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THE DESTRUCTION OF PETTY OFFICER 1ST CLASS DUANE ECKERMAN

Cancel culture was alive and well in the 1980’s U.S. Navy. At the time, it was known as “zero tolerance”, especially for problems like substance abuse. The navy supported zero tolerance policies because it supported their view of all service members as expendable. Take the case of Navy Petty Officer Duane A. Eckerman.

At the time we served together on the USS Point Loma, Eckerman’s rating was AG (Aerographer’s Mate, meteorology), and he was working on changing his rate to Quartermaster (QM), within the Navigation department. I stood watches with him on the bridge numerous times, and I remember him as a fine sailor and Quartermaster of the Watch, keeping track of the ship’s course on the charts. He died in 2014 at the age of 61, for unknown reasons.

In January 1984 (how Orwellian), Eckerman was all set to re-enlist for another 4 years, having already served 12 years. The re-enlistment paperwork, which included glowing evaluations, were already written and signed. But, something very odd happened that changed his life forever. It was Super Bowl Sunday, and Eckerman decided to go to a game party at the home of some civilian friends in the San Diego area. Many other Point Loma officers and crew members did the same at other locations. It was the Washington Redskins vs. the L.A. Raiders at Tampa Bay Stadium. While the ship was docked temporarily at Long Beach Naval Shipyard, some of the ship’s officers could be found watching the game at the base officers’ club. Officers witnessed Captain Donald J. O’Shea drinking 3 bottles of champagne that afternoon before crawling back to his room at the BOQ (base officer quarters) across the street. Raiders won, 38-9.

Back on the ship about two days later, SUBPAC (Submarine Force, Pacific Fleet), announced another random drug urinalysis test, based on a number from 0-9, and if the last number of your SSN matched, it was your turn to be tested. Eckerman’s number came up that day. A few days later, the lab results came back with Eckerman as “positive” for THC, a shock to everyone including him. He said he confronted the hosts of the civilian party he attended, and they admitted that they put marijuana in the brownies he ate, and didn’t tell him about it. I believed him because he had too much to lose by getting caught. He had a wife and two children, he was motivated to succeed in a new rating, clearly career oriented, and showed far more maturity than his juniors.

Captain O’Shea wouldn’t listen to any of his story. The USS Point Loma was already under fire for having the highest number of “positive” drug test results within SUBPAC (see previous posts). O’Shea was embarrassed by the high drug use problem, but had no idea how to manage or reduce the problem, which was, in a large part, due to crew boredom and a limited underway schedule. Crew members previously caught in drug tests were typically junior seamen, and lower ranking petty officers. Eckerman was the first of the ship’s 1st class petty officers to test positive for THC.

The age of “zero tolerance” policies was emerging against all forms of alleged misconduct, feeding the leadership’s belief that all subordinates are easily replaced. That led to high crew turnover, which in turn lowered unit cohesion. Now, no one was allowed to make any mistakes and survive. The navy won’t admit it, but it has a two tiered justice system, favoring officers with high connections, who can escape significant punishment. In an unprecedented action, O’Shea forced Eckerman out of the navy, despite the fact that it was his first offense in 12 years of service, and despite the recommendations of officers that supported him. No second chance, even though junior enlisteds were previously given second chances up until then. You might want to blame Eckerman for his choice of friends at the time. But, most civilians didn’t have to worry about drug testing in their jobs, and apparently had no understanding or concern for military standards.

Some people think that just because a senior officer is a “mustang” (officer with prior enlisted service), like O’Shea, he “cares more” about his troops than an officer who was not prior enlisted. But, that is just not true. O’Shea put himself first, every step of the way. Just ask anyone of his five abandoned biological children.

Petty Officer 1st Eckerman was only one of several victims of Captain O’Shea’s leadership failures. RIP Duane Eckerman. You did not deserve what O’Shea did to you.

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