A U.S. Navy commander was relieved of his command of an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer last week after he sought to turn a captured AK-47 rifle into a commemorative plaque for his crew.
Cmdr. Frank Azzarello was relieved of his command of USS Forrest Sherman (DDG 98), according to a U.S. Navy statement issued Wednesday. While the Navy statement only says Azzarello was relieved “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command” his lawyer has said the real reason he lost his command was for his decision to incorporate a captured rifle into a commemorative plaque for his crew.
In a statement to The Virginian Pilot, attorney Tim Parlatore said his client, Azzarello, was relieved over the plaque.
In November 2019, the ship’s crew had captured a shipment of Iranian weapons believed to be bound for the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The shipment reportedly included 21 Iranian “Dehlavieh” anti-tank missiles, five near fully-assembled surface-to-air missiles, additional missile and unmanned aerial vehicle components, and other miscellaneous equipment, thermal scopes and weapons.
Parlatore said, “They had a couple of items left over, including a rusty AK-47. When one of the crew asked what they should do with it, he said let’s make a plaque.”
Parlatore said taking a seized weapon as a commemorative piece is not illegal, but that Azzarello failed to secure permission to do so. The Department of Defense and the Navy provide instructions for taking and registering war trophies and those taking trophies are required to register them.
“He was trying to create something nice and good for the crew — a morale booster for the men and women on the ship to commemorate their good work,” Paraltore separately told Military.com. “It’s not like he stole an enemy weapon to put into his personal collection or something.”
Parlatore said his client wasn’t well aware of the procedures for taking and registering war trophies as it wasn’t a situation he frequently encountered.
“If he was, say, a SEAL commander, there probably would be a lot more detailed training he would have gone through all this,” Parlatore said. “… Aviation and surface Navy, not so much.”
The Navy statement on Azzarello’s loss of command made no mention of the commemorative plaque, but he was reportedly being investigated. Parlatore said it’s unclear if Azzarello could face additional punishment over the plaque controversy.
Navy spokeswoman Lt. Marycate Walsh told The Virginian Pilot, “An investigation is being conducted by the command and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). Due to the ongoing nature of the investigation, it would be inappropriate to speculate or comment.”
Azzarello enlisted in the Navy in 1993 and commissioned as an officer through the Enlisted Commissioning Program. He took command of the USS Forrest Sherman ahead of its 2019 deployment, in which it seized the Iranian weapons shipment.
The decision to relieve Azzarello of his command comes just one week before he was due to hand over command of the ship.