Sgt. Maj. Jayme Winders alleges in an inspector general complaint that top Marine officials wanted him out of his job in Korea after he leveled accusations against his commanding general. (Marine Corps)
Regner (Marine Corps)
The Pentagon’s investigative agency is examining whether a senior enlisted Marine with 29 years of service was victimized by the Marine Corps’ top leaders after he accused a two-star general of wrongdoing.
In a complaint made to the Defense Department inspector general, Sgt. Maj. Jayme Winders alleges Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos, Lt. Gen. Terry Robling, Maj. Gen. Michael Regner and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett all had a role in forcing him out of his job as the senior enlisted adviser for Marine Corps Forces Korea, a two-star command in Seoul, to work instead for a colonel in Pensacola, Fla.
Winders told investigators that he was forced to leave his three-year assignment in Korea this summer, about a year ahead of schedule, as alleged payback for filing a separate complaint in May 2012 against Regner, then the top Marine officer in Korea and Winders’ direct supervisor.
Marine Corps Times independently obtained and reviewed dozens of emails and other documents that are part of the Defense Department IG’s investigation.
Investigators substantiated two allegations against Regner after Winders’ first complaint, according to a Navy Department memo to Winders dated Dec. 18, 2012. The memo does not specify what was substantiated, and officials at Marine Corps headquarters declined to elaborate, citing the open reprisal investigation.
Despite the IG’s findings, the commandant selected Regner this summer to serve as staff director at Marine Corps headquarters, an influential Pentagon position in which Regner works regularly with Amos. The Corps never acknowledged publicly that Regner was the subject of an IG investigation, or that allegations against him were substantiated.
Regner moved into this post because the officer originally selected for a similar role, Maj. Gen. Charles “Mark” Gurganus, became the subject of an investigation to determine whether senior Marine commanders were accountable in last year’s deadly attack on Camp Bastion, a major coalition base in Afghanistan. Amos announced Sept. 30 that the investigation found Gurganus and another senior officer, Maj. Gen. Gregg Sturdevant, did not take adequate security measures to keep the base safe. The commandant asked them both to retire, an extraordinarily uncommon measure.
Winders, meanwhile, was moved from Korea to Marine Aviation Training Support Group 21, which oversees education for Marines attending flight school in Pensacola. In an email to the Defense Department IG, the sergeant major makes it clear he is outraged. Amos and Barrett “ruined my career and my livelihood as well,” Winders said in an email to the Defense Department IG.
“I’m being demoted two steps in billet, and although I know I did nothing wrong, I feel great disgrace whenever anyone asks where I am going next,” he told Defense Department investigators.
Winders declined to be interviewed for this story. Documents show that he first complained about Regner in April 2012 when hecontacted an inspector general for Marine Corps Forces Pacific, according to his email traffic with both IG offices. In the following months, he alleged a variety of wrongdoing in the Marine Corps Forces Korea chain of command, singling out Regner and his deputy, Col. Jerome Driscoll. The sergeant major’s accusations included:
Demanding ‘personal servitude’: Winders alleged that Regner and his wife, Mary, repeatedly had rank-and-file Marines do unpaid work for them at their quarters in Korea. The jobs included unpacking their possessions when they arrived at the command, assembling a barbecue grill, laying carpets and setting up a sound system, Winders told investigators.
He also alleged that Marines were sent to the Regners’ home in late 2011 to put up Christmas decorations for a “parade of homes” sponsored by the Armed Forces Spouses Club.
“This all took place during and after duty hours,” he wrote in a May 10, 2012, email to the Marine Corps IG.
Doctoring meeting minutes: Winders alleged that the official record of a March 2012 meeting of the Marine Corps Forces Korea Good Neighbors Program was scrubbed to cover up Driscoll’s decision to solicit funds for an autism-awareness event before the committee authorized him to do so. Winders submitted to the Marine Corps IG what he contends were the initial and edited versions of the meeting minutes. The first version, prepared by a sergeant, shows that the committee did not agree on the issue, Winders told investigators. The second leaves that part out, he claimed.
