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Marine squadron CO fired for bringing alcohol onto amphib

Aug. 22, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
USS Pelelu
Lt. Col. Ned Biehl, commanding officer of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 364, talks to his Marines on the amphibious assault ship Peleliu in December. Biehl was relieved of command about three months later. (Cpl. John Robbart III / Marine Corps)
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A lieutenant colonel who was relieved of his command as a Marine helicopter squadron leader in March transported alcohol onto a ship after he was told not to, according to a report detailing the Corps’ investigation into his conduct.

The 38-page document, obtained by Marine Corps Times through the Freedom of Information Act, examines Lt. Col. Ned Biehl’s decision to transport four bottles of liquor onto the amphibious assault ship Peleliu. He then stored the bottles in his state room, according to the documents. Biehl was the former commanding officer of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 364, based out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., which deployed with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit on Sept. 12.

He was relieved of command on March 12, six months into that deployment.

The investigation, dated March 28, is stripped of names other than Biehl’s. It includes interviews with Biehl, a major he allegedly asked to purchase alcohol for him and several witnesses. The investigating officer also included notes.

The lieutenant colonel confessed to the 15th MEU’s commanding officer as soon as it became apparent there was an investigation, the report states. Included in the documents was a signed statement in which Biehl wrote that he accepted full responsibility for the incident.

“Openly and honestly, I owned this from start to finish and certainly regret that a well-intentioned gesture put the command and MEU at risk,” Biehl wrote.

In a brief statement to Marine Corps Times, Biehl said “one event does not define a career of loyal and dedicated service.”

“I remain humble and confident in all that I do and it continues to be an honor and privilege to serve my country,” he wrote.

The report states that the day after the deployment began, Biehl requested permission to “embark a squadron liquor locker.” Email correspondence included in the report shows that the ship’s captain denied the request within about a day. Although not named in the redacted report, the commanding officer of the Peleliu is Capt. John D. Deehr.

Chief Communication Specialist Jeremy Wood, a spokesman for the Peleliu, said alcohol is not allowed to be personally stored or consumed by the crew or embarked personnel.

“This is in accordance with fleet and shipboard policies,” Wood said. “Additionally, the ship does not maintain a liquor locker for secured storage of liquor for any personnel aboard, outside of alcohol stored for official use.”

In January, Biehl asked a female major to purchase alcohol for a squadron social function, according to documents. He wrote that he did so “based on the very expensive costs of drinks in Salalah, Oman,” a stop at a previous port call.

Biehl wrote that he wanted to treat his field grade officers to some drinks when they were on liberty during a port call to Aqaba, Jordan. The ship made that stop on or about Feb. 23.

Biehl gave the major $120 to purchase the alcohol from a local market in Djibouti, the documents state. She then stored the four bottles she purchased — whiskey, vodka, scotch and rum — aboard Camp Lemonnier under a desk in the 15th MEU operations office, the report states.

The documents state that the ship’s captain had not reversed the initial decision to deny the liquor locker by the time Biehl transferred the four bottles of liquor aboard the ship.

According to interviews conducted by the investigating officer, at least three people — including a major and a master sergeant — reported the suspected transport of alcohol to the ship to senior members of the MEU’s chain of command. Multiple personnel knew of, or had heard about, the purchase and transport of the alcohol to the ship from discussions, second-hand accounts or rumors, the report states.

Additional personnel knew of it because it had been stored in the MEU’s operations office in Djibouti, according to documents.

The alcohol was transferred to Biehl on or around Jan. 22, when the major met him on the flightline in Djibouti. Biehl transported the liquor via one of his squadron’s helicopters and stored it in a drawer in a stateroom until the Peleliu docked in Jordan, the report states.

The major who purchased the alcohol wrote that “Biehl made it very clear that there would be no consumption of alcohol on the USS Peleliu.” She added that she believed there to be no malice in his intent nor was he conducting himself in a dishonest fashion.

“He has served the 15th MEU as a fantastic [aviation command element] commander and genuinely earned the trust and respect of all those he has [led],” the major said.

In his statement to Marine Corps Times, Biehl commended the work of the Marines and sailors he led.

“I am so proud of the Marines and sailors of the 15th MEU [aviation combat element] and all that they accomplished during my tenure as their commanding officer,” Biehl wrote. “We flew 30 [percent] more flight hours than any MEU in recent history with zero mishaps. The team accomplished every mission and task assigned to us. I remain extremely proud of the Purple Foxes and their professionalism in tackling each mission while supporting each other with honor and courage.”

Biehl, now assigned to the Marine Aircraft Group 39 headquarters staff at Camp Pendleton, is a Naval Academy graduate. He first assumed command of HMM-364 in December 2011.

Lt. Gen. John Toolan, commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, removed Biehl from command. The CO was one of at least eight Marine officers to be removed from command since mid-March.

Some of the reliefs have been tied to specific events, such as the death of eight Marines due to an accidental mortar explosion at a training range in Hawthorne, Nev. The reasons behind others have been less clear.

All followed a clear message from the commandant, Gen. Jim Amos, that leaders are considered responsible for all that happens — or doesn’t happen — on their watch.

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