By Sam Fellman – Staff Writer – 09/04/2012 – 1:25 p | Hits: 1080
By nightfall June 3, what began as an officer’s move-in bash at her new apartment in Bahrain’s Floating City was getting out of hand. Partiers had been drinking all day Friday. And the party had spilled from her patio onto rafts in the canal alongside.
Then, something startled her guests, a mix of colleagues from her command, friends and neighbors: The host stripped off her bikini top.
The party — while not an official command function — included enlisted, junior officers, and even the commanding officer of her 100-member logistics task force based in Bahrain. The sight of her topless changed the party’s dynamic. Men drew closer to leer. Another woman removed her top. And a man took off his pants, exposing himself. While guests stared, all three went skinny-dipping.
That’s when the commodore jumped in.
Capt. David Geisler, commodore of the logistics task force responsible for supplying all naval assets in 5th Fleet, who had spent the afternoon drinking and floating in an inner tube on the canal, removed his bathing suit and swam nude, witnesses said.
His participation in this and other such parties would lead to his firing later in the year, according to an investigation into his and others’ behavior in Bahrain.
Because the canal is lined with condominiums on both sides, their frolic was in “plain view” of neighbors and passersby on the street, investigators later concluded, noting that Geisler had been the most senior officer at the party.
When the party crossed the line from rowdy to lewd, some left. Neighbors, upset with the late-night commotion, complained afterward to the host’s landlord, as well as housing officials at the naval base. But none of the partygoers reported anything to higher-ups.
This became the first of many parties at the junior officer’s Floating City apartment over the next five months, where the combination of binge drinking, mingling of officers and enlisted members, and public nudity ran afoul of both 5th Fleet liberty standards and cultural norms in Bahrain, an Islamic country where women commonly wear modest dress and head coverings, and public displays of affection as mundane as holding hands are frowned upon.
“We are in a region where our behavior is repeatedly stressed to us from the minute we get off the plane,” one officer, who left the party disgusted after seeing Geisler swim nude, told investigators in a sworn statement. “But seeing these rules openly violated by the chain of command makes me wonder how seriously it is taken.”
Geisler, a very tall, lanky 45-year-old surface warfare officer who had previously commanded the frigate John L. Hall, became a fixture at these parties. When planning parties and outings, junior officers at his command sought him out. They referred to him among themselves — and occasionally, to him directly — by his nickname, “Hoss.”
Hoss reciprocated. He emailed them on his government computer account to arrange parties. He texted them on his official BlackBerry to meet up at clubs and bars.
One junior officer boasted to her peer that “Capt. Geisler stops by her office every Thursday to see what the plans are for the weekend,” the peer told investigators in a sworn statement.
Resentment grew at headquarters. Tales from these outings and parties — where partiers dressed up for themed events such as Toga Party, Wear-a-Tie Night and Lingerie Party — circulated around the cubicles at Task Force 53, where it was already hard to keep conversations private. Officers began to feel that an “in-crowd” had formed around Geisler and grew suspicious he was choosing his buddies for trips with him, bestowing them with awards and bailing them out when they got in trouble.
Sailors saw a double standard — they heard tales of their commodore at wild parties and rumors that he and his “crew” had been out past curfew, transgressions for which they’d be punished.
“I clearly get the feeling that our enlisted folks are beginning to resent the officer[s] because there is a perception that officers can do whatever they want,” one officer said in a sworn statement, adding that this is why they had avoided the parties. “It is clearly creating an environment of favoritism.”
Staff members who knew of the indiscretions were reluctant to report them because of Geisler’s authority and the fact that some of his top aides, likely to get wind of any complaint, were party regulars. If he came forward, one officer said, his expectation was: “I will get crushed.”
Another officer who saw Geisler swim naked at the June 3 party remarked later to a friend that if the commodore wasn’t careful, he’d be one of the next COs fired, according to interview notes compiled by an investigator.
That’s exactly what happened — five months later. Geisler was relieved in mid-October by Vice Adm. Mark Fox, 5th Fleet commander, becoming the 19th of 22 COs fired in 2011. Geisler received nonjudicial punishment a month later for failure to obey regulations and for conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman. In addition, three other officers were reprimanded: Two received administrative counseling, and one received nonjudicial punishment and was recommended for removal from the command, a 5th Fleet spokeswoman said.
Geisler has been reassigned to Naval Surface Force Atlantic in Norfolk, Va., according to Navy Personnel Command. He did not respond to repeated calls and email requests for comment.
DISPUTED FACTS, BOOZE BAN
The investigation into Geisler’s relief, dated Oct. 31, was obtained by Navy Times via a Freedom of Information Act request. Many names and titles were redacted from their response for privacy reasons.
Some facts remain in dispute. The host of the party — whose name, like many others, has been redacted — insisted to investigators that she had never gone topless. When investigators asked the other woman at the party if she’d removed her top, she invoked her right to remain silent. Geisler also invoked his right to remain silent during three interviews with investigators.
