On October 1, 2022, Yahoo News reported about toxic jet fuel polluting drinking water on the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. “The Navy said it found only ‘traces’ of jet fuel in the water on the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz.” Navy leaders initially stated that there was no jet fuel contamination in the potable water tanks and denied sailors medical treatment, but then changed their story when sailors texted pictures of the water. Later tests confirmed it was in the water (JP-5 hydrocarbons).1 The symptoms the sailor described (vomiting, stomach upset, rashes, and coughing) are all symptoms of hydrocarbon toxicity if ingested, breathed, or exposed to on skin.
While the investigation is ongoing and more information will surely come to light, the ‘teachable moment’ here is integrity. Public trust in the military and its leaders is in steady decline. Surveys show it decreased from 70% (2018) to 56% (March 2021)2 and is surely lower now after the Afghanistan disaster. The military was once one of the most respected and trusted institutions. Many recent issues have contributed to the damaged reputation. 20 years of lies culminated in the disaster in Kabul in August 2021, and even then senior officers continue to double down on the charade. Just last week, the West Point Superintendent, LTG Steve Gilland corrected alumni at a reunion and insisted that Afghanistan was ‘not a disaster.’ Service academy generals have denied repeatedly that the cadets are being indoctrinated in critical race theory CRT). West Point refused to answer Freedom of Information Act requests and it took Judicial Watch to successfully sue for the release of the evidence. In the end, over 500 pages of CRT indoctrination materials were released that showed West Point was pushing CRT. At the same alumni dinner last week LTG Gilland continued to deny CRT indoctrination despite the court ordered release of evidence to the contrary.
In the 1994 film Clear and Present Danger, Admiral James Greer (played by James Earl Jones) said the following on his deathbed to Jack Ryan (played by Alec Baldwin):
“You took an oath, if you recall, when you first came to work for me. And I don't mean to the National Security Advisor of the United States, I mean to his boss... and I don't mean the President. You gave your word to his boss: you gave your word to the people of the United States. Your word is who you are.”
Once one of the most revered professions in American culture, the military is losing its credibility. To be clear, the issue does not seem to with the vast majority of honorably serving members but instead with the senior leadership. Flag officers are supposed to set the ethical and moral tone of the military and their guidance should come from the Service Academies. The motives for flag officers’ moral decline is not clear, but likely a mixture of weakness, corruption, selfishness, and a desire for promotion at all costs.
Whether there is any scandal in how the JP-5 got into the ship’s drinking water, the takeaway is that the ship’s leadership continued recent flag officer traditions of being less than truthful with initial statements made concerning the event. Servicemembers under their commands should be able to trust their leaders to make the best decisions for the unit and the mission. Integrity is vital. Officers should give orders that are followed because their charges trust them to make the right decisions. Officer’s words should never have to be questioned. As Spike Lee famously said, “Do the right thing.” The public demands and deserves a military that is truthful in issues such as readiness, fiscal responsibility, and the status of missions. America entrusts its loved ones to flag officers/leaders with the understanding that their honor and integrity are still more than just meaningless words.
To the young servicemembers – it is unfortunate that you must often look to someone other than your senior leader for ethical mentoring. Be aware of the shortcomings of today’s generation of senior leaders so that when you time comes to lead, you do it better.
John Hughes, MD
USMA Class of 1996
3rd Generation West Pointer
4 combat tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan
1Epstein, Jake. “The US Navy said ‘traces’ of jet fuel were found in the water on the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. A sailor says the problem was way worse.” Yahoonews.com 1 October 2022
2Shane, Leo. “Trust in the Military is Dropping Significantly, New Survey Suggests.” Military Times. 10 March 2021.