NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Navy Capt. Owen Honors was an officer with a bright future, a hotshot fighter jock who rose to become commander of one of the most storied ships in the fleet, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.
His undoing was a sense of humor that seemed a throwback to the Navy’s raucous, macho Tailhook days nearly two decades ago.
Honors, 49, was sacked as commander of the Enterprise on Tuesday for what the Navy called a “profound lack of good judgment and professionalism” in making and showing to his crew raunchy comic videos three or four years ago. In the videos, Honors used gay slurs and pantomimed masturbation.
Once on track to be an admiral, Honors has been reassigned to administrative duties. Military experts said his career is probably over.
“Unfortunately, when you’re an officer with that kind of responsibility and you make a big error in judgment, the price that you pay is often high, particularly if the mistake you made gets a lot of publicity,” said Stephen Saltzburg, general counsel of the National Institute of Military Justice and a law professor at George Washington University.
The son of a small-town police commissioner in upstate New York, Honors graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1983 and attended the U.S. Naval Fighter Weapons School, which produces the Navy’s Top Gun pilots. Honors flew 85 combat missions in three theaters, landing on 15 different carriers.
“Everybody regarded him as a great fighter pilot — a guy that you would want to enter a dogfight with,” said Ward Carroll, a former aviator who flew with Honors. Carroll was “Goose” to Honors’ “Maverick,” Carroll said, comparing himself and his friend to the main characters in the movie “Top Gun.”
With his boyish looks, his sandy blond hair and his first two initials, O.P., he was dubbed “Opie” by his comrades.
He was funny and irreverent but always professional, Carroll said. He said he doesn’t remember Honors ever using the homophobic words or expressing the anger seen in the videos.
“The guy on the video, I don’t recognize,” he said.
Honors and Carroll served in the 1990s during the Tailhook scandal, in which scores of naval pilots were accused of groping female officers and engaging in other loutish, frat-boy behavior at a Las Vegas convention in 1991. The scandal rocked the Navy and wrecked the careers of some of its top leaders. Carroll said he does not know whether Honors was at the convention.
“Anybody who stayed in the Navy after that, whether they obeyed the lines is one thing, but they certainly knew where the lines were,” Carroll said, which is why he said Honors’ conduct surprised him. “It is just vulgar. I’m at odds to figure out how Opie thought that was going to be all right.”
He added: “I don’t know how you emerge from that time and not understand where the lines are, not to mention assume positions of command along the way.”
Honors was the Enterprise’s executive officer, or No. 2 in command, when he made the videos. As XO, he was responsible for virtually every aspect of life on the ship, a virtual city with a population of nearly 6,000. His duties included everything from keeping the ship store stocked and the barber shop running to planning the daily routine and keeping up morale.
He was promoted to commander last May, taking over the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, a celebrated ship that saw action in Vietnam and took part in the quarantine of Cuba during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The Navy has about a dozen carriers, and each receives a new commander every three years. Those who are successful often are promoted to admiral.
Sailors aboard the ship have praised Honors’ leadership skills and described him as sensitive to the morale and well-being of his crew. He used humor to help the crew blow off steam after dangerous and sometimes monotonous duty that included extended tours of the Mideast during the Iraq War.
“Capt. Honors is a very professional person, but he knew when to have fun,” one of those who served on the Enterprise, Jessica Zabawa, 23, of Colorado, said in an e-mail, adding that most of those who worked under Honors would do it again.
She said that the videos were to help those on board unwind, and that she never felt offended. Most of the time, Honors used the videos to make fun of current events, even the Navy, she said.
Nevertheless, Carroll said Honors violated the trust — “sacrosanct and empirical” — that was bestowed upon him.
“It’s not somebody’s PC rules. It’s not some cabal’s agenda. These are the rules that are time-tested and printed in blood. When you violate those, you have to face the consequences,” Carroll said. “I feel very bad for him, but I think that at the end of the day, he knows he screwed up.”