Controversial CO’s name pulled from O-6 selectees list

By David Larter and Meghann Myers, Staff writers


The promotion of the former commanding officer of the destroyer William P. Lawrence, who was faulted in the 2013 deaths of two helicopter pilots, has been put on hold.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus stopped Cmdr. Jana Vavasseur’s promotion to captain pending the outcome of a review from his office, said Cmdr. Chris Servello, spokesman for the chief of naval personnel.

“Cmdr. Vavasseur’s name is being withheld from the promotion list sent to the U.S. Senate for confirmation while the Secretary of the Navy’s Office considers the report of the investigation into the helicopter accident that occurred while Vavasseur was in command of USS William P. Lawrence,” Servello said in a statement.

“The Secretary of the Navy is charged with sending promotion nominations to the Senate for confirmation and in doing so he determines whether the officers recommended by the Navy’s promotion board are qualified for promotion.”

Vavasseur’s role in the 2013 accident that claimed the lives of Lt. Cmdr. Landon Jones and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jonathan Gibson is the subject of intense debate in the Navy, and her selection to command another ship in late 2014 sparked outrage from the pilots’ widows.

Theresa Jones, wife of Landon, said news that Mabus would review the case was a welcome development.

“I think some sort of scrutiny at this point would be good, because there hasn’t really been any of that so far,” she said. “I think that taking a closer review is a step in the right direction, but I guess it all depends on what they do with it from there.”

Jones and Gibson, assigned to San Diego-based Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 6, were killed when their MH-60S Knighthawk was washed off the flight deck of William P. Lawrence by a wave while it was chocked and chained to the deck with its rotors spinning.

The investigation found that a combination of heavy seas and a turn made at top speed caused the wave to wash over the flight deck, and it faulted Vavasseur for failing to take proper caution with a helicopter on deck.

Pacific Fleet boss Adm. Harry Harris said in his endorsement of the 2014 investigation that Vavasseur had taken “unnecessary risks during routine, yet inherently dangerous, shipboard helicopter operations.”

But Harris stopped short of taking action that would have prevented Vavasseur from screening for major command.

Servello told Navy Times in December that Vavasseur received a nonpunitive counseling letter and that such letters are typically not included in the package presented to a command screening panel.

Vavasseur’s selection for captain was announced in an April message, along with all the other line officers selected for O-6.

Her selection was a virtual lock, given that she had already screened for major command. But the results set off another round of criticism from some aviators and the widows of Jones and Gibson, frustrated by a perceived lack of consequences in the wake of the deadly accident.

A defense official familiar with the decision said that Mabus is acting in accordance with regulations that require him to review “any finding from an investigation that may call into question professional judgment.”

The official went on to say that it was Harris’s endorsement of the investigation that triggered the SECNAV review.

Vavasseur will remain eligible for consideration until she retires, the official who spoke on background said, but future boards will be informed that her name was pulled from a previous promotion list prior to rendering judgement on her promotion, as per Navy regulations.

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