CHIEF OF NAVAL PERSONNEL: “IT WAS VERY THOUGHTFUL OF YOU GUYS”
by Sharon Rondeau
(Jan. 12, 2014) — In Part 1 of The Post & Email’s interview with retired Command Master Chief Poasa Fa’aita, the former USS MARS crew member described the circumstances leading up to the dispatching of a contingent to Washington, DC to meet Capt. Michael B. Nordeen upon his return from Athens, Greece, where his brother, Capt. William Edward Nordeen, had been killed by a car bomb planted by the November 17 terrorist organization on June 28, 1988.
Included in the group were four women to act as respective escorts for Capt. Michael Nordeen’s wife; William Nordeen’s widow; the Nordeen brothers’ mother, who traveled to Washington from her home in Wisconsin; and for young Annabel, William Nordeen’s only child.
William Nordeen had been serving as a diplomat in Greece after a distinguished Naval career and looking forward to retiring from public service the following month when the attack occurred.
After learning of the death of his brother, Michael Nordeen was ordered off the MARS to Athens to attend to his brother’s affairs.
Fa’aita’s account of the crew’s response to learning of William Nordeen’s death corroborated Fitzpatrick’s account of June 5, 2012, including the manner in which Capt. Michael Nordeen was informed of his brother’s death, the wreath hastily assembled by the crew to honor the deceased, and the clothing Michael Nordeen was wearing when he left the ship to fly to Athens.
Despite its having occurred more than two decades ago, Fa’aita recalled in vivid detail the reaction of the crew to the news that their captain’s brother had been murdered and the prompt resolve they demonstrated in volunteering to send a group to Washington to represent MARS, paid for with money from the ship’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) fund. Fa’aita said that the crew envisioned that upon debarking his airplane, Nordeen “would walk out and see his crew standing there, supporting him,” which, in fact, occurred on that Independence Day as fireworks were seen and heard in the background.
Fifteen months after Nordeen’s death, MARS’s admiral, John Bitoff, and his staff JAG, Lt. Timothy Zeller, accused MARS executive officer Walter Francis Fitzpatrick, III (Ret.) of stealing the money used to fund the contingents’ travel and using it for personal comforts. Zeller performed an “investigation” which contained fabricated “evidence,” while the actual logs detailing MWR fund activity disappeared. Fitzpatrick was charged with multiple violations of the UCMJ but “convicted” of only one amongst numerous irregularities and improprieties exercised by Bitoff, resulting in a Letter of Reprimand which curtailed Fitzpatrick’s Navy career in September 1994.
Fa’aita reiterated Fitzpatrick’s explanation of a vendetta carried out by Bitoff against Fitzpatrick because of friction between the MARS and its chain of command. Without provocation, Fa’aita described a poor relationship, perhaps fueled by envy, as well as his surprise at hearing that Fitzpatrick had been accused of stealing money.
Continuing from Part 1 of the interview:
CMC FA’AITA: Again, I approached the XO about it and said, “This is the idea that came up.” We considered it and how we were going to fund it. Of course, the MWR fund was considered. To do all this, we had to call a meeting and get consensus from the MWR folks, then once that was approved, bring it up to the council and eventually get the captain to sign off on it.
I was the lead one to call that meeting; I chaired the meeting. It was my responsibility to chair it. The meeting was held; I recall that not a full complement of the departments were represented because of the test that was going on. Everything was happening. So my concern was to make sure that all departments were notified and were made aware of what was being considered.
I met with my chiefs; we sat down, and I explained to them what was going on and told them to get with their representatives to let them know how they felt about this. We were really looking for time, which was something we didn’t have. The new CO came aboard; he was debriefed on the status of where the ship was, if we were ready to go into the evaluation period. We had to make sure that, now that we were set about sending a contingent of people to the East Coast, we had to decide if using the MWR fund was the way to go.
We did what is called a Captain’s Call, which was an introduction of Capt. Mike Edwards as the stand-in CO, and we had a meeting on the flight deck. Before he came out to see the crew, the XO, CDR Fitzpatrick, came out and again, reiterated that we were talking about using the MWR fund.
