An impromptu round of “The Newlywed Game,” a Hollywood-themed party, at least two overpriced hotel room bills, and a tandem skydiving jump with a civilian were among the allegations of misconduct levied against the former commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment.
The allegations against Col. Christopher Vanek were outlined in an Army Regulation 15-6 investigation. Army Times obtained the report via the Freedom of Information Act.
Vanek was reprimanded as a result of the investigation. An Army official who spoke on background to Army Times said Vanek received a general officer letter of reprimand, which can often be a career killer.
Vanek relinquished command of the 75th Ranger Regiment, the Army’s elite raid force, in June. He is now the assistant chief of staff for U.S. Africa Command.
He declined requests, sent through Army public affairs, to speak to Army Times.
Vanek, a seasoned combat veteran with multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, assumed command of the storied 75th Ranger Regiment in July 2013. A career infantryman, Vanek served multiple assignments with the regiment. He also served in Joint Special Operations Command and commanded a battalion in the 10th Mountain Division, leading them on a 15-month deployment to Iraq. He also commanded 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.
The allegations included in the 15-6 report, which was heavily redacted before it was released to Army Times, span August 2013 through September 2014.
A risqué game, played during a regimental hail and farewell on Aug. 29, 2013.
During the event, hosted by Vanek, one attendee, whose name is redacted, came up with the idea to play “The Newlywed Game,” and the couples in attendance were asked to participate, according to the report.
Several attendees created the game questions, and the game was played just like on the TV game show, with couples separated by gender so they could answer the questions without their partner knowing their answers.
One of the questions asked players “if making whoopee were equated to frequent flyer miles, how far would you have traveled?” The answer options were Phenix City, Alabama, which is near Fort Benning, Georgia; California; or Afghanistan.
Another question asked players to describe their husband in bed. The answer options were private, specialist, general or rear-detachment commander, according to the report.
In response to another question that asked how players met their spouse and the identity of his last girlfriend, one female player, whose name is redacted, wrote “Columbus, local, dirty whore,” according to the report.
“Many” witnesses “stated that they thought the questions were inappropriate or made them uncomfortable, and they would not have asked those questions, according to the report.
Someone in the report, whose name is redacted but is believed to be Vanek, told the investigator he didn’t pay attention to the game because the catered food had run out, and he was busy getting more food for the guests. When he tried to review the questions used in the game, an attendee, whose name is redacted, “told him that he could not see them,” according to the report.
Someone, whose name was redacted but is believed to be Vanek, said that is someone had told him the questions were inappropriate or if they were offended, “he would have taken responsibility and stopped the game,” the report states.
“[Redacted] accepted responsibility and acknowledged that he would not allow a similar event to occur again,” according to the report. “A good leader does not wait until someone approaches him and tells him that they are offended before taking action.”
The report goes on: “It is disappointing that with all the senior NCOs and officers present as the event was ongoing, no one spoke up to acknowledge that what was happening was inappropriate.”
Inappropriate costumes worn to another hail and farewell, this one in September 2014 at the Golf Course Clubhouse on Fort Benning.
The theme was “Hollywood,” and many attendees dressed in costume.
Two attendees, whose names are redacted but are identified as officers, dressed as the Tom Cruise character in the movie “Risky Business,” wearing sunglasses, a dress shirt and white socks. They were not wearing pants or shoes, according to the report. One of the men wore “two pairs of white underwear briefs,” while the other wore “gray bicycling shorts.”
Both men believed their costumes were no more revealing than what is worn in an underwear ad or at a public swimming pool, according to the report. One of the men said his wife helped him put together his costume.
Someone at the event told the investigator she was bothered to see one of the men “in his underwear," the report states. Another “stated that [redacted] placed one foot up on the chair next to him like a ‘Captain Morgan’ advertisement and put his crotch in the [sergeant major’s] face. He added that [redacted] did the same to others. [Redacted] acknowledged that although it was done in a joking manner, it was absolutely inappropriate especially because spouses were present,” according to the report.
Citing the Ranger Standards “Blue Book,” the investigator wrote that “walking around in one’s underwear in public, especially as an officer and one of the senior members of the regimental headquarters staff, cannot be anything but unacceptable.”
The report also calls out Vanek for not taking action when he saw the two officers’ costumes.
“It should not be the responsibility of an offended guest to voice disapproval before the leadership exercises prudent judgment and takes action,” the report states. “[Redacted] stated that if given the opportunity again, he would have immediately made the two officers put on their pants. He also states that if observed, he would never allow photos of the two officers taken from the event to be posted in public within the workplace.”
A game of beer pong at a third hail and farewell event, this one in May 2014.
During this event, a group of staff officers and at least one spouse played a game of beer pong, described in the report as “a drinking game designed to hasten inebriation.” The game was not part of the planned official event of the hail and farewell, nor was it advertised to be part of the night’s activities, according to the report.
The report states that when staff officers approached someone, whose name is redacted but is believed to be Vanek, about playing beer pong, “he disapproved it as an official event. [Redacted] stated that he had no reason to think the game would occur. [Redacted] had already left the hail and farewell when his staff began to play beer pong,” the report states.
The investigator’s findings are redacted, so it’s not publicly known what action he recommended or whether Vanek was held responsible for the drinking game.
A tandem jump during military freefall training in July 2014 at DeLand, Florida.
The training, from July 5-12, was held at Skydive DeLand, a commercially-run skydive vendor, according to the report. About 19 troops were scheduled to participate in the training, which cost about $110,110 in all, according to the report. This included aircraft time and travel and temporary duty costs.
About halfway through the weeklong training, one of the military personnel conducted a tandem jump with a female civilian. The civilian used a borrowed rig, and the soldier with whom she jumped paid $71 to Skydive DeLand, the report states.
