LAST FALL, AFTER 12 YEARS of distinguished service, a week after he was commended for saving taxpayers $80,000, four days before he was to undergo surgery for a potentially malignant tumor—and most important, not long after he asked for a civil hearing following an arrest for drunk driving—Petty Officer Nick D. Baker Jr. suddenly found himself standing outside the Bangor Trident submarine base with his duffel bag. He had been jettisoned from military service so fast that no one was able to prepare discharge papers or issue his pay in time.
"What happened?" Baker remembers thinking. He hoped to be a longtime Navy man like his father, grandfather, and five uncles. But on September 4, 1997, Nick Baker, 33, proud crew member on the nuclear submarine USS Ohio, was reluctantly heading home to Oklahoma. The Navy says he was discharged, without benefits, for misconduct.
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Today, Baker is fighting to clear his record and regain his benefits. He claims the Navy drummed up charges to cover command errors. He also thinks his case highlights bigger problems at the Kitsap County sub base, home to almost half the Trident sub fleet and a quarter of America's strategic warheads. Baker and others worry about the morale and discipline aboard boats equipped with 24 nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, and where commanders and their 154-man crews must live together undersea for months at a time.
According to the Bakers, and what little the Navy will say about the case, this is how Nick Baker Jr.'s career ended:
ON MAY 27 LAST YEAR, Baker was arrested for DUI following a minor off-base accident, and a few days later informed his superiors of the arrest. Base officials immediately opted to start discharge procedures (two years earlier, Baker had asked for and received treatment for drug use; conversely, he had in 1997 received his third straight Good Conduct medal and also felt he was wrongly accused of the DUI). Baker was told he'd be honorably discharged and receive full severance pay ($15,000) and benefits.
On May 30, Baker was asked to sign a Navy charge sheet for a formal hearing. He therein stated he planned to fight the still-pending civil charge (he has a lawyer); beating it could invalidate the Navy's discharge. On June 5, according to a memo from one of Baker's superiors to another, Navy Command felt Baker was making "an error in judgment" to fight the DUI and his dismissal. Says the memo: "Bottom line: We won't go to bat for him, and I consider him an imminent loss. We intend on letting him go through civilian trial and not taking him to NJP [non-judicial punishment, or captain's mast] for the DUI."
But on Friday, June 13, Baker was indeed told he would be taken to the mast for misconduct—drunken and reckless driving. On June 16, at the mast, he was told a second charge was being added: failure to obey an order or regulation—not informing command immediately of his arrest. (Baker says he told his superior at the first available moment following a holiday weekend.)
Baker was asked to initial a sheet with the amended charge. But the date was not changed—making it appear that the second charge had been there all along, when in fact it had been sprung on him at the hearing. Baker then was found guilty, reduced one level in rank to E-5, and fined one month's pay. He was unable to mount a mast defense or present witnesses because of the lack of notice of the added charge. Baker also was suffering from a thyroid affliction at the time, and Navy doctors had scheduled him for surgery on September 8.
IN JULY, THE NAVY MOVED to discharge him because of the mast's added charge, misconduct. Baker now was to be booted out cold—no pay, no benefits. He appealed both the mast and the discharge, claiming, among other things, that his rights were violated—and in fact the Navy did admit to an error. An officer of the USS Ohio "provided Petty Officer Baker with incorrect information regarding his benefits upon separation and incorrect guidance as to possible outcomes of the Administrative Separation Board," the Navy says in a statement. "Once the error was discovered, the ship's administrative separation process was discontinued and Petty Officer Baker was transferred" back to his sub, and later "properly" informed of his rights—then been tried and found guilty.
But why that sudden, blind-siding escalation of charges on June 13? The Bakers say the Navy was covering up its errors in rushing to judgment. No one had asked Baker earlier if he was fighting the DUI and, having made that misjudgment, they pushed on, in effect backdating the charging sheet to add a more serious offense and speedily oust him. "All this," says Baker Sr., "because a sailor chose to exercise his right to obtain a lawyer and ask for a court hearing in a civil case."
Baker lost his Navy appeal. On September 4, he was told he was being discharged that day. He pleaded for mercy—pointing out that he was having surgery in four days—and several doctors also urged command to wait. No deal.
Baker departed with a record that includes a commendation for developing electronic devices that recently saved the Navy $80,000 and another that could over years save the service millions. But he left without pay or even a thank-you. And though he had the tumor on his thyroid successfully removed a few months ago at a VA hospital, his father reported last week that a second tumor has been found. The Navy says such ailments are not linked tonuclear-sub service. Nick Sr. takes exception. "A possible radiation problem, no matter how small the possibility, has such far-reaching consequences that it is unconscionable for anyone in the Navy to not investigate," he says. "Their callous attitude to all this is simply mind-boggling."
Nick Baker Sr.'s homepage: complete details of his son's battle
Periscope Depth - all you want to know about undersea warfare
Trident sub base site, Bangor WA