Does "Justice" Go Too Far?

By Captain Raymond J. Brown, U.S. Coast Guard

To be sure, the imposition of a non-judicial punishment means that there has been a failure of discipline. No commanding officer worth his salt takes the Mast option lightly. When the event does occur, at least one and perhaps a number of people in his command—including himself—have fallen short of the mark, and no other avenues remain. Though legal officers might get apoplexy were they advised officially, many captains let it be known around the deckplates early in their tenures that appearance at an Article 15 Mast will equate to "march in the guilty prisoner for sentencing."

I recall having been the acting commanding officer in a newly commissioned ship when a young petty officer made himself the initial experiment after insubordination to a senior. As the Mast party was dismissed, the young man was both very, very sorry and very, very broke. The latter was perhaps reduced in sting because he also was very, very restricted. But those things constituted the least of his worries. The follow-on automatics from the Personnel Manual were the biggest punishment. Transfer could not occur, so his planned duty swap was finished. So were his hopes for advancement within the next year. All that was inescapable upon my finding that he had committed the offense.

My concerns prompted me on several occasions to hold Mast proceedings that weren't really Mast proceedings. In each case, young Coast Guardsmen, through misjudgment and inexperience rather than malice, crossed certain lines that the whole crew knew could not be ignored or "taken care of by the chief." But I also knew that "A" school would go away for these folks if I imposed punishment.

So, we had Captain's Mast with all the attendant pomp and circumstance—and the chiefs' full support. In the end, I had them paying their shipmates back for their transgressions by certain work assignments, but termed these administrative duties to be coordinated by the executive officer and divisional leadership. Yes, it was extra duty and restriction—but without a record of an Article 15 finding that an offense had been committed. The record would read that the offense had been "dismissed."

Shortly after the Mast party had fallen out, I found one of my shell-shocked shipmates, who had been opposite me at the green table, waiting outside the XO's stateroom to have the terms of the sentence more specifically explained. As I passed I asked, "You think you've been to Mast now, don't you?" The response was undeniably affirmative. But officially, he had not accrued a non-judicial punishment record, as I did not want his future to be postponed for too long. He is a petty officer today, as are all those with whom I employed this action.

These Personnel Manual attachments to non-judicial punishment in fact remove the very flexibility that Article 15 was to have provided to commanding officers. The worst punishment is preordained by a system that takes no account of the circumstances of the individual sailor or the CO's intent. A year is a long time. To deny advancement or "A" school because of one failure can mean the difference between a career Coast Guardsman and one who will ship everything he cannot carry as he walks off the brow for the final time. The service has campaigned to keep the option of Captain's Mast because a captain is to be trusted with a responsibility unique and complete. Yet in the aftermath of a Mast proceeding, the captain's judgment with respect to advancement or "A" school is set aside for as much as a year because a command prerogative has been exercised. What's wrong with this picture?

Captain Brown is Chief of Operational Law Enforcement and is on the staff of Commander, First Coast Guard District, in Boston.



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