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Romance dooms Navy career of honored sailor

Reporting from San Diego -- In March, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Joshua Hendershot received a coveted Navy-Marine Corps Achievement Medal — the third during a Navy career in which he was consistently rated as a top-notch performer assigned the difficult task of maintaining and operating the Tomahawk missile control systems.

The citation praised the 25-year-old for “superior professionalism, exceptional performance and selfless devotion.” One superior said he would make an excellent commissioned officer.

But within a few months, Hendershot was booted out of the Navy, branded as a habitual troublemaker unfit to serve. He was given a discharge of a kind that makes him ineligible for the GI Bill to pay for college.

Hendershot’s dismissal from the Navy is proof anew of how fast and seemingly harsh the military justice system can be and of the enormous authority invested in commanding officers.

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What was Hendershot’s transgression that truncated his Navy career?

He admitted —- after initially denying —- that he had had a brief romance with a female ensign. “You kiss the wrong girl and it can affect your whole life,” Hendershot said.

Hendershot and the ensign are unmarried; if one or both had been married to other people they would also been charged with adultery, a crime under military law. They were among five sailors aboard the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer Sampson who were charged this year with fraternization between officers and enlisted personnel.

The same commander who signed the Navy-Marine Corps Achievement Medal citation for Hendershot in March also recommended in June that he be dismissed from the Navy: Cmdr. Christopher Alexander, captain of the Sampson.

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In March, Hendershot was described as the “driving force” behind keeping the Tomahawk system safe and operational, possessed of technical expertise and acute managerial ability. In June, he had a “clearly demonstrated pattern of misconduct.”

Alexander, a Naval Academy graduate, has a sterling resume that suggests a bright career ahead. He served on the legislative staff of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and worked for the secretary of the Navy and the chief of naval operations. The Sampson is his first command.

Military officers say the Navy system helps maintain “good order and discipline” and cannot be compared to the civilian criminal justice system with its layers of appeals or the Civil Service system with its job protection for other government employees.

Alexander’s recommendation that Hendershot be dismissed was quickly approved by an admiral.

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Hendershot was shown to the gate of San Diego Naval Base on Aug. 18, no longer a member of the U.S. Navy — after five years and nine months of service, three overseas deployments, rapid promotions and a string of glowing evaluations.

In moving to boot Hendershot from the Navy, Alexander recalled that he had admitted driving drunk in nearby Imperial Beach in 2009. Putting together the previous infraction and the relationship with the ensign, Alexander concluded that Hendershot was unfit to remain in service.

The experience has left Hendershot disappointed that none of his superiors supported him when he appealed Alexander’s ruling. “Nobody in my chain of command stood up for me —- they all turned their back on me,” he said.

While on active duty, he accumulated about two years of college credits and he would like to attend the University of Washington in his native state and earn a degree in business. He hopes to appeal Alexander’s decision that he receive a general discharge that makes him ineligible for the GI Bill.

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“The entire reason I enlisted was for college,” Hendershot said. “I served five years and nine months and I don’t get the GI Bill? That’s not right.”

Hendershot said that he and the ensign — a graduate of the Naval Academy — knew their relationship could get them in trouble. They had broken up even before the relationship came to the attention of the chain of command, he said.

But when the wife of an enlisted sailor complained to the command that her husband was having an affair with a female officer, Hendershot and the ensign were swept up in an investigation into improper romances aboard the Sampson.

Rather than fight the allegation through the court-martial system, Hendershot opted for what is called “non-judicial punishment” before Alexander. “I was standing in front of him for maybe two minutes,” Hendershot said.

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In June, Alexander sentenced him to 45 days of restriction, 45 days of extra duty, demotion of one rank and forfeit of half his pay for two months. “His wrongful conduct was particularly corrosive to the command because his relationship was with a junior officer within his department,” Alexander wrote.

Hendershot thought his punishment overly severe. He appealed, but his request was quickly turned down.

The Navy declined to discuss Hendershot’s case. But Cmdr. Jason Salata, spokesman for the Pacific Fleet’s Naval Surface Force, explained that non-judicial punishment is a vital process to allow a commander to maintain “an effective, combat-capable ship.”

While he was appealing his case, Hendershot was informed that Alexander was also recommending his dismissal from the Navy under a process called “administrative separation.”

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Hendershot believes his decision to appeal angered Alexander because it forced a review of his decision by the admiral.

Under non-judicial punishment, a commander cannot recommend dismissal — a safeguard meant to encourage sailors to “come clean” and admit mistakes. Under administrative separation, however, a commander has the authority to recommend that a sailor be ousted from the Navy.

While that may seem like double-jeopardy to a civilian, it is not unusual under Navy rules. The same conduct that a sailor is punished for under non-judicial punishment can also be a reason for the commander to initiate administrative separation, Salata said.

“Sailors’ lives and success in battle hang on decisions made by the captain,” he said.

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As for the ensign, Hendershot said she was transferred off the Sampson and had a negative letter put in her personnel file, the kind of action that may make it impossible for her to sign up for another hitch. The daughter of a Navy captain, she was not immediately dismissed.

“My father works at a blade-sharpening company,” Hendershot said. “Maybe if he was a Navy captain, I’d have been treated differently.”

tony.perry@latimes.com


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