Groton — In the end, Cmdr. Michael P. Ward II, who hoped to stay in the Navy even after faking his death as a means of ending a nine-month affair with a 23-year-old Virginia woman, likely will not have that option.
A Navy Board of Inquiry found on Friday that Ward should be separated from the Navy, given an honorable discharge and allowed to retire at his current rank. The board's recommendation will not be final, however, until it is approved by the Secretary of the Navy, who is expected to rule within 90 days.
Ward led the Groton-based USS Pittsburgh for just one week in August before he was relieved while the Navy investigated whether he had violated the military's criminal code.
During a day-long hearing in a courtroom at the Naval Submarine Base, two Navy judge advocate generals argued Ward's demonstrated lack of integrity discredited him and the service.
Ward's legal team asked the panel of three Navy captains to consider his more than two decades of service and many accolades, not just his recent bad acts.
At the end, Ward asked to make a statement, but not under oath so it would not be subject to cross-examination. He apologized to the Navy, the submarine force, the sailors he led and let down, the panel, and his wife and his three children, and said he is responsible for what transpired. His wife, Lisa, sat in the audience.
"I own every bit of this, but this is not who I am," he said, in asking the panel to grant him a second chance so he could "give 150 percent" as a staffer at the Pentagon or at a fleet headquarters overseas.
Ward said he made horrible decisions when he began a relationship with a woman he met on a dating website in October 2011 and then sent her an email in July from a fictitious co-worker, whom he called "Bob," in an effort to end the relationship. The email claimed that Ward had unexpectedly died.
He described barricading himself and his family in his Gales Ferry home after the news broke and local, national and international media outlets tried to contact him.
Friday was the first time Ward has spoken publicly about his affair. Wearing his service dress blue uniform, he sat at a table, flanked by lawyers. His submarine warfare insignia was noticeably absent from his uniform.
The Navy took his dolphins away for personal misconduct, which his counsel, Cmdr. Daniel Cimmino, said rarely, if ever, happens.
The Chesapeake, Va., woman, who is now 24, did not testify even though both sides requested it. She could have been compelled to testify at a trial by court martial, but not at a hearing where non-judicial punishment is imposed.
When reached by phone Friday night, she said she didn't want to relive what happened by attending the hearing. She said she has not had any contact with Ward.
"I almost feel bad for him," she said. "But given the situation and what he did to me, I have a really difficult time feeling bad."
Ward told her he was separated and that he worked in "special ops." He actually worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon at the time. They spoke over the phone and emailed through June.
After reading the email from "Bob," the woman drove with her sister and mother to Ward's house in Burke, Va., to pay her respects and learned from the new owner that Ward was alive and had moved to Connecticut to take command of a submarine.
She said on Friday that she was naïve at the time, and "whatever the Navy thought was the right thing to do is what they should have done." She does not want to be identified because she does not want to jeopardize her career, but she has provided The Day copies of text messages and emails from Ward, as well as photos.
The commander of Submarine Group Two determined at an admiral's mast that Ward violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The Board of Inquiry agreed that he violated the articles on failure to obey order or regulation, conduct unbecoming of an officer and adultery, but also found that Ward was not guilty of substandard performance of duty.
Many senior officers who commit misconduct choose to retire voluntarily, Cimmino said, but Ward wanted to remain in the service to give back to the Navy and make amends.
Three Navy captains, including Capt. Marc W. Denno, the base commander, and an Army colonel who worked with Ward, testified either in person or over the phone that while they did not condone Ward's behavior, they felt the Navy could find a place for him.
Capt. David Honabach, who was the commanding officer of the USS Jimmy Carter when Ward was the executive officer, said Ward did an "exceptional job" on the Jimmy Carter, the Navy invested in him, and he can "still be utilized and provide value for the Navy as a whole."
The Navy's lawyer, Lt. Griffin T. Farris, on the other hand, argued "there's no place in the Navy for a man like Cmdr. Ward," whose lies and deceit affected not just him, but other Navy commands as well.
Capt. Michael Savageaux, whom Ward succeeded on the Pittsburgh, spoke of being recalled to the submarine to lead it after Ward was relieved, which delayed his arrival at the Naval Submarine School for his next post as the director of training by about four months. The head of the school, Capt. David Roberts, said another officer had to do two jobs to fill the gap.
Cmdr. Tony Moore, who trained with Ward, said Ward used his name when he signed up for the dating website. He said he was embarrassed to be connected to the case but the effect on him was minimal.
Master Chief Chris Beauprez, the chief of the boat on the Pittsburgh, said he was lied to because he was contacted by the sister of Ward's girlfriend and when he told Ward, Ward said it was a case of mistaken identity.
After deliberating for nearly 90 minutes, Capt. Steven M. Benke, the panel's senior member, said the board voted for separation but they took Ward's many positive evaluations and awards into account when recommending that he be discharged honorably and allowed to retire as a commander, instead of being demoted as the government had requested, which could have cost him up to $750,000 in retirement benefits.
As the three captains were leaving the room, one of them, Capt. Darlene K. Grasdock, said to Ward, "Thank you for your service."
"Thank you for your time," Ward replied.
Ward put his hand on his wife's back and left. Ward said in his statement that if anything positive came out of this, it was that he and his wife are working to make their relationship stronger.