The Army relieved a South Korea-based battalion commander in May after an investigation sparked by anonymous racism complaints revealed not Equal Opportunity violations but rather a “negative command climate” within the unit, according to a report Army Times obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.

The unit’s command sergeant major was officially reinstated following the investigation, but he was quickly replaced.

In December 2020, Army officials announced the command team of the 602nd Aviation Support Battalion, Lt. Col. Sean McBride and Command Sgt. Maj. Mario Salomone III, was “immediately” suspended when 8th Army “received allegations of racism, bigotry and discrimination in one of our formations via the Eighth Army Anonymous Assistance line.”

However, the ensuing Army Regulation 15-6 investigation found that McBride and Salomone did not violate the service’s Equal Opportunity policies.

“I am continuing to pursue options for appeal of this investigation and am humbled by and grateful for the outpouring of support I’ve received from those I’ve served with over the past 26 years,” McBride told Army Times when reached for comment. “More importantly, I’m proud of the soldiers of the Warhorse Battalion who continued to provide dedicated support to their fellow soldiers despite a global pandemic and challenging command climate on the Korean Peninsula. It was an honor to serve as their commander and I remain tremendously impressed by their accomplishments.”

But McBride’s rebuttal memo, which Army Times also obtained, expressed dismay at how senior leaders had announced the suspension following anonymous complaints that ultimately weren’t substantiated as EO violations.

“Commanders at echelon made public statements announcing my suspension from command and accusing me and CSM Mario Salomone of racism, bigotry, and discrimination on their official Twitter feeds,” McBride said in the memo. “Articles [about the suspension] define my online persona to this day. My professional and personal reputation has been destroyed [by unsubstantiated allegations].”

Salomone voiced similar frustrations in a phone interview with Army Times.

“If you were to Google my name, [the ‘racist’ label], that’s the first thing that comes up,” Salomone explained. “I feel that [the announcement of the suspension] was not the proper way to do it. We could have had some more privacy...for those allegations, that, as we [now] know, were not true.”

The 2nd Infantry Division said in an emailed statement that commanders and command sergeants major are “expected to uphold the highest standards and create and maintain a proper environment” in their units.

McBride was relieved by “Maj. Gen. [Steven] Gilland [the former division commander]...due to his lack of confidence in their ability to continue to command and lead the battalion,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Donald, the command’s spokesman, in a statement that did not name either soldier.

Salomone was reinstated following the investigation, Donald confirmed, despite the investigator recommending that he be relieved.

Donald declined to comment on any further administrative action against either leader, citing privacy regulations.

What the investigation found

The investigation’s findings and recommendations memorandum, completed on March 17, offers some detail, though Army officials cited a FOIA exemption for overseas troops to redact every single name in the document other than Gilland’s. Context clues and descriptions, however, permitted Army Times to match some investigative findings to either McBride or Salomone.

Army Times also obtained a redacted final findings memorandum by Gilland, which overrode some of the investigator’s findings and recommendations after considering appeals from the two leaders.

The investigating officer found that the command team “fostered a non-cohesive unit and created a negative command climate.”

Both leaders “can be described as having abrasive leadership styles, similar to what was previously acceptable in the Army,” the investigator said, adding that the leadership style was “old school.”

McBride, according to the investigator, displayed “abrasive language and erratic behavior” and did not provide “enough guidance, direction, or communication to his subordinates.” The investigator also found that McBride “made misleading or false statements as part of the investigation” and allowed Salomone to “overextend his reach” in interactions with junior officers.

Gilland ultimately disapproved the false statements finding after McBride’s appeal.

Both leaders, the investigator said, failed to embody qualities set forth in the service’s leadership doctrine.

“I’ve done a lot of self-reflection [about my leadership],” Salomone explained to Army Times. “I didn’t always have that cheerleader attitude…I don’t smile a lot, so some people mistake that for ‘old school’ and anger.”

Salomone also said the investigator did not interview any of his company first sergeants. The senior NCO, who is nearing medical retirement, said he ultimately “disagreed” with the finding.

“I’ve spent 26 years in the Army and this is how I’m walking away,” Salomone added.

The battalion commander’s appeal materials argued that the investigator’s adverse findings mostly relied on statements from soldiers who had previously received non-judicial punishment from him.

But the anonymously-alleged EO violations that sparked the investigation — and a parallel 8th Army investigation of the 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade, the 602nd ASB’s parent unit — were not substantiated or did not rise to the level of “race- or gender-based discrimination,” according to the memo.

Still, the investigator concluded that the command team could have given a “perception” of bias, “while in reality it was more likely...the result of a counterproductive leadership approach.”

Gilland, the division’s commanding general, disagreed and did not approve any overarching adverse findings related to racial bias or discrimination.

According to the investigator, one member of the command team “made unintended comments that were discriminatory based on national origin” when he told a subordinate that she “needed to make her soldier, who is an African male from Nigeria, stronger, because people who are from his background and/or country are not tough.”

The investigation does not clarify which of the two leaders made the comments due to the redactions.

The same member of the command team said that the majority of punishments handed down in the battalion “were [against] soldiers of color” and said in his sworn statement that they “needed to do a better job at addressing this problem,” the investigator said.

The other member of the command team “unprofessionally commented on a soldier’s national origin to another spouse,” according to the investigator. The redacted leader told a spouse that a soldier of Japanese origin who faced civilian charges from Korean authorities was “fucked” and “need[ed] not to be Japanese” if he wanted to receive a fair trial in the local courts.

South Korea and Japan have longstanding animosity dating back to the island nation’s colonization of the Korean peninsula and Japanese atrocities from World War II.

Gilland ultimately disapproved the Japanese national origin portion of the IO’s finding after considering all appeals. He instead faulted the leader for using unprofessional language and for discussing the issue with a subordinate’s spouse.

The investigating officer recommended that both McBride and Salomone be relieved. But in May, Gilland only relieved McBride, while reinstating Salomone.

But the senior NCO was immediately replaced after his reinstatement — the battalion held a ceremony in June to welcome a new command team.

A parallel investigation into the division’s aviation brigade found that its climate “is healthy and functioning effectively.”

Davis Winkie is a staff reporter covering the Army. He originally joined Military Times as a reporting intern in 2020. Before journalism, Davis worked as a military historian. He is also a human resources officer in the Army National Guard.

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