The investigation paints a picture of a normally staid logistics task force whose morale and authority were increasingly warped by a commodore who liked to party hard — and the conspicuous absence of warnings by senior officers who knew, or should have known, what was going on.
Geisler’s firing — at least the fifth that year in which a CO’s personal alcohol abuse played a primary role — prompted changes. Two weeks after Geisler’s admiral’s mast, 5th Fleet prohibited all drinking on- and off-base from midnight until 6 a.m., every day of the week. This includes bars and restaurants, as well as public spaces like parks and streets — and canals.
Navy leaders also have cited the service’s culture of alcohol abuse as a factor in similar incidents of out-of-control behavior by senior officers, and they want to stamp it out.
Curbing alcohol abuse is the centerpiece of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’ latest initiative. As part of it, all duty section members at all Navy commands later this year will have to blow into a breath-testing device the morning they report for duty. There also will also be random breath tests for others.
More scrutiny of alcohol abuse could save careers — and lives, Mabus said in an interview in early March, when the initiative was announced, noting that alcohol use contributed to 13 firings last year. “That’s pretty substantial,” he added.
Meanwhile, relations between Bahrain and the U.S. have come under more tension since last year, when the island nation’s royal government cracked down on Arab Spring protesters and human rights groups began pressing Washington to distance itself from the Al Khalifa ruling family. In this climate, 5th Fleet has ordered its personnel to stay clear of the recurring demonstrations in an effort to avoid incidents that could further inflame an already tense situation.
Fifth Fleet is “unaware of any host-nation impact” from the indecent parties, Lt. Rebecca Rebarich, a spokeswoman for the fleet, said in an emailed reply to questions. Nonetheless, 5th Fleet stressed that they’ve handled the incident quickly and seriously.
“Liberty is a mission in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility,” Fox said in a statement. “Any incident involving alcohol can jeopardize our mission readiness and affect our regional relationships. We must ensure that we are good ambassadors of the United States and the U.S. Navy.”
‘IS HOSS INVITED?’
Exactly a week after the first June party, Geisler and others were back at the corner apartment in the Floating City. As before, the party began after brunch. Alcohol flowed. Revelers took to the canal.
Some jumped off a low-lying bridge over the canal, which abutted the female officer’s apartment. Partiers also climbed aboard a 31-foot-long boat tied up nearby, which belonged to a Belgian couple.
A week earlier, partiers jumped onboard the boat without permission and left a mess of drink stains, trash and cigarette butts, along with an inflated mattress. This time, when she spotted them onboard, the neighbor ran out with the boat keys and ordered them off.
As she and her family moved the boat to another mooring, “We were hooted at and some of the guests used abusive language,” the neighbor said in a formal complaint, one of two filed.
These complaints — one of them titled “Deviant behavior and abusive language” — came to the attention of housing officials at Naval Support Activity Bahrain. The complaints detailed public drunkenness by Navy personnel on the canal and on the patio outside the apartment. The Belgian neighbors told the female officer twice that her behavior was unacceptable “within Amwaj Floating City, as we are still in an Islamic country and we should respect the rules and traditions of the country by showing some moderation,” according to the complaint. At the end of it, the neighbor added: “I do not expect an apology, but at least no repetition of the above.”
A housing official at NSA Bahrain confronted the female officer. She acknowledged she’d thrown a party, but maintained that she thought the boat belonged to her landlord. Nonetheless, she apologized and said she wouldn’t have any more parties. And that, the housing official later told investigators, seemed to be the end of it.
There was a party at the Floating City apartment the weekend of July 4, one witness said. Later that month, the officers began planning a farewell party for officers leaving the command.
“Is Hoss invited?” one of them asked in an email on their Navy account.
The response: “He’s on there!”
As usual, the party started at Flat 4 after brunch July 29, the last Friday before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, during which stricter attire rules were in effect. There was a barbecue that afternoon. Geisler swam. Some partiers climbed down a ladder into the water. Others walked through a gate and jumped off the bridge nearby — despite the water being only 6½ feet deep.
A female guest, believed to be a British expat, swam topless. And once again, Geisler was the senior person.
Geisler, who was born in Kokomo, Ind., joined the Navy in 1988 after graduating from the University of Rochester with a bachelor’s in psychology, according to his official bio. During his 24-year career, he served as executive officer on the frigate Taylor and later deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan, as part of the mission to counter improvised explosive devices. Geisler, who holds a National War College master’s degree and has received two Defense Meritorious Service Medals and three Meritorious Service Medals as well as many other personal and campaign awards, took command of Task Force 53 in January 2011.
The parties began to blend together. One guest, who had attended the first party June 3, attended one in mid-August. “I still felt uncomfortable with the mix of junior and senior personnel and the overly familiar feel of the whole thing,” the officer said in a statement sworn Oct. 17.
