Center for Strategic Communication

Cmdr. Michael P. Ward II salutes at an Aug. 3 ceremony before taking command of the U.S.S. Pittsburgh. Photo: Navy

Ending a romantic affair by faking your own death is usually a bad idea for — I don’t know — everyone. What’s an even worse idea? Faking your own death weeks before taking command of the Navy’s nuclear submarine U.S.S. Pittsburgh. Now you can read the Navy’s internal report that tells the sordid story.

On Sept. 5, Navy Cmdr. Michael P. Ward II was found guilty of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman, dereliction of duty and adultery (an offense in the uniformed services) after staging his death to deceive a younger lover with whom he was having an affair, according to a Navy investigative report (.pdf) obtained by Danger Room through a Freedom of Information Act request. As punishment, Ward received the punitive letter of reprimand and has been relegated to administrative duties at Naval Submarine Base New London, the home port of the Pittsburgh.

The Navy wouldn’t comment on whether or not Ward will be kicked out of the service. But the 43-year-old former submarine commander’s naval career is now more or less over. ”Commander Ward’s dishonesty and deception in developing, maintaining, and attempting to end his inappropriate relationship … were egregious and are not consistent with our Navy’s expectations of a commissioned officer,” Capt. Vernon Parks, the head of Submarine Development Squadron 12, wrote in the report.

The story, first reported by the Connecticut newspaper The Day, began last October, when Ward met a 23-year-old woman from Virginia — whose name was redacted from the report — on a dating website. They began to have an affair. Ward was married and had children, but didn’t reveal that to his mistress. At the time, Ward worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the two saw each other when he came down for classes at the Joint Forces Staff College. He also communicated with her over e-mail using the phony name “Tony Moore,” and falsely told her he was a special forces operator.

In June, Ward apparently wanted out of the affair. So he — in a striking further display of bad judgement — concocted another false identity, this time a supposed friend named “Bob,” and sent an e-mail telling his mistress that he had died, according to the report. ”He asked me to contact you if this ever happened,” the e-mail said, according to The Day. “I am extremely sorry to tell you that he is gone. We tried everything we could to save him. I cannot say more. I am sorry it has to be this way.”

Three days later, the woman drove from her home in Chesapeake to Ward’s house in Burke, Virginia to pay her respects. Instead, she was greeted by a new owner who told the family that Ward “had not actually died, but rather had moved to Connecticut to take command of a U.S. Navy submarine,” the report said.

Then, Ward learned his former lover was pregnant. He resumed contact — after he faked his death. In late July, Ward traveled to Washington D.C. for a medical appointment and met with her to discuss “how to handle the pregnancy.” She then lost the baby due to complications and the illicit relationship came to an end. But the ex-couple kept up contact which the Navy believes impaired “his ability to take full responsibility” for the sailors under his command.

The Navy didn’t find out, though, until a relative of Ward’s ex-mistress got in touch with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). Wad was then booted from his post one week after taking command of the Pittsburgh.

“Cmdr. Ward’s actions directly contradict Navy standards, especially the high standards of conduct expected of our commanding officers,” says Lt. Cmdr. Jennifer Cragg, a spokeswoman for the submarine group. ”Leaders who fail to meet these standards, like Cmdr. Ward, are removed from leadership positions and referred for appropriate disciplinary or administrative action.”

It’s an exceptionally awful story, and frankly bizarre. But it’s difficult to detect a trend in commander firings represented by Ward’s dismissal. Ward appears to be the seventeenth Navy commander relieved of duty in 2012, according to the Navy.  ”That’s less than one percent of the total personnel that we have serving in Navy commanding officer billets,” says Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello, a Navy spokesman. “The vast majority of our commanding officers serve with distinction.”

It’s more than the 13 commanders cashiered in all of 2010, but short of the 23 commanders fired last year and still down from a record high of 26 sacked officers in 2003. Among 2012′s cashiered commanders include officers fired for falsifying administrative records (Cmdr. Corrine Parker, April 16); “inappropriate personal behavior” (Capt. Jeffrey Riedel, program manager of the Littoral Combat ship program, January 27); and creating “a poor command climate” (Cmdr. Dennis Klein, May 1). In June, the Navy sacked Capt. Chuck Litchfield of the U.S.S. Essex amphibious assault ship after the ship collided with an oiler off the California coast.

Most of the firings, though, involved “personal misconduct,” with the true nature of the offenses left undefined. But Ward’s misconduct, we now know, was one of the more extreme cases — one that involved manipulating loves ones for the sake of a career now in tatters. It was also one of the most idiotic.