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The chilling effects of whistleblower retaliation

How often should government employees have to choose between saving lives and advancing their careers? You might think you should be able to do both, but as recent events remind us, many people find themselves torn by the decision. And they don’t all choose to save lives.

This is largely because of whistleblower retaliation, which is completely illegal but still far too common. And it may have played into the recent termination of a Navy captain who broke with the chain of command.

Whistleblower retaliation or a proper termination?

As Defense One noted, the Navy recently removed the captain of a nuclear aircraft carrier after he expressed his concerns about the health and lives of his crew. Several of them had been diagnosed with a contagious disease. The captain was concerned that keeping the ship’s 4,000 crew members in close quarters would hasten the spread of the disease and put more lives at risk.

What made the captain’s case particularly notable was that he had written a letter, expressing his concerns, to several officers outside his direct chain of command. This letter was, in turn, leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, and the newspaper published it.

Navy officials removed the captain shortly after the report, and the swiftness of this action caused some to question its legitimacy. As they noted:

  • No investigation was made prior to the termination
  • It took longer for the Navy to terminate other officers whose failures led to the deaths of their sailors

The captain’s appeal may have circumvented proper whistleblower procedures. But some officials noted that the fact he addressed people outside his chain of command suggested he felt his senior officers weren’t responding to his concerns.

Its dangerous to silence would-be whistleblowers

With so many eyes focused on the Navy’s response to the captain’s complaints, several officers noted how his removal had a chilling effect. As Defense One reported, the officials understood the message was, “don’t complain too much and if you embarrass us, we’re going to fire you.”

In the meantime, the crew aboard the ship continued to face risk of infection. As the Chronicle reports, when the captain first contacted his superior officers, only three of his crew had tested positive for the disease. But the sickness spread rapidly, and by the time the captain’s report made the news, somewhere between 150 and 200 of the crew had contracted the illness.

In cases such as this, the decision to reach outside the chain of command may directly affect the health and lives of thousands of sailors. No one should have to choose between saving those lives and saving their career.

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