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Sub base's top enlisted man retires after incident at local bar

By Jennifer McDermott

Publication: The Day

Published 11/15/2012 12:00 AM
Updated 11/15/2012 12:45 PM
Navy investigation finds no wrongdoing by command master chief

The highest-ranking enlisted person at the Naval Submarine Base is retiring after an investigation into allegations that he drank for several hours at a club on the base and got into an altercation with his wife at a local bar.

The Navy's investigation resulted in no charges being brought against Command Master Chief Thomas Vatter and local police were never involved. But the base commander wrote Vatter a potentially career-ending letter and ordered a review of the way alcohol is served on base.

Vatter, however, said the investigation did not compromise his ability to serve in a leadership role. He said Wednesday that he was not relieved for misconduct, but instead chose to retire.

"My decision to retire was a personal decision," he said.

Capt. Marc W. Denno, the base commander, said the incident did not set a good example for junior sailors.

"That's probably why Command Master Chief Vatter decided it was in the best interest of everyone that he retire," he said. "We dealt with this quickly, at the appropriate level, and the effect was minimized."

According to a heavily redacted copy of the investigation, obtained by The Day through the Freedom of Information Act, Vatter drank seven or eight beers at a poker night May 18 at the Chief Petty Officers Club on the base. He and his wife then took a cab to the Wicked Pissa, the Gales Ferry bar formerly known as Legends Rock Bar.

While the names in the report were blanked out, witnesses told investigators that Vatter and his wife got into an argument and the couple began yelling and swearing at each other.

There are conflicting accounts about what happened next. One person said Vatter pushed his wife to the floor. Some witnesses said she swung at him and fell. Others who were there said they didn't see Vatter push her, and he contends that he did not.

Vatter walked home while his wife got a ride. The couple live in Gales Ferry, less than two miles from the bar.

A retired senior chief who was at the bar reported the incident. Investigators noted that he had alcohol incidents in his own past. Case workers with the Family Advocacy Program at the base found no evidence of spousal abuse.

The base command launched an inquiry in June to further review the facts and to determine whether alcohol was being served appropriately on the base.

In July, Vatter was accused of behaving inappropriately after drinking in another incident, this time on the base.

There are four venues that serve alcohol on the base: the Golf Pro Shop, the CPO club, the Officers Club and Reunions Pub. Denno said the servers followed proper protocols and met all training requirements. No changes were made.

But the inquiry did lead to an investigation into whether Vatter's actions at the bar in May violated the articles on "assault and disorderly conduct, drunkenness" in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the military's criminal code.

Vatter waived his rights and submitted a written statement: "Given how loud the bar was, I had to yell pretty loudly and forcefully to be heard so it's possible that someone could have seen us and thought we were yelling at each other," he wrote. "I was also probably swearing, saying things to the effect of, 'Let's get the (expletive redacted) out of here,' or '(expletive redacted) you.' I may have also put my hands up to try to stop (name redacted) punch but I'm not sure. I know that I didn't push (name redacted)."

On a scale of one to 10, where one is sober and 10 is passed-out drunk, Vatter, in the statement, rated his level of intoxication at between five and six. He said he has never had an alcohol-related incident or been accused of assault or domestic violence before.

A chief who was among several people assigned to the base who were interviewed by investigators recalled another argument at a poker night at the CPO club in February.

"It's embarrassing and we (chief petty officers) have told him so," the chief told investigators.

Vatter acknowledged that incident to investigators. Their findings regarding the July incident were redacted, but Vatter said he did not view it as alcohol-related.

Vatter said Wednesday that he was evaluated at the clinic on the base and was not found to have any substance abuse issues and that he and his wife are fine. They've spoken with counselors and made changes in their social life, he added.

"There was really nothing to resolve," Vatter said.

Denno said he wrote Vatter a "non-punitive letter of caution." Such a letter would not be included in Vatter's permanent record.

Denno said he didn't think Vatter would have been selected for another command master chief position after the letter. He said this was the only time he had written such a letter as the base commander.

"Your reputation is everything, and as you get higher in any organization, your reputation becomes more well known," he said Tuesday, later adding that the letter was "punishment enough" for a command master chief.

Vatter, 45, became the Sub Base command's senior enlisted advisor on July 5, 2011. He was expected to serve in that role for another year but submitted his retirement papers in August.

He joined the Navy in 1985 and served as chief of the boat on the USS Louisville, USS Virginia and USS Hartford. He was the command master chief of Submarine Development Squadron Twelve in 2006, where he was responsible for six submarine crews.

A retirement ceremony is planned for later this month. Vatter will use leave time and will retire officially in February.

After an interim replacement, Command Master Chief Jeremy D. Gladu succeeded Vatter.

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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