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Navy keeps publicly scapegoating former USS Fitzgerald CO for deadly 2017 collision, his attorneys argue
The Navy is once again publicly blaming the former captain of the Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald for the June 2017 collision with a merchant ship that killed seven sailors, according to attorneys for Cmdr. Bryce Benson.
Benson's attorneys have filed a complaint claiming there have been three recent examples of unlawful command influence.
Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson is quoted in a Feb. 6 ProPublica story about the Fitzgerald collision as saying: "Our commanders make decisions and our sailors execute and there is an outcome -- a result of that decision. The commander 'owns' that outcome."
On Feb. 8, the Navy's official Twitter account tweeted a link to a War on the Rocks commentary about the Fitzgerald collision including the following quote: "Assigning this level of blame to the commanding officer does not let the chain of command and 'Big Navy' off the hook. Rather, it places responsibility where it properly lies. The chain of command and Big Navy cannot be onboard all the time and cannot be expected to create individual solutions to individual ship problems."
Also on Feb. 8, Capt. Greg Hicks, acting chief of information posted a quote from the War on the Rocks piece that argued the Fitzgerald's captain was responsible for the collision on his personal Facebook page along with this preface: "Lengthy quote, but worth it. As an officer, even if not in command, I am responsible at all times to those I am blessed to lead."
The latest complaint comes nearly two months after a military judge ruled that previous comments by Richardson and Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran about Benson "ignored the accused's presumption of innocence."
"Yet despite that clear ruling, the Navy persists in and even expands upon this strategic messaging campaign," Benson's attorneys said in a statement to Task & Purpose.
"By continuing to undermine Cmdr. Benson's presumed innocence, Navy leadership flouts both the military judge's ruling and our Uniform Code's provisions prohibiting such actions. We're deeply disheartened."
Navy officials declined to comment on the complaint when contacted by Task & Purpose. The two Feb. 8 tweets were taken down after Benson's attorneys complained. Hicks said all comments on his personal Facebook page are strictly his own opinion.
The comments cited by Benson's attorneys are problematic, even if they don't meet the legal definition of unlawful command influence, said military law expert Rachel VanLandingham. For example, the Navy's tweets with the War on the Rocks quote could be seen as an official endorsement of the author's argument that Benson is responsible for the collision, she said.
"It's within the spirit if not the technical prohibition of unlawful command influence because it seems to strongly imply that Big Navy, the command chain, has decided that the CO and his subordinates are responsible for all of this: We think they screwed up in the following way," said VanLandingham, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who now teaches at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles.
The Navy did the right thing by quickly deleting the tweets, which acknowledged that they should not have been posted in the first place, she said.
Hicks' comments are less troublesome because he is allowed to have personal opinions, VanLandingham said. However, it is an open question whether senior Navy officials' Facebook pages can be considered "personal," she added.
Should the case go to court-martial, the military jurors can be asked if they read any of the comments that Bensons' attorneys have complained about, VanLandingham said. The judge has other remedies, such as by giving the defense more leeway in filing challenges.
However, it is unclear whether Benson will ever go to trial for the Fitzgerald collision. He had been charged with dereliction of duty and improper hazarding of a vessel, but the case was thrown into legal limbo in January when a military judge disqualified the admiral who had been overseeing the trial and ruled the charges against Benson had been "defectively referred" to court-martial, said Lt. Cmdr. Justin Henderson, one of Benson's attorneys.
Although the Navy initially charged Benson with negligent homicide as well, that charge was dropped in June 2018, Henderson said.
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Former Marine Commandant tells Trump that pardoning troops accused of war crimes 'relinquishes the moral high ground'
Former Marine Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak has issued a statement urging President Donald Trump and members of Congress to oppose pardons for those accused or convicted of war crimes since, he argued, it would "relinquish the United States' moral high ground."
"If President Trump follows through on reports that he will mark Memorial Day by pardoning individuals accused or convicted of war crimes, he will betray these ideals and undermine decades of precedent in American military justice that has contributed to making our country's fighting forces the envy of the world," said Krulak, who served in the Marine Corps for more than three decades before retiring in 1999 as the 31st Commandant.
Editor's Note: The following story highlights a veteran at Associated Materials. Committed to including talented members of the military community in its workplace, Associated Materials Incorporated is a client of Hirepurpose, a Task & Purpose sister company. Learn more here.
Associated Materials, a residential and commercial siding and window manufacturer based in Ohio, employs people from a variety of backgrounds. The company gives them an opportunity to work hard and grow within the organization. For Tim Betsinger, Elizabeth Dennis, and Tanika Carroll, all military veterans with wide-ranging experience, Associated Materials has provided a work environment similar to the military and a company culture that feels more like family than work.
President Donald Trump will nominate Barbara Barrett to serve as the next Air Force secretary, the president announced on Tuesday.
"I am pleased to announce my nomination of Barbara Barrett of Arizona, and former Chairman of the Aerospace Corporation, to be the next Secretary of the Air Force," Trump tweeted. "She will be an outstanding Secretary! #FlyFightWin"
The Trump administration is trying to assure Congress that it does not want to start a war with Iran, but some lawmakers who fought in Iraq are not so sure.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford both briefed Congress on Tuesday about Iran. Shanahan told reporters earlier on Tuesday that the U.S. military buildup in the region has stopped Iran and its proxies from attacking U.S. forces, but the crisis is not yet over.
"We've put on hold the potential for attacks on Americans," Shanahan said. "That doesn't mean that the threats that we've previously identified have gone away. Our prudent response, I think, has given the Iranians time to recalculate. I think our response was a measure of our will and our resolve that we will protect our people and our interests in the region."
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump warned on Monday Iran would be met with "great force" if it attacked U.S. interests in the Middle East, and government sources said Washington strongly suspects Shi'ite militias with ties to Tehran were behind a rocket attack in Baghdad's Green Zone.
"I think Iran would be making a very big mistake if they did anything," Trump told reporters as he left the White House on Monday evening for an event in Pennsylvania. "If they do something, it will be met with great force but we have no indication that they will."