The commanding officer of a diving unit that lost two sailors to drowning deaths in February has been relieved after an investigation found leadership weaknesses and unspecified safety issues, according to a Navy statement late Wednesday.
Cmdr. Michael Runkle, of the Virginia Beach, Va.-based Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2, was relieved “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command,” the reason most commonly cited when the Navy fires a commander.
The first probe into Runkle’s command actually began before the deaths of Petty Officer 1st Class James Reyher, 28, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Harris, 23, who died Feb. 26 after being pulled from the water at the Aberdeen Proving Ground’s UNIDEX test facility in Maryland.
Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2, acting on discussions with the diving unit’s sailors, ordered a command survey in January, according to the Navy statement.
“The MDSU 2 command climate survey confirmed morale issues and a lack of leadership involvement,” according to the Navy statement.
However, Runkle wasn’t relieved – his parent command instead took unspecified “administrative actions to correct the identified deficiencies,” according to the Navy on Wednesday.
Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 convened a full investigation following the deaths of Reyher and Harris.
“That investigation brought to light continued command climate weaknesses,” according to the statement. “Additionally, the investigation revealed safety concerns that were not previously known.”
Those safety issues contributed to Runkle’s removal by Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 commander Capt. Timothy Rudderow, according to the Navy’s statement.
The sailors’ deaths at UNIDEX, dubbed the “Super Pond” for its 150-foot depth and ability to withstand blasts, were the second and third deaths at the sprawling, Army-run Aberdeen Proving Ground this year.
George H. Lazzaro Jr., a 41-year-old former Marine working as a civilian engineering technician at the Aberdeen Test Center’s firepower directorate, died Jan. 30 while performing maintenance, according to a Baltimore Sun report.
Military officials told the Baltimore Sun that the deaths were unrelated; however, Navy instructors at the Super Pond were briefed on Lazzaro’s death a week prior to the two sailor deaths.
The Navy announced that it would convene an Article 32 hearing to consider charges against a chief warrant officer and a senior chief petty officer, who have not been named, in connection with the Harris and Reyher deaths. After evidence is presented at the hearing, an investigating officer will then make a recommendation to command on whether to convene a court-martial.
Runkle is at least the ninth Navy commander fired this year. Unique to the service branches, the Navy normally issues public notices when it relieves its commanders.
Capt. Dan Shultz will arrive from the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command to lead the dive unit until a permanent replacement is found, according to the Navy statement on Wednesday.