Fired San Diego Navy ship captain struck, bullied, screamed at crew, investigation finds
A San Diego-based guided-missile cruiser captain cultivated a “culture of fear” on the ship by bullying and screaming at her subordinate officers before being relieved of command in October, according to a Navy investigation.
Capt. Danielle DeFant was removed from command of the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Erie Oct. 12 due to what the Navy said at the time was a “loss of confidence in her ability to command.”
She was fired after a Navy investigation found DeFant cultivated a toxic work environment on the ship through a number of actions, some of which an investigator found amounted to bullying and battery under Navy regulations and military law.
KPBS obtained the command investigation report via the Freedom of Information Act.
The investigation says DeFant routinely berated officers in front of other members of the crew and, in other instances, inappropriately touched and struck subordinate officers on the bridge of the ship during operations.
Witnesses describe a captain that was quick to anger and who they'd hear yelling so loud it could be heard down passageways and from behind closed doors. The crew told the Navy's investigator they felt they had to "walk on eggshells" around their captain.
In one incident described in the report, the Lake Erie was conducting a moor to buoy operation off the San Diego coast. On the bridge, DeFant asked out loud “do I have safe bearing” and the ship’s conning officer responded that she did.
But DeFant was apparently speaking to another officer — the officer of the deck — not the conning officer who responded. Witnesses on the bridge said she then walked over to the conning officer, grabbed him by his arm or shirt collar and pulled him close to berate him.
“Was I talking to you?” witnesses recall DeFant asking the officer. She then said “I was talking to the OOD — don’t ever interrupt me again,” or words to that effect, the report says.
The incident left the officer “nearly in tears,” one witness said. According to the investigative report, the contact amounted to criminal battery under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
This officer was the target of much of DeFant’s ire, the investigation says.
Another time while the Lake Erie was at sea the officer pointed out some dolphins from the bridge. DeFant approached and began yelling at him to refocus his attention, the report says.
Another officer, a female, also found herself constantly in the captain’s crosshairs, according to the report.
The investigation found DeFant excessively reprimanded the officer and once brought her to tears. Despite the repeated reprimands, the investigation says the captain never issued formal counseling to the officer and never put the reprimands in writing.
The officer investigating the allegations wrote in their opinion the reprimands were “belittling and humiliating.”
DeFant’s treatment of these two officers amounted to bullying as defined by Navy regulations, the investigating officer wrote in the report.
In other incidents described in the report DeFant struck officers with her open hand, or the back of her hand, to get their attention.
During one such incident while the Lake Erie was coming into San Diego Bay, DeFant allegedly “smacked” a female officer on her collarbone and told her to “pay attention” when she struggled to hear another crew member on the loud bridge.
In another incident on the bridge involving the same female officer, DeFant allegedly pushed her aside “rather aggressively,” the investigation says.
The bulk of crew complaints about their captain described in the report relate to her habit of screaming at her subordinates — mostly other officers but sometimes also the chief petty officers who comprise the senior enlisted crew members on board.
The pattern of abusive language detailed in the investigation began not long after she assumed command of the Lake Erie in July 2022.
In a memo endorsing the investigation, the commander of Carrier Strike Group 9 — the one-star admiral serving as DeFant's operational commander — added more details about DeFant's time as captain.
A command climate survey was conducted on the Lake Erie from September to November 2022, just months after DeFant took command the previous July. A quarter of the crew responded.
The survey contained 70 negative comments about the commanding officer, mostly about her being quick to anger and yelling. DeFant received just nine positive comments.
But DeFant didn't tell her strike group commander about those negative responses when she debriefed him on the results of that survey in January 2023, the memo says.
Instead, DeFant wrote in a letter that the ship's overall climate was "healthy," due to leadership that was "transformational," and "supportive."
Through a Navy spokesperson DeFant declined to comment.
DeFant enlisted in the Navy in 1992 and received her commission in 1999. During her more than 30 years in the Navy, she served as chief engineer on a guided-missile cruiser and destroyer and as a Defense Fellow in the office of Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island.
The strike group commander wrote that he intended to take further administrative actions against DeFant over her conduct in command.
Cmdr. Arlo Abrahamson, a spokesperson for Naval Surface Forces in San Diego, where DeFant is now assigned, declined to say what those administrative actions were or confirm they were taken.
DeFant's conduct was familiar to one former Navy officer.
"I think if you speak to anyone in the surface Navy they've experienced this," said Thibaut Delloue, who spent five years as a surface warfare officer before leaving the Navy in 2020. "
Delloue served on two ships — a Hawaii-based destroyer and a San Diego-based littoral combat ship. In 2021 Delloue wrote about his experience with another "toxic" ship captain in the military news site The War Horse.
He said such leaders drive good sailors out of the Navy.
"I loved what I did — I loved being a mariner," Delloue said. "But the environment and some of the leaders I worked under were so ... ineffective and toxic ... to me, no matter how much I enjoyed the job, it wasn't worth working under those conditions.
The investigation found DeFant's conduct had a similar impact on at least three Lake Erie officers. One officer with more than 20 years in the Navy, a department head and a division officer each said their time on the Lake Erie was either the reason or a contributing reason for them leaving the service.