Navy Fires 2 More Top Officers As Investigations Into 7th Fleet Mishaps Continue

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The Navy’s top admiral in charge of surface forces is retiring early, and two major 7th Fleet commanders have been fired, part of the service’s latest efforts to clean house after a string of serious shipboard mishaps that have left 17 sailors dead this year, according to news reports.


Rear Adm. Charles Williams — commander of Combined Task Force 70 and Carrier Strike Group 5, which oversee forward-deployed naval forces in the Pacific — and his subordinate Capt. Jeffery Bennett — commodore of Destroyer Squadron 15, which includes the ill-fated USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald — were relieved “due to a loss of confidence in their ability to command” Sep. 18, Navy officials confirmed to USNI News this morning.

Rear Adm. Marc Dalton, commander of Task Force 7, will take over for Williams at CTF-70, and Capt. Jonathan Duffy, deputy commander, DESRON-15, will assume command of Bennett’s squadron, the Navy also announced Monday morning.

The firings were approved by Vice Adm. Philip Sawyer, the 7th Fleet commander who was installed last month after his predecessor was held accountable for the fatal McCain and Fitzgerald collisions, as well as two earlier 2017 accidents, a grounding and a collision involving U.S. guided missile cruisers.

GAO

The personnel shuffle came in addition to a request by Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, commander of U.S. Naval Surface Forces, to retire two months ahead of schedule to “allow for new leadership” of the surface fleet, officials told USNI News.

Williams and Bennett’s firings mark the fifth and sixth dismissals in 7th Fleet in connection with the recent spate of shipboard incidents. Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, the highly respected 7th Fleet commander, yielded his command to Sawyer in August, just days after the captain, executive officer, and command master chief of the Fitzgerald were relieved of their positions.

More changes are expected soon, as major investigations into each mishap and the Navy’s general readiness posture wind to completion. On Sept. 19, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson are scheduled to testify about “Recent United States Navy Incidents At Sea” before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

They are set to appear with John Pendleton, leader of a General Accounting Office study released Sep. 7 that blasts the Navy for “persistent training, maintenance, and other issues” that could have contributed to low-readiness and higher risk of collisions and groundings.

“We believe that, until the Navy makes the needed changes, its ships may not have the right number and skill mix of sailors to maintain readiness and prevent overworking its sailors,” the GAO report concluded.

Adam Weinstein
(Photo: CNN/screenshot)

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO — A Navy SEAL sniper on Wednesday contradicted earlier testimony of fellow SEALs who claimed he had fired warning shots to scare away civilian non-combatants before Chief Eddie Gallagher shot them during their 2017 deployment to Mosul, and said he would not want to deploy again with one of the prosecution's star witnesses.

Special Operator 1st Class Joshua Graffam originally invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege before Navy Judge Capt. Aaron Rugh gave him immunity in order to compel his testimony.

Graffam testified that Gallagher was essentially justified in the shooting of a man he is accused of unlawfully targeting, stating that "based off everything i had seen so far ... in my opinion, they were two shitheads moving from one side of the road to the other."

Spotting for Gallagher in the tower that day, Graffam said, he called out the target to him and he fired. He said the man was hit in the upper torso and ran away.

Graffam, who joined the Navy in 2010 and has been assigned to SEAL Team 7's Alpha Platoon since September 2015, deployed alongside Gallagher to Mosul in 2017, occasionally acting as a spotter for Gallagher when the SEALs were tasked with providing sniper support for Iraqi forces from two towers east of the Tigris River.

Another SEAL, Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Dalton Tolbert, had previously testified under direct examination by prosecutors that, while stationed in the south tower of a bombed-out building in June 2017, he had observed Gallagher shoot and kill an elderly civilian.

"He ran north to south across the road," Tolbert testified on Friday. "That's when I saw the red mark on his back and I saw him fall for the first time. Blood started to pool and I knew it was a square hit in the back." Over the radio, he said he heard Gallagher tell the other snipers, "you guys missed him but I got him."

Former SO1 Dylan Dille, who was also in the south tower that day, testified last week that he watched an old man die from a sniper shot on Father's Day. He said the date stuck out in his mind because he thought the man was probably a father.

Later that day, after the mission, Graffam said he spoke with Dille about the shooting and they disagreed about the circumstances. Dille, he said, believed the man was a noncombatant.

"I, on the other hand, was confident that the right shot was taken," Graffam said, although he said later under cross-examination that the man was unarmed. Dille previously testified that the SEALs were authorized to shoot unarmed personnel if they first received signals intelligence or other targeting information.

Photo: Paul Szoldra/Task & Purpose

Graffam described the man as a male between 40 and 50 years old wearing black clothing, giving him the impression of an ISIS fighter who was moving in a "tactical" manner. He testified that he did not see anything like Dille had described.

Graffam further testified that he didn't see Gallagher take any shots that he shouldn't have on that day or any other.

Although Graffam said he did not hear of allegations that Gallagher had stabbed a wounded ISIS fighter on deployment, he testified that he started to hear rumblings in early 2018. Chief Craig Miller, he said, asked him at one point whether he would "cooperate" with others in reporting him.

When asked whether he would like to serve with Miller again in a SEAL platoon, Graffam said, "I don't feel as confident about it." A member of the jury later asked him why he'd feel uncomfortable deploying with Miller and he responded, "I just wouldn't."

Graffam said he would serve with Gallagher again if given the chance.

Under cross examination by prosecutors, Graffam said he couldn't say whether there were warning shots fired that day, though Dille and Tolbert both said happened. "There were multiple shots throughout the day," Graffam said.

Prosecutors also asked him about his previous statements to NCIS, in which Graffam said of Miller that "he has good character" and was "a good guy." Graffam confirmed he said just that.

Defense attorney Tim Parlatore, however, said those statements were back in January and