Because the commodore usually showed up at these parties, younger officers outside the party clique felt pressure to attend.
At the end of September, the female officer threw another party at her apartment. This time it was lingerie-themed. Guests wore pajamas or silky lingerie. Many simply wore underwear. Geisler wore a bathrobe and what appeared to be either a swimsuit or boxers; one Marine at the party later remembered them as “black silk shorts.”
It was common for partiers to swim in their underwear, this Marine and other witnesses said. Another guest called the amount of drinking that day “beyond responsible.”
‘EVERYONE IS SCARED TO DEATH’
Not surprisingly, tales of the lingerie party didn’t stay under wraps for long. And these stories fed jealousies.
When one of Geisler’s junior officer buddies received a Navy Commendation Medal, other officers saw it as evidence of favoritism. Similarly, when Geisler invited the female officer who’d hosted the parties on an official four-day trip to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, other officers were suspicious; it wasn’t clear to them why she needed to go.
Around the same time, one officer who’d had legitimate business in the U.A.E. initially had his travel request shot down by the commodore. This, combined with the quick approval for the female officer, baffled the officer and those who knew about the denial.
“There was a wide perception that the U.A.E. trip was intended to be an opportunity for Capt. Geisler’s favorites to party in Dubai,” according to the investigation, but it concluded the accusation was baseless: “Notwithstanding that perception, all three officers on the trip worked each day they were in U.A.E.”
Nonetheless, the junior officers on the trip came back to regale their peers in the office with partying stories. Meanwhile, enlisted sailors in the office started to resent Geisler and his party pals.
One CTF 53 officer reported: “I have overheard many of our hardworking enlisted folks grumbling among themselves saying, ‘So [name redacted] parties with the commodore and leaves with a [redacted] endorsement and I am facing [Perform to Serve] boards where I may not get a retirement after 12 years of hard work.’ The first classes are not happy with a commodore that can do whatever he wants while they are facing PTS.”
Neither Geisler nor his deputy, Capt. Jesus Cantu, appeared to be approachable about these types of command climate problems, one former ship’s executive officer on CTF 53 staff told investigators.
Reporting concerns was fraught with risk, staff members felt. Both the legal officer and the command’s equal opportunity manager frequently attended the parties, one staff officer said.
“Everyone is scared to death to say anything,” he wrote in an email, which alerted officials to the misconduct for the first time. “The last people anyone wants to make enemies with are the commodore, the JAG and the CMEO.”
Nonetheless, this officer explained that he had decided to come forward out of concerns for the morale of the enlisted he served alongside.
“The issue is known throughout the ranks from our junior enlisted folks through our O-5 department heads,” he said in the Oct. 14 email sent to Rear Adm. Charles Gaouette, deputy commander of Naval Forces Central Command. “So, I decided that it was time to be a leader and bring the issue up to the proper people.”
Gaouette launched an investigation the following day, despite that being a Saturday, the last day of a weekend in Bahrain. Investigators seized computer and telephone records and started interviewing witnesses, including Geisler. Two days later, Fox had seen enough evidence to remove Geisler. The investigation, headed by Capt. Richard Rogers, continued for two more weeks.
Investigators concluded Geisler, along with a male officer and two female officers, had violated Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for indecent exposure. However, none of them was punished for indecent exposure, according to 5th Fleet.
As part of the investigation, the female officer who hosted the parties was also found to have had three run-ins with shore patrol in Bahrain over the past six months. Because of her, a chief was added to the weekend night shore patrol, the report said.
She also made a false official statement when she told investigators that she hadn’t gone topless at the June 3 party, investigators concluded. She was later punished at admiral’s mast for failure to obey regulations, conduct unbecoming, impeding shore patrol and making a false official statement — although it isn’t clear for which statement she was reprimanded. Her detachment for cause is pending, 5th Fleet said.
All three officers were lieutenants and below, 5th Fleet said. They declined to release any more details about her or the two other unnamed officers, citing privacy concerns.
While hardly exonerating Geisler, investigators determined many of the most egregious allegations were unfounded. Geisler hadn’t used his influence to get a favored officer an unwarranted medal, they found. The official trip to Dubai was ruled proper. He hadn’t let his favorites off the hook for punishment. He hadn’t violated curfew.
When Cantu, the deputy who said he hadn’t attended or known of any of the Floating City parties, got wind of the allegations, he confronted Geisler and asked him if he had had sex with any staff members. Geisler responded that he hadn’t, according to interview notes compiled by investigators.
“There is no evidence indicating that Capt. Geisler had an inappropriate sexual relationship,” the investigation concluded.
“Nevertheless, by his attendance at [redacted name]’s parties and his after-hours socializing with her, [redacted name] and others, Capt. Geisler permitted the appearance of favoritism and impropriety to be established.”