The commanding officer of the cruiser Lake Erie fostered a hostile environment on the ship by tormenting crew members before she was relieved of duty in October, according to a Navy investigation obtained by Navy Times.
Capt. Danielle DeFant — who commanded the ship for roughly 14 months — was ousted following an investigation that began after three unnamed subordinates aired grievances about “toxic command climate and/or sexual discrimination.”
A Freedom of Information Act request filed by KPBS in San Diego first revealed details of the Navy’s investigation.
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The probe reveals instances where DeFant screamed at and berated subordinates — particularly the officers — creating a “toxic” situation.
“Captain DeFant’s behavior consisting of yelling, profanity, and public admonishments has contributed to a culture of fear onboard,” the investigation states.
In one incident, a conning officer responded to a question from DeFant that was meant for the officer of the deck, causing DeFant to grab him by the collar and reprimand him.
The investigator noted that, in response, DeFant pulled the officer close and whispered something along the lines of, “was I talking to you … You’re not the [OOD] … I was talking to the OOD … don’t ever interrupt me again.”
This excessive use of physical force was classified as battery per Article 128 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the investigation states.
One officer also complained of frequent bullying. Though DeFant admonished this officer often, she never put any performance issues into writing or suggested formal counseling to remedy the situation, according to the investigation.
“The excessive nature of Capt. DeFant’s reprimands exceeded a reasonable standard for correcting professional deficiencies or providing constructive feedback to improve performance,” the investigation notes. “In the opinion of the investigating officer, Capt. DeFant’s actions exceeded any proper military purpose and were belittling and humiliating.”
Smaller incidents also included unwarranted aggression from DeFant. It’s noted that she was verbose “even at a conversational level” and often resorted to profanity.
During a briefing with senior officers, DeFant, displeased about one officer’s spreadsheet, took it upon herself to make changes to the document. She then dismissed the other officers and screamed so loudly at the presenter that it carried well beyond the confines of the briefing room.
Investigators also noted that DeFant yelled at a junior officer, who mentioned seeing dolphins from the bridge, for not paying attention on duty.
“There is clear evidence that Captain DeFant’s recurrent, counterproductive behaviors have had adverse effects on subordinates and the command, and have had destructive effects on her crew,” the investigation states.
DeFant originally took command of the Lake Erie in July 2022. Rear Adm. Christopher Alexander, commander of Carrier Strike Group 9, took over her post in the wake of the firing.
She is currently assigned to the staff of Naval Surface Force Pacific.
Sarah Sicard is a Senior Editor with Military Times. She previously served as the Digitial Editor of Military Times and the Army Times Editor. Other work can be found at National Defense Magazine, Task & Purpose, and Defense News.
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