The Army general who was removed from his post commanding a medical headquarters at Joint Base Lewis-McChord was a “brilliant” leader who lost support from staff by using a “harsh” management style in a time of military downsizing, according to documents obtained by The News Tribune.
Brig. Gen. John Cho, 52, was suspended from his command last year after several complaints were filed against him. But the Army said in a statement Wednesday that Cho didn’t lose the confidence of his superior officers and was never formally relieved of his command. The statement doesn’t say why he wasn’t given the job back.
Documents show Cho adjusted his leadership style after he was told about the complaints, but not soon enough for the Army to keep him in charge of the Western Regional Medical Command, which oversees health care in 20 states.
Cho “failed at times to treat some of his senior staff personnel with dignity and respect,” concluded an Army Inspector General report that led to Cho’s removal from command last month.
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Cho took charge of the headquarters in October 2013 as the Army moved into a period of reforms in medical care.
A looming reorganization could lead to a reduction in staff at the JBLM command while the Army moves much of its portfolio to Hawaii and Texas. Cho also was asked to fold Navy-run hospitals in the Puget Sound into the system anchored by Madigan Army Medical Center at JBLM.
In the face of those changes, some of Cho’s subordinates perceived him as too quick to publicly criticize staff. A majority of his employees who replied to a survey about him last summer indicated that his leadership created a poor work environment.
“One day he’s this nice guy and someone to admire, a different day he flies off the handle at a small data point, then carries the public (discipline) beyond what is necessary,” one staff member told the Inspector General.
Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho suspended Cho’s command in September. The Army last month announced it would not return him to his position at the JBLM medical headquarters. He’s moving to a position at Army Medical Command in Virginia.
The Army on Wednesday released a statement stressing that Cho was not relieved from command for cause. Instead, unidentified senior officers chose not to restore his command after his suspension.
“After careful review of the investigation concerning (Brig. Gen.) Cho, the substantiated findings did not warrant his relief from command. However, because of the situation and in the best interests of the officer and the command, his superiors determined that a reassignment, not a relief, was most appropriate,” said Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Alayne Conway.
“Under Army command policy, a commander may be relieved for cause when a superior authority loses confidence in his or her ability to command due to misconduct, poor judgment, or similar reasons. In this case, no superior commander determined that they had lost confidence in his ability to command,” she said.
Cho is one of nine senior Army medical officers who have been suspended or relieved from command positions since 2012. Eight were colonels in charge of individual Army hospitals. The Army has 36 hospitals led by colonels.
Cho, a cardiothoracic surgeon, was a rising star in Army medicine when he took command of the JBLM headquarters. The 1984 West Point graduate was a newly promoted one-star general given a position normally held by an officer with a higher rank. He also was the first active-duty soldier of Korean descent to be promoted to general.
He declined to comment for this story. The Inspector General report summarized two interviews he gave to investigators in which he expressed surprise at how subordinates interpreted his leadership. He said he tried to highlight positive news and said he wanted to “demonstrate patience” because he understood that major changes to Army medicine would take time.
The Inspector General wrote that Cho’s “testimony indicated a lack of self awareness of how his words and reactions at times served to demean and belittle subordinates.”
Several moments caught the Inspector General’s attention, including one when Cho was frustrated that two subordinates canceled an inspection of a medical unit for wounded and sick soldiers at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri without first telling Cho. He reportedly used foul language in dressing down the officers.
Cho also reportedly was hard on his chief of staff, saying in public meetings that the officer was not up to the job. “Chief, do you need me to do your job? Do you need me to be the chief of staff?”
An employee said Cho was “burning the staff up.” Others called him “caustic,” “borderline abusive” and “condescending.”
The Inspector General report revealed conflicted feelings about Cho. For instance, one of the high-ranking subordinates Cho criticized in a public meeting did not take offense to Cho’s manners. The colonel told the Inspector General that Cho’s tone was “not overly bad.” Others said they “strongly support” Cho.
Cho remained popular among active-duty leaders at JBLM during the six months he spent in limbo while the Army investigated complaints against him. Last month, I Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza hosted a ceremony to thank Cho for his service at JBLM.
Army hospitals tend to have complicated leadership dynamics because of their civilian-military staff mix. This can create tension between military personnel who tend to change jobs every two to three years and civilians who stay at one hospital indefinitely.
Cho’s leadership concerned civilian employees, who told the Inspector General they felt pressure to work extra hours. Dozens of them indicated they feared losing their jobs to a pending Army reorganization.
The Inspector General also investigated two other complaints against Cho. One was entirely redacted in the report The News Tribune obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The final charge accused Cho of failing to carry out a required survey of his staff members last year asking them about his leadership. On advice from a senior enlisted soldier, Cho contended he didn’t believe he had to initiate the survey. The Inspector General concluded Cho was not exempt from the standard.
The Army launched its own survey last June after complaints surfaced.