NORFOLK -- A Navy hospital ship designed to perform humanitarian missions and build goodwill for the United States abroad was plagued by leadership problems in its medical facility for years before it set off to Latin America last spring with a new commanding officer who was put in place just days before leaving Norfolk, investigative reports show.
The USNS Comfort still managed to treat more than 122,000 patients in 11 countries during Operation Continuing Promise, a high-profile six-month mission that was the ship's first in four years due to the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. But problems continued even on an otherwise successful cruise when the ship's top enlisted sailor was relieved of his duties for an alcohol-related incident while on liberty in Panama.
The humanitarian missions typically generate a wellspring of positive publicity for the military and nongovernmental organizations that embark aboard the ship as volunteers. Video of smiling military medical personnel helping local populations beamed around the world on CNN last summer.
But investigative reports obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show all was not well aboard the ship in the years prior to Capt. Christine Sears' arrival on the Comfort in March 2015.
Capt. Rachel Haltner had been relieved of command the day before after her crew described high levels of stress and a lack of trust throughout the medical facility and said they felt mentally, physically and emotionally worn out. Haltner micromanaged her subordinates, publicly denigrated others and created an environment where the crew feared retaliation for speaking to investigators, according to a letter from Rear Adm. Thomas Shannon, commander of Military Sealift Command.
Navy investigators were tipped off that the working environment was poor by at least one anonymous letter sent to U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell's office, U.S. Fleet Forces Command and a local television station, as well as through command climate surveys.
The report also shows Haltner clashed with the ship's civilian skipper and was a poor communicator. The Comfort is crewed by civilian mariners but its medical treatment facility or MTF is run by military personnel, and it's not uncommon for tensions to exist between the two sides on a military ship. When the nearly 900-foot-long white ship emblazoned with a red cross is in reduced operating status before a mission, there are about 60 military personnel and 20 civilian mariners aboard. During a mission, that number swells to about 1,200 medical personnel.
Haltner had been the medical facility's commanding officer since Aug. 27, 2013, when her predecessor was removed for poor leadership from the post he had occupied since 2012. In that instance, investigators found that Capt. Kevin Knoop frequently was absent from the job and that he and Haltner -- who was his executive officer -- often butted heads.
The investigation into Haltner said her leadership issues had to be considered in the context of her experience with Knoop.
"Frequent absences from the command by her predecessor had accustomed Capt. Haltner to perform both CO and XO functions simultaneously," an investigator wrote. "The gapping of the XO and senior enlisted leader billet for the first year of her command left her without an effective command triad and required her to be more heavily involved in the daily management of the command."
Sailors told investigators Haltner frequently would check a log to see when personnel clocked in and out, and would exert influence on small decisions such as where to hang a television. Sailors described a culture where they were afraid to bring up bad news.
"I would describe many of those assigned to the MTF as shell shocked and scared to make decisions. This fear of making decisions arises from the CO's reactions when one delivers information as you never know how she will react," said one sailor, whose name was redacted from the report.
Haltner told investigators she demanded excellence from her crew and tried to set an example by working harder than anyone else.
"My small team and I worked very hard," Haltner wrote in an email. "I am also very tenacious about what is being done, and the fairness to the crew. If things need to be done for unity of effort in leading the crew in their career management, care of their families, or mission accomplishment, I can be very persistent about getting people to do things they may not necessarily want to do in order to achieve results they want to achieve."
That leadership style didn't work with everyone.
"I describe Captain Haltner's leadership style as dictatorial. She implies that it's her way or the highway. She'll speak kind words to your face, but stab you in the back. It's the most stressful job I've ever had in the Navy," said one 30-year sailor whose name was redacted.
An atmosphere of fear was a common complaint among Haltner's crew.
"I did not trust anyone at all," said another sailor whose name was redacted. "I always felt someone was going to get me and bite my head off. I don't think anyone trusted anyone. Chiefs acted buddy/buddy but I don't think they really trusted each other. ...
"Everything is very last minute, which makes more stress. The chain of command is worried about things that are not important. The XO is afraid of the CO and when (redacted) does ask the CO for permission to complete a task it's too late, and everyone stays behind. This creates a lot of stress."
Statements submitted in the report make clear that not everyone feared Haltner, and some said she was a good, demanding boss. Haltner's rapport with her subordinates is something she said was important to her.
"My working relationship with the crew is one of great respect and admiration for all that they have done, coupled with concern for their personal lives and families. I have taken great pains throughout my career and tenure onboard Comfort to demonstrate my concern and support for sailors," she wrote.
"For example, when I was told we did not have funds for a Family Day for the MTF families recently, the XO and I paid for the supplies ourselves. My care for, and relationship with, the crew is what keeps me in the Navy!"
Haltner is currently assigned to Navy Medicine East, based in Portsmouth. Knoop retired from the Navy.
Nathan Potter, a Military Sealift Command spokesman, said in an email to The Virginian-Pilot that another command climate survey was conducted in September, after the Comfort had returned from its deployment with Sears in charge.
"In general, the survey found marked improvement in the overall command climate aboard ship particularly in the areas of organizational performance and organizational cohesion," Potter wrote. "There is no doubt that the success of Continuing Promise 15 was a significant contributor to the increased morale and cohesion aboard Comfort."
Much of the stress prior to the Comfort's deployment had to deal with a lack of personnel and resources. Military Sealift Command says it now provides up to 50 additional civil service mariners to assist managing the maintenance and repair workload across the ship and the Military Treatment Facility and for short transits.
This article was written by Brock Vergakis from The Virginian-Pilot and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.