing, Gombert was found guilty of several counts of disobeying an order and conduct unbecoming an officer. So was the former acting executive officer, whom the newspaper identified in a Navy photo from March as Lt. Cmdr. Destiny Savage.

Keeton was found guilty of two counts of disobeying an order, apparently because he failed to notify anyone outside the ship of the troubles on board — despite telling crew members that he would.

The investigation found the skipper’s unacceptable absence from the bridge predated his illness.

Of the 48 “special evolutions” that the ship performed — tricky maneuvers such as getting close to a refueling ship — Gombert was on the bridge for just 27, according to U-T San Diego.

His health-related seclusion began in mid-January, when he came down with an illness that required bed rest for 10 to 20 days, according to the investigation.

Gombert told his superiors that he questioned his ability to lead on two of those days and later said he considered asking for convalescent time, but decided against it.

As for Gombert’s relationship with Savage, the newspaper reported that starting in December, the crew noticed the two officers spent evenings alone in Gombert’s cabin, with the door closed. Savage frequently was seen making dinner for Gombert in his cabin and keeping her toiletries in his private bathroom there, according to investigators.

Also, the investigation said, the two went away for days together during port visits.

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