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What you don't know about Aaron Alexis' short and troubled Navy career

Sep. 19, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Aaron Alexis, top right, pictured with fellow shipmates of Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 46, then based at Naval Air Station Atlanta.
Aaron Alexis, top right, pictured with fellow shipmates of Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 46, then based at Naval Air Station Atlanta. (via Facebook)
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Alexis (via Facebook)

Aaron Alexis was an enigma to his shipmates: A below-average plane mechanic known at his squadron for being a loner who got in fights off-duty and felt he was persecuted by his bosses on base.

An aviation electrician’s mate third class, Alexis seemed troubled to others at Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 46. But other than a few flashes of temper and run-ins with authorities on and off base, there was no sense at the time that this sailor would eventually be capable of harboring the rage or mental illness that led him to storm a building on the Washington Navy Yard with a sawed-off shotgun, killing 12 civilians.

“I wouldn’t of thought that he would do what he has done,” said one former VR-46 senior enlisted leader, who said his jaw dropped when he saw Alexis’ picture, a sight that brought him back to a few of Alexis’ disciplinary review boards in the chief’s mess years ago. “Did I ever think he could go and kill people? No, never thought that.”

Navy records and the chief’s recollections paint a portrait of a troubled sailor who felt he was better than his job — fixing the squadron’s C-9 Skytrain jetliners — and whose run-ins and bad attitude gradually caused his supervisors to give up on him during his three years at VR-46. Alexis was punished twice during his four-year career, one of which was later overturned — possibly contributing to his sense of being persecuted by his superiors.

The records also suggest that this Reserve squadron, where Alexis spent the majority of his career as a full-time support sailor, struggled to flag him as someone whose mental health and anger issues made him a potential danger to others.

Alexis earned an “honorable” discharge in January, 2011, and his last evaluation concluded, “AE3 Alexis will be a valuable asset to any civilian organization,” according to a copy of his evals and personnel records that were obtained by Navy Times.

Alexis left the Navy under the explanation “reduction in force,” one of the thousands sent home as the Navy down-sized. His secret clearance, granted by the Navy, later helped him get a job with a subcontractor.

The Navy ordered a deep-dive on Alexis’ service record on Wednesday, in attempt to understand his performance and assess whether he should have held that security clearance. The motivation for his suicidal rampage remains unclear, even to his mother.

'Off-kilter'

Alexis enlisted on May 5, 2007. The next day he turned 28 — a decade older than most other recruits. His enlistment came a few years after his Seattle arrest for shooting out a car’s tires in a fit of rage. After boot camp and avionics training, the skinny kid from New York City checked into VR-46 and soon showed an attitude problem.

“He came into the Navy late,” said the chief petty officer, who asked for anonymity to discuss Alexis’ performance while investigations are ongoing. “He didn’t kind of get it. For the most part, he kind of felt as if he wasn’t getting a fair shake or that his superiors were giving him a hard time.”

The command where Alexis was assigned was one of the Navy’s 15 Reserve squadrons. The VR-46 Eagles, then based at Naval Air Station Atlanta, Ga., flew parts and personnel around the world on C-9 jets, converted MD-80 passenger planes crewed by eight. Alexis was part of the ground crew. He was responsible for ensuring the avionics and electrical systems worked aboard four planes. It was “the Delta Airlines of the military,” as the chief described it — a unit staffed by a few hundred reservists and active-duty sailors, like Alexis, who typically worked Monday thru Friday, 7:30 a.m. into mid-afternoon.

Alexis felt he was being burdened with scut work and he was soon reprimanded for it. He went to at least two disciplinary boards for failing to pay attention to his tasks and disrespecting those senior to him, according to the chief who attended them.

The single sailor also began to get in trouble in town. Six months after checking into the squadron, Alexis was thrown out of a nightclub in Georgia after causing damages late one Sunday morning in 2008. He began cursing, saying “F--- y’all, this is b--- s---,” according to the police report. Alexis spent a night or two in jail before being released on bail.

There were repercussions at his squadron. His commanding officer took him to mast for being absent that Monday without leave. Alexis was reduced to E-2 and forfeited half of his pay for two months, both of which would only take effect if he got in trouble again. This may have also jeopardized his enlistment bonus.

But Alexis appealed and won. He earned back his $8,000 enlistment bonus after the Bureau for Correction of Naval Records found “the existence of an injustice,” according to the Dec. 15, 2008, letter to Alexis.

He also went to a captain’s mast July 12, 2009. There is no record of the reason for this nonjudicial proceeding, which was later overturned and the records likely removed. But these episodes may have played into Alexis’ feeling of persecution at his command.

Later that year, Alexis earned his petty officer’s crow and there were signs, or at least the hope, that he was turning it around. He became the special project for his senior chief and the master chief, who was also from New York, and told Alexis that the Navy was much easier than where he’d come from if he followed the rules and worked hard. Other chiefs also tried to straighten him out.

“He came to the office a couple of times and I just took him over to tell him, ‘Hey man, you’re going to get this right or the Navy’s not going to be for you,” recalled the chief, who said he’d stressed to Alexis: “You just need to get your head out you’re a--.”

While physically fit, Alexis had a gloomy demeanor and kept to himself, which concerned his shipmates.

Asked if he’d seen any indications that he was mentally ill, the chief replied that many felt that there was something “off-kilter” about Alexis, adding: “The elevator probably didn’t go to the top.” He was generally seen as someone who just wasn’t disciplined enough to fit within the military, even the chain of command of a Reserve squadron. After his two masts, Alexis mostly kept to himself.

VR-46 relocated to Fort Worth, Texas, and Alexis began visiting a nearby Buddhist temple, according to media reports. His job performance remained flat, uninspired. His evals had some good notes — “strong professional knowledge” — but were mostly below-average.

His last review was loaded with double-edged comments. After nearly three years at VR-46, he was only a “competent mechanic who possesses the potential to achieve great things.” In this last evaluation, designed to help him get a job, he only scored a “promotable,” the lowest category above the so-called adverse ones.

The Veterans Affairs Department later gave him partial benefits for hearing loss and orthopedic issues; he was never diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or mental health issues.

Alexis’ service is now a sad footnote to VR-46’s 42-year history. The Reserve squadron was shuttered in 2012 because of budget cuts. Its planes were shipped to other squadrons.

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