We took every possible opportunity to make sure that the crew was aware of what was going on and for them to support that initiative. From my standpoint, it was well-received. I don’t recall anybody saying anything that was negative about it. Everybody agreed that it was the right thing to do.
THE POST & EMAIL: So if anyone had had a problem with it, he could have gone to his unit leader and said so?
CMC FA’AITA: That’s absolutely true. It was unanimous. The concurrence was there right from the start, but we had to go through this because a record had to be maintained. The MWR fund is supposed to be for the benefit of the crew, so the crew’s approval was essential to this. We couldn’t move without the crew saying, “Yes.”
THE POST & EMAIL: Is maintaining the MWR fund on any ship the responsibility of the executive officer?
CMC FA’AITA: No, it is not. There is a custodian of funds, the MWR officer, who is appointed. That is his primary or secondary function. Everybody has a primary and secondary responsibility on the ship. Another officer is responsible for that, the accounting, the purchase of things out of that fund.
In that same time frame, after the refresher training, we had to get ready to deploy. Much of our equipment – VCR and entertainment equipment – was outdated, old-fashioned, old. One of the big things that CDR Fitzpatrick did was to replenish it, to include weight-lifting equipment for exercise for the crew, fishing poles for when we go out to sea for people to go out and fish. That all occurred during that time frame.
THE POST & EMAIL: Would any of that have been considered out of the ordinary?
CMC FA’AITA: No, not at all. That’s standard operation; that’s what the money is for; it’s for the crew.
THE POST & EMAIL: I understand that a decision had to be made as to who could be spared from the ship during REFTRA. How many people ultimately went as members of the contingents?
CMC FA’AITA: I think eight was the number. But as far as the selection of the party to go, the XO had the final say-so. That’s based on a recommendation from each department head on who the vital people are in their departments. So they present that to the XO. From my standpoint, I said, “I would like to see a uniformed setting such that there is a non-rated group of pay grade E1 to E3, and then there’s petty officer E-4 up to E-9. I said, “I want a representative of that group, one of them, and then I want a representative from the officer community. Then I would like to see the people who won the Sailor of the Month and Sailor of the Quarter because of their outstanding sustained performance. I want to see those people recognized; I want to them to be included in this party.” So that was my recommendation. At the end, the XO said, “OK, I’ll take that recommendation.”
THE POST & EMAIL: Were you among those who flew to Washington?
CMC FA’AITA: Yes. There were the chaplain and me. Our wives went; the XO’s wife, Cathy, and the doctor’s wife went. Then, we had three First-Class, an Ensign, which is an officer and one non-rated.
THE POST & EMAIL: What was the flight like? Did everything go smoothly?
CMC FA’AITA: As I said, the difficulty was that we were fighting against time. The captain left, and that was the last we knew of what was going on. We didn’t know when the captain’s flight would arrive from Greece, but our intention was that if we were going to send the contingent back East, then we needed to just work and get it out. The only problem was coordinating it so that everybody would be on the flight to get there.
I remember when the flight was landing, they were shooting off firecrackers, celebrating the 4th of July.
The ship was in San Diego. Everybody who was selected to go had to get off the ship and fly up to San Francisco or the Oakland Bay area where we lived so that we could get our uniforms and move out. We started off with “to each his own; just get there,” then we finally all got on the same flight and arrived in DC at the same time.
THE POST & EMAIL: How long was the flight?
CMC FA’AITA: I believe it was about five and a half hours.
THE POST & EMAIL: When you arrived in Washington, it must have felt odd to see fireworks after such a solemn time away.
CMC FA’AITA: Yes, it was pretty odd.
THE POST & EMAIL: Did you go right to Dover?
CMC FA’AITA: No, we got off the plane and rented a 15-passenger van to take our group and luggage to Laurel, MD to the hotel. It was a Holiday Inn or something similar. We still didn’t know when Capt. Nordeen’s flight was coming back from Greece. I remember saying, “Why are we so far-off in Laurel, MD?” But it was all because of the money, because it was the cheapest hotel that we could find at that point. We just needed to find a place to lay our heads down and go do what we were supposed to be doing.