Hiding gifts: Winders alleged that Regner received a gold crown replica worth $375 and a three-foot bottle of ginseng, both as gifts from retired Korean military officials. Thoughunclear if the items constituted a violation of the Defense Department’s complicated rules on gifts, Winders claims Driscoll ordered a Marine to hide them before an IG investigator arrived at Regner’s home.
Spending on retired brass: Retired Gen. Al Gray, the Corps’ 29th commandant, and his wife were the guests of honor at the major Marine Corps Birthday Ball in Korea in 2012, Winders told the IG. Under the leadership of Regner and Driscoll, the ball committee used $10,000 to upgrade the couple’s airline tickets, Winders told investigators. That money “came directly out of Marines’ pockets so a general officer and his wife could have extra leg room,” he said.
Gray could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman for him said that the former commandant’s typical policy is to pay for his own travel.
Drinking in the barracks: Winders alleged that Driscoll drank in the barracks with junior Marines to the point of passing out there.
Ignoring concerns: Winders told investigators that he did not contact the Marine Corps IG before first trying to address the alleged problems himself, according to his emails. “I had made efforts with Maj. Gen. Regner to correct many of the things prior to Sgt. being ordered to alter documents but he did not want to hear it,” Winders said in a June 6, 2013, email to the Pentagon IG.
Marine Corps IG personnel visited Korea multiple times in 2012 while investigating the command , email traffic between Winders and both the Marine Corps and Defense Department IGs shows. Last December, he was sent the Navy Department memo notifying him two undisclosed allegations against Regner were substantiated.
Another officer — identified by a Marine official with knowledge of the investigation as Driscoll — was cleared of all wrongdoing, according to another memo obtained by Marine Corps Times. Both memos are signed by C.E. Edwards, director of the Assistance and Investigation Division of the Marine Corps IG’s office.
Amos, Robling, Regner and Barrett would not comment for the story, according to their public affairs staff, who instead provided the following statement to Marine Corps Times:
“It would be inappropriate for the Marine Corps to comment on allegations specifically related to USMC or DoD IG complaints and investigations. Information provided to the IG is protected and handled according to strict policies and guidelines to include prohibitions on providing anyone with the status and/or action(s) taken on any allegation. This includes details pertaining to the processing of complaints. Once a file is closed, results may be requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).”
Barrett vs. Winders
Winders approachedthe Defense Department IG on May 25, 2013, according to his email traffic. In that complaint, he accused Amos, Robling, Regner and Barrett of reprisal, a form of punishment in which someone who reports wrongdoing to authorities faces professional fallout.
Winders told Defense Department investigators that life became difficult as the Marine Corps’ investigation in Korea played out in 2012. Trouble mushroomed, Winders contends, when he and Barrett, the Corps’ senior enlisted Marine, exchanged emails that July, about three months after Winders’ initial contact with the Marine Corps IG.
Their communication begins with Winders asking Barrett for details about his plans for visiting Korea, a trip Barrett and the commandant had scheduled for the following month. Winders adds that if Barrett was not planning to go to a dinner with the commandant while in Seoul, Winders and his wife, Lisa, were looking forward to having a meal with Barrett and his wife, Susan.
“Quite honestly,” Winders email reads, “Lisa and I both could use the opportunity to seek your counsel as this past year at MARFORK has been very challenging for both of us.”
Barrett responded saying he was “fine with a quiet dinner.” He added, however, that he was aware of problems in Korea.
“Shifting gears.... I heard through third persons that there was friction within senior leaderships [sic] relationship,” Barrett said. “I have not contacted you as this should have been initiated by you and it never came to fruition. I chose not to do this via email. I am concerned that I was not contacted...”
The two sergeants major agreed to speak later on the phone. When Barrett arrived in Korea the following month, in August 2012, he dropped a surprise: Barrett asked Winders if he was willing to take an assignment with Marine Corps Forces Central Command (Forward) in Bahrain, Winders told the Defense Department IG.
During their meeting in Seoul, the Corps’ top enlisted Marine explained to Winders that he thought the relationship between Regner and Winders was “fractured,” Winders told the IG. The position Barrett allegedly offered Winders was a one-star command — a demotion in billet, if not in rank — and meant living in Bahrain without his wife. Winders told investigators that he believes the commandant told Barrett to have that conversation with Winders, but said he had no proof that is true.