Nine members of the 75th Ranger Regiment jumped on the same pass as the tandem jump, and the aircraft and lift costs were charged to the regiment, according to the report.
The military member on the tandem jump told the investigating officer he wasn’t aware he was violating any Army policies based on assurances from the 75th Ranger Regiment’s “acknowledged expert” for military freefall training, according to the report. In the soldier’s mind, the jump was considered a civilian jump because “he took steps he believed made it a civilian jump,” according to the report. This includes borrowing the equipment, paying the $71 fee to Skydive Deland, and having the civilian jumper sign a waiver.
The tandem jump violated a U.S. Special Operations Command directive that calls for “no mixing of civilian and military jumpers during the jump operation. A lift can have a mix of military and civilian jumpers on board the aircraft, but during a pass involving military members there will be no civilian jumpers, nor will civilian jump equipment be utilized by military members.”
Free passes to NASCAR events.
The report highlights “multiple occasions” when someone, presumably Vanek, attended NASCAR events using free passes. “Some other Rangers” also attended a number of NASCAR events using tickets provided by a former member of the 75th Ranger Regiment.
Attendance at the events raised questions about whether they violated Defense Department rules about receiving unsolicited gifts. The investigation found at least some of the tickets were provided by a former public affairs officer for U.S. Army Special Operations Command who now worked for NASCAR public relations.
Overpriced hotel bills.
The report outlines at least two incidents where Vanek went on work trips but did not stay on post or at a hotel that fell within the maximum lodging rates.
One trip was to Fort Hunter-Liggett, California, for a multilateral airborne training exercise. Eight months later, in August 2014, 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment had a live-fire exercise at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia, and the colonel stayed at the Mansion on Forsyth Park, a property run by Marriott Hotels International, in Savannah, Georgia.
“On at least a few occasions, [redacted] stayed at a hotel that was above the max lodging rate,” according to the report.
The officer obtained Actual Expense Allowance adjustment that was within permissible thresholds, but they were obtained after the travel was complete, the report states. In addition, the AEA memo did not meet USASOC requirements, which call for, among other documentation, evidence that the traveler contacted at least three lodging facilities to try to find a room within the per diem allowance.
The report also criticized the 75th Ranger Regiment comptroller officer for having “problems with its Defense Travel System and Government Travel Charge Card programs since at least 2012.”
An inspection by the USASOC Policy Integration and Accounting Division left inspectors “highly concerned with the management and functionality of the Travel Program, including the lack of oversight, management and training of subordinate units,” according to the report.
Heavily redacted report
There are other incidents in the 15-6, including a July 2014 officer professional development trip to climb Mount Rainier in Washington and a September 2014 incident at the USASOC commander’s conference, but the report received by Army Times is so heavily redacted that it is impossible to determine what happened or what the investigator found.
Army Times is appealing the redactions in the report through the office of the Army general counsel, the service's chief lawyer.
The Army follows established FOIA guidelines and current Defense Department practices, said Lt. Col. Jennifer Johnson, an Army spokeswoman.
“For FOIA purposes, the Army normally treats officers in the grade of O-7 or above, to include the civilian equivalent, as ‘high-level’ government officials (public figures), while all other Army officers or employees are normally treated as ‘low-level’ Army personnel (non-public figures),” Johnson said in a statement to Army Times.
As a result, Vanek, as a colonel, has a “heightened expectation of privacy,” Johnson said.
“Generally speaking, even when the existence of an investigation on an individual is publicly known, it is not considered of sufficient public interest to outweigh the privacy interest of the employee,” she said.
An investigator with the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight is not so sure.
“Ultimately, the way to look at this is whether it serves the public interest,” said Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project, which is part of POGO’s Center for Defense Information. “In this case, it’s hard to say definitively without knowing what the actual findings are."
Smithberger said if the command had "serious problems" it would be in the public interest to know the identify of the commander. It would be reasonable to redact a person’s name, however, if they were investigated but the allegations were determined to be baseless or untrue, she said.
“Generally, my impression [of the report] is that it’s unfortunate that they used the [privacy] redaction authority so aggressively because it’s hard to make sense of the report,” Smithberger said. “It’s important to remember that all of these agencies are supposed to be interpreting FOIA with a presumption of openness, and this would not be an example of that policy being successfully executed.”
Officials declined to say, citing privacy exemptions, if other soldiers were reprimanded or disciplined as a result of the 15-6 investigation.
The report did find a "good" command climate within the 75th Ranger Regiment, but determined the climate "internal to the regimental headquarters staff is a little concerning."
"There is an organizational rift between the noncommissioned officers and the officers in the regimental headquarters on the vision of the 75th Ranger Regiment, [operations and personnel tempo], and training methodology," the report states.
The investigation, directed by Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland, then the commanding general of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, recommended a series of follow-up actions for the 75th Ranger Regiment. They include:
• A command climate survey across the organization.
• Improvements in the regimental finance manager’s office.
• Additional training in areas such as sexual assault and harassment prevention and the Army Substance Abuse Program.
• A separate probe into the 75th Ranger Regiment’s military freefall program.
“The 75th Ranger Regiment completed the command climate survey and all of the additional training recommended in the report,” USASOC public affairs said in a statement to Army Times. “USASOC is satisfied with the actions taken by the 75th Ranger Regiment.”
The findings from the command climate survey are exempt from release, and information on the regiment’s freefall investigation cannot be released because it is classified, according to USASOC.
Vanek submitted a request for consideration to the commanding general of USASOC in hopes of removing the reprimand from his record, officials said. No further action was taken, USASOC public affairs said in its statement.