THE POST & EMAIL: What was it like when the Chief of Naval Personnel greeted you and complimented you for being there?
CMC FA’AITA: It was very touching. I can still remember that so well. The place was crowded. I had a nice feeling of looking out and seeing the area decked with uniforms from all services. I thought, “Wow, how wonderful this is.” I was standing there, and a Marine Colonel walked up to me who was wearing epaulettes, which meant that he was an aide to somebody higher. He came in and asked me, “Master Chief, how are you doing? You look sharp.” We exchanged compliments and he said, “May I ask what your connection is to the deceased?” He thought I was part of an official party from somewhere. I told him who I was and that I was from the MARS and my commanding officer, Capt. Nordeen, was the brother to the deceased. He kind-of looked back and said, “Oh.” So I said, “We have a contingent from the ship here.” He went on to ask us, “Are you guys from Norfolk (VA)?” and I said, “No, sir, we’re not; the ship is home-ported in Oakland, CA, and that’s where we came from.”
He was shocked, I could tell, and he left, saying, “Excuse me for a second.” He walked away and returned a moment later, saying, “Master Chief, would you care to accompany me?” and I followed him. We walked up, and I looked up, and Adm. Edney, Chief of Naval Personnel, was standing there. The colonel introduced me and said, “Admiral, this is Master Chief…” He didn’t get my name, but I told him who I was. The admiral said, “I was told that you are from the MARS and you have a group of people here with you?” and I said, “Yes, sir. I am the Command Master Chief, and I have a contingent of the MARS crew who came in to support our CO.” And he said, “Oh, gosh, that is very thoughtful of you guys.” Then he said, “How were you able to get all the logistics and the money involved?” and I told him, “We used our MWR fund, as the crew is very supportive of the captain and wanted to send a group to support him here.” I mentioned about our wives who came in. He stood there and looked at me, and I know he was kind-of shocked, and maybe couldn’t believe that this was what we did as a command.
He said, “Master Chief, you did a great thing to support your CO. Please pass that on to your crew. Thank you.”
It was a short encounter, probably two or three minutes at the most; the admiral had a lot of things going on in his mind. We shook hands, and I left. I walked out of there, and as I turned my back toward the admiral – I can still feel it – I thought, “Gosh, I feel so good.” I walked over to tell my group what just happened. It was no sooner that I told my group about the admiral than there was the colonel again, who said, “Master Chief, I want to let you know that there is a place reserved for your group in the flight lane.” So we were right in the front when that plane pulled up.
THE POST & EMAIL: And neither the colonel nor anyone else knew that a MARS contingent would be there?
CMC FA’AITA: No, nobody knew that there was a group from the MARS coming in. We never thought of those things; all we thought of was to be there for the CO. When the colonel saw me, I was different that day because I was wearing full dress, meaning that I was wearing my large medals, and I think that caught the colonel’s attention. From that, that was when people started noticing. I heard people talking, saying, “Those guys are from the MARS; that’s where the captain is from.” They were seeing us as “Wow, those guys need to go first” in the flight lane.
THE POST & EMAIL: What was it like when Capt. Nordeen stepped off the plane?
CMC FA’AITA: It was one of those “Kodak” moments you won’t find again. The look in his eyes – it seemed when that door opened, he was focusing on us. I know he was surprised to see us there. We looked at him and he was standing there in his work clothes, his khakis, the same clothes in which he had left the ship. It was a very strange feeling, strange in that he seemed alone. That was one of our biggest things: to support that loneliness.
The first person I know who went on the aircraft was one of our First-Class there, Collins, to give Capt. Nordeen his uniform. He walked aboard, saluted him, handed him his uniform, saluted and returned to where we were standing, and Capt. Nordeen disappeared. He went and changed, then he came back out, and that’s when the body was lowered and the ceremony began from there.
It was one of those moments that happened once and stays with you forever.