Four days after their meeting in Korea, on Aug. 16, 2012, Barrett and Winders spoke by phone to discuss the move, Winders told investigators. Barrett “insisted” that Winders take the assignment in Bahrain, Winders recalled to the IG. He allegedly told Barrett that he thought the pressure amounted to reprisal.
“He had knowledge of my protected communication and was critical of my using the [Marine Corps] IG to resolve an issue,” Winders said in a message to Defense Department investigators. “He did not understand the lengths I had went to resolve issues with my [commanding general] first before the command climate was such that I had nowhere else to turn.”
During their phone call, Barrett responded to Winders’ reprisal allegation by swearing at him, Winders told IG investigators. Barrett said Winders was not to use “that word” — reprisal — with him, and that Marine Corps headquarters was going to send a command climate survey team to Korea to see if changes needed to be made, Winders said in his message to the Defense Department IG.
“I took this as a threat and felt they were now out to get me,” Winders told investigators.
Days after that conversation with Barrett, Winders spoke to the sergeant major for Marine Corps Forces Pacific, Sgt. Maj. William Stables, Winders told investigators. Stables told Winders it would be wise to take the assignment in Bahrain, Winders said. Winders also recalled to investigators that Stables told him he had spoken to Robling, the three-star commanding general of Marine Corps Forces Pacific, who said Stables should let Winders know “the CMC likes Maj. Gen. Regner,” Winders later told investigators.
Asked to comment, Stables said in an email to Marine Corps Times that he takes allegations of misconduct seriously and considers it his responsibility to counsel and provide advice to all Marines. He suggested Winders struggled with his job as problems persisted in Korea.
“I absolutely recall having conversations with Sgt. Maj. Winders,” Stables said. “I distinctly recall the tone of those conversations. The conversations that took place between Sgt. Maj. Winders and I were very frank ones. They were conversations between two friends, and more importantly two seasoned Sgts. Maj. I had no problem looking a friend and fellow Sgt. Maj. in the eye and telling him that I questioned his judgment, and effectiveness under stress in his capacity as the Sgt. Maj. for Marine Forces Korea.”
Birthday ball altercation
Winders resisted leaving his assignment early, he told the IG. That put him in Seoul as the Marine Corps’ Nov. 10 birthday arrived. It was an eventful one.
Poor communication left several Marines without seats for the ball, Winders told investigators. In an email, Winders later told Stables and Barrett that he approached an officer who organized it, Lt. Col. Ty Simmons, and urged him to find room for them.
Simmons did not take it well, Winders recalled in an email to Stables, a message that was later forwarded to the Defense Department IG. The lieutenant colonel told Winders he was “full of sh--” and “began yelling,” Winders alleged. Winders said he tried to calm Simmons, and that when his efforts failed, he tried to walk away. The lieutenant colonel “grabbed me by the shoulder and spun me around facing him,” Winders’ email says. The two Marines were separated without any further incident, he said.
Simmons did not respond to an email requesting comment. In email traffic to Stables and Pentagon investigators, Winders said he was read his rights about a week afterward on suspicion he had violated three articles of the Uniform Code of Justice: 89 (disrespect to a commissioned officer), 90 (willfully disobeying a commissioned officer) and 134 (being drunk and disorderly).
Winders, writing all in capital letters, stressed to Stables in his email that he did not escalate the situation. He copied Barrett on the message.
“SgtMaj, AT NO TIME DID I EVER DISRESPECT THE LTCOL, I NEVER RAISED MY VOICE, NEVER USED FOUL LANGUAGE, NO DISPECTFUL TONE, NOTHING,” Winders’ email says. “I ALSO DID NOT WILLFULLY DISOBEY HIM. I WAS ASSERTING MYSELF TO TRY TO RECTIFY A HORRIBLE SITUATION WHERE MARINES DID NOT HAVE SEATS AT THEIR OWN BIRTHDAY BALL. I WAS ALSO NOT DRUNK AND DISORDERLY. THERE WAS NOTHING IN MY DEMEANOR THAT SUGGESTED ANY OF THESE THINGS.”
