NORFOLK, Va. — Raunchy comedy videos made by a high-ranking Navy commander and shown to the crew of an aircraft carrier three or four years ago have suddenly proved an embarrassment to the Pentagon that could blight the officer's career.
The videos, released Sunday by a newspaper in this Navy port city, feature Capt. Owen Honors using gay slurs, pantomiming masturbation and staging suggestive shower scenes. They were played on the shipwide television system during weekly movie night when Honors was executive officer, or second in command, of the USS Enterprise. Honors has since become commander of the ship.
Over the weekend, the Navy at first downplayed the videos as "humorous skits," then called them "not acceptable" and said they are under investigation.
Navy sources told NBC News that Honors "will be temporarily relieved of his command as early as Tuesday" while the investigation is taking place.
The videos' existence was not news to Navy higher-ups. In a statement to the Virginian-Pilot on Friday, the Navy said its leadership had put a stop to videos with "inappropriate content" on the Enterprise about four years ago.
"They were probably hoping it would all go away, and it didn't and now they have to say something," said Michael Corgan, a career Navy officer who now teaches at Boston University.
Corgan said Honors was guilty not only of an error in judgment but of failing to recognize a changing Navy culture. "Standards shift, of course, and trimming your sails is something you have to do if you're going to command people in the Navy," Corgan said. "This guy showed poor judgment."
The military has undergone a cultural shift in recent decades away from the loutish, frat-boy behavior that was exposed by the Tailhook scandal in 1991. It is now working to accommodate gays in its ranks with Congress' repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." Also, the Navy is opening its all-male submarine force to women this year.
Corgan said the repeal of don't ask, don't tell probably had nothing to do with the furor now: "What he did would have been dumb 30, 40 years ago."
Some sailors who served on the Enterprise have taken to Facebook to defend Honors and his video skits for providing a much-needed morale boost during long deployments at sea.
They portrayed Honors as a man who genuinely cared about his sailors and helped them blow off steam with corny and occasionally outrageous videos he concocted every week during six-month tours of duty in the Middle East at the height of the Iraq War. Maintaining morale is typically part of the XO's job.
"He was a caring professional and, yes, he has a sense of humor, but you need that on a boat," said Misty Davis, who served on the Enterprise from 2006 to 2010. The offending video was shown in 2007, and was a compilation of previous videos he had shown, she and others said.
"It's no worse than anything you'd see on `Saturday Night Live' or `The Family Guy,'" Davis said Monday. "I used to watch all of them. They were freaking hilarious."
The Enterprise is in port in Norfolk and is awaiting deployment.
The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk first reported on the videos on Saturday and posted a version Sunday on its website, minus offensive language, with the faces of some sailors blurred. It was unclear why the videos are just now surfacing.
The Pilot quoted unidentified crew members as saying they raised concerns aboard the ship about the videos when they aired but were brushed off.
The elaborately produced video posted by the newspaper employs editing tricks to show Honors having a conversation with two disguised versions of himself. It shows same-sex sailors, naked from the shoulders up, showering together while Honors looks on. In other segments, Honors mimics masturbation and uses a slur to refer to homosexuals.
In an introduction to the video, Honors says: "Over the years I've gotten several complaints about inappropriate material during these videos, never to me personally but, gutlessly, through other channels."
Since the story broke, hundreds of current and past Enterprise crew members have created Facebook accounts to support Honors. Another site with far fewer "friends" condemns him and calls for his resignation.
"Capt. Honors is a very professional person, but he knew when to have fun," Colorado native Jessica Zabawa wrote in an e-mail to the AP. She served on the Enterprise from 2007 to last September. "Capt. Honors knows when to be serious and when it's time to unwind."
Ryan Adams, now a student at Virginia Tech, left the Navy in 2009 after serving in 2006 and 2007 on the Enterprise. He said when sailors complained about food or living conditions, Honors heeded their complaints.
"Everyone I know who worked on the Enterprise is backing him 100 percent," said Adams. He called movie night on the Enterprise a "big event" that was usually enjoyed with pizza. "There was never a seat left in the mess," he said.
Every sailor interviewed said they had heard no complaints on board about Honors' skits.
The Navy put more emphasis on ethics and sexual harassment awareness after dozens of women complained they were groped and assaulted by drunken pilots at the 1991 convention in Las Vegas of the Tailhook Association, a group of naval aviators. Nearly 120 officers were implicated in various offenses.
The episode triggered the resignation of the Navy secretary and the early retirement of the chief of naval operations.
Ward Carroll, an aviator who flew with Honors, called the embattled officer "one of the good guys" but said he doesn't expect him to be the commander of the Enterprise when it deploys this month.
"I was disappointed, both professionally and personally, that he wantonly and with great prejudice walked across the lines that exist," said Carroll, who is now editor of Military.com. "I don't see there's any way he stays in command."
A telephone listing for Honors was not immediately available. No one answered the door at his home Monday. He is a 1983 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and was a naval aviator before holding command. He attended the U.S. Naval Fighter Weapons School, also known as Top Gun.
Adams, who worked in the Enterprise's nuclear reactor department, said he was especially grateful to Honors after he sought a speedy return to Virginia for his grandfather's funeral. Honors cut through the red tape and got Adams home.
"I just don't want a good man to go down like this," he said.
Steve Szkotak reported from Richmond, Va.
USS Enterprise official site: http://www.enterprise.navy.mil