THE POST & EMAIL: Of course, you couldn’t have known exactly what it was like for the captain while he was overseas.
CMC FA’AITA: That’s true. The flight was on a C-5, which is the largest aircraft the military has. It collected all of William Nordeen’s household effects, personal belongings, wife and young daughter. It was a huge undertaking. We ourselves were standing there, and it was the least we could do…. We wanted to tell him, “You’re not alone. We’re here to help and support.”
THE POST & EMAIL: Did Capt. Nordeen return to the MARS?
CMC FA’AITA: He came back. We all returned to the MARS. I think he took back command on July 8. This is what’s wonderful about the human brain: we were all at this sad, solemn ceremony, and immediately we switched back into fighting a war. We had to go back to our ship to make sure that we passed the inspection. REFTRA was still going on; it didn’t stop.
THE POST & EMAIL: How difficult was that adjustment?
CMC FA’AITA: It’s tough, but being in the Navy for a while, you’re conditioned to do that. Everybody is a father or mother, but when you walk aboard that ship, you put that away and concentrate on what’s in front of you. We wept, we grieved, and then we left that scene and jumped back into the next one. It’s tough, but it’s the real world.
THE POST & EMAIL: For how long did you stay on the MARS?
CMC FA’AITA: It was 1988 when this happened. I was transferred out of the ship in July 1989 with orders to the Naval Training Center in Orlando. I believe Capt. Nordeen left shortly after I did, maybe three months.
THE POST & EMAIL: Did he get a promotion?
He got a promotion in terms of command. Capt Nordeen was in what I considered the pipeline to become a flag officer. Of course, the MARS was considered his deep draft command, meaning that everybody who aspired to be a carrier captain have to have a deep draft command. Those guys are aviators, and an aviator will be in command of his ship. The next thing that comes to them as a captain of a ship would be an aircraft carrier. Capt. Nordeen got that, but he didn’t get to a carrier first; he went to the Pentagon first, I believe. It was a short stay there for him, and then he went to a carrier.
THE POST & EMAIL: Do you know when Capt. Nordeen retired?
CMC FA’AITA: I think he retired in 1994.
THE POST & EMAIL: Do you remember when you first heard that CDR Fitzpatrick had been brought up on charges?
CMC FA’AITA: I didn’t hear about it until the end of 1989. I think I heard about it in either late November or early December of that year, when I was in Orlando.
THE POST & EMAIL: What was your reaction when you heard about it?
CMC FA’AITA: When I first heard it, I was angry. I was angry because I knew very well that is not the character of CDR Fitzpatrick. Not at all. I had time to think about it, and I said, “Oh, my gosh…those guys finally found a way they could “brown” this. That was my reaction.
You see, the whole time I was on the MARS, we never really had a good relationship with our senior command, so the guys in Combat Logistics Group 1, and I don’t know why. Maybe, to some degree, because on the MARS, we move, we do things, and for some reason, the senior command of ours didn’t appreciate how we do things. We’re not doing anything illegal or wrong, but I think there is a little bit of jealously competition-rise, rank-wise, promotion, that type of thing. I think there was a little bit of jealousy and animosity going on. It happened all the time; every now and then, we’d get some staff member coming aboard saying, “We’re here to do this,” and I’d say, “Well, why?” They seemed to get their hands in where they shouldn’t be, and we, as MARS, disliked that. “If you can tell us what you want to do or want us to do, but it doesn’t mean that you have to tell us and then try to run it.” Sometimes they tried to micromanage what was going on. I remember that on my tour of the MARS, we thought, “We know that they’re our boss and we report to those guys, but they sometimes stick out like a sore thumb.”
When I first heard that Fitzpatrick is being accused of this, I said, “Unreal! Where did they come off with this?”
I was transferred out of the Naval Training Center in Orlando, Florida in 1991 and assigned to the same carrier Capt. Nordeen was the CO of. So I became the Command Master Chief of the aircraft carrier there in Philadelphia. It was during that time that I was summoned to the court-martial.
Mr. Fa’aita’s testimony at the court-martial will be the topic of the next interview.