Winders was never charged with a crime, but Regner initiated a preliminary inquiry into what happened that night, Winders told investigators. It led to Robling, Regner’s commanding officer, issuing Winders a non-punitive letter of caution, the sergeant major told IG investigators in May. Robling also forced Winders to leave Korea two years into his three-year assignment, Winders said.
Simmons, meanwhile, was allowed to extend his assignment despite receiving a similar letter, Winders alleged.
A spokesman for Robling, Col. Brad Bartelt, said the general “takes very seriously his obligation to maintain a healthy command climate and good order and discipline within the forces assigned to him as commander.”
“Furthermore, as a general court-martial convening authority, he is well aware of his responsibilities to service members who have made protected communications to the inspector general,” Bartelt said. “Pursuant to regulations, any response or discussion relative to SgtMaj Winders would be inappropriate without a properly executed Privacy Act Waiver and an appropriate FOIA request.”
After the birthday ball, Winders was given options for his next duty station. A March 16 email from Stables to Winders shows he was presented with six, all working for colonels. Stables asked him to “pick three reasonable choices,” and said he would discuss them with Winders and forward his recommendation to Marine Corps headquarters for approval.
Winders responded saying his preferred option was Pensacola, where there was an opening in MATS-21. Winders told Stables in a March 18 email, later forward to Pentagon investigators, that Winders and his wife were considering moving to Florida upon retirement. He added that the Pensacola assignment “is the only place that even remotely makes me think going from an O-8 billet to an O-6 billet at this time is worth doing professionally and personally,” pointing out that he also would lose the special-duty assignment pay he rated in Korea.
Stables responded in an email the following day.
“Thanks for the note — I understand your feelings on all this but it, truly, is time to move forward wouldn’t you agree?” Stables’ email said. “I really want to help in making this a positive move for you and Lisa.”
Stables confirmed that he provided Winders with a list of available duty stations “upon learning that SgtMaj Winders was to be transferred.”
“After further consultation with SgtMaj Winders he made clear his desire to serve abroad, and eventually retire from, his current duty station in Pensacola, Fla,” Stables said. “I supported his request for those ... orders and I bent over backwards to get him to Pensacola. His current orders to MATSG-21 were far from a punishment. And in my view it is an honor to serve as a Marine Sergeant Major anywhere.”
Stables said he spoke to Winders prior to his departure from Korea, and that Winders thanked him for assisting with his orders to Pensacola, and that he was looking forward to the move.
“I am confident that SgtMaj Winders is serving well in his current assignment,” Stables said, “and I hope that he is keeping his nose above water.”
Winders joined the Corps in 1984. Prior to his tour in Korea, he served as the sergeant major for the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, out of Okinawa, Japan, and as the sergeant major for 12th Marine Corps Recruiting District, based in San Diego.
He deployed to Iraq twice, including in 2004 as the sergeant major for Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, which at the time was part of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit out of Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Winders said in his May reprisal complaint to the Pentagon IG that he came forward with his allegations after reading about another inspector general complaint filed in March by Maj. James Weirick. Weirick, a Marine attorney, alleged that the commandant, or others working on his behalf, manipulated the military justice process in an effort to ensure Marines were punished for an embarrassing war-zone video.
Weirick’s allegations have been the subject of ongoing investigative coverage by Marine Corps Times and other news organizations.
Winders told IG investigators that Weirick’s complaint made him realize he also has “an obligation to not let the things that have happened to me go unreported.”
“I too have seen my senior leaders circumvent the legal system and I have been the subject of reprisal by very senior officers and the most senior enlisted in the Corps,” Winders said in his May 25 reprisal complaint. “I know the feeling of fully knowing that you cannot trust your Commandant or Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps yet know they have your very future in their hands; I have felt that pressure and it is unfair.”
A spokesman for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Marine Maj. Jeffrey Pool, said the secretary has “complete faith in confidence” in the Corps’ senior leadership despite these ongoing IG investigations.
A spokeswoman for Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Cmdr. Tamara Lawrence, said he “has the utmost confidence” in Amos’ ability to lead the Corps.