The commander of the USS Charlotte was relieved of command after an investigation found serious problems aboard the Pearl Harbor-based submarine under his leadership.

The dismissal of Cmdr. Joseph Lautenslager on Tuesday came after a member of the Charlotte’s crew was found dead on March 15 of what the Navy called “an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound” while guarding the sub at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. The Naval Criminal Investigation Service opened an investigation into the sailor’s death.

Capt. Michael Majewski, commander of Submarine Squadron 7, also launched a command investigation into the Charlotte that “revealed leadership and command climate problems” that led to “a loss of confidence” in Lautenslager’s ability to serve as commanding officer, according to a press release sent Wednesday.

Cmdr. Joseph Lautenslager (center) and his team are shown here doing a “shout out” video to their namesake city last year. The Navy has relieved Lautenslager of his command of the USS Charlotte. Courtesy: U.S. Navy

Lautenslager took command of the Charlotte in March 2019. Cmdr. Christopher Hedrick, deputy commander of Submarine Squadron 7, has assumed temporary command of the Charlotte until the Navy finds a permanent replacement.

“Commanding officers are held to a very high standard,” the Navy said. “Their position requires the utmost responsibility, reliability and leadership, and the Navy holds them accountable in cases where they fall short of those standards.”

Earlier this month, the Navy also relieved Cmdr. Kathryn Dawley, the commander of the Pearl Harbor-based guided missile destroyer USS Hopper, due “to a loss of confidence in her leadership.” Navy officials said low morale played a significant role in the decision to relieve Dawley.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the military has increasingly wrestled with morale problems as commanders and troops weigh virus mitigation strategies with ongoing operations around the globe, putting unique strains on the force.

A spate of apparent suicides also has put the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Submarine Force under increased scrutiny.

The sailor found dead while guarding the Charlotte on March 15 was Petty Officer 3rd Class Manuel Julian. Earlier this month, Lt. Cmdr. Russell Cruz, a senior Supply Corps officer assigned to the Naval Submarine Support Center at Pearl Harbor, took his own life at the Kahala Hotel & Resort during a standoff with police.

Navy officials promised reforms after Gabriel Antonio Romero, a 22-year-old sailor assigned to the attack submarine USS Columbia, killed two civilian workers and wounded another before shooting himself during guard duty at Pearl Harbor in December 2019.

An investigation didn’t definitively determine Romero’s motive, but found serious mental health concerns among the crew and expressed deep concerns about how the sub’s leadership treated such issues. Authors of that investigation found “the organizational culture tolerated a below-average command climate.”

Over the summer the Pentagon also acknowledged that it had documented a 20% increase in suicides and a spike in violence among troops since the start of the coronavirus pandemic as service members and their families juggled the combined pressures of stay home orders and continued training and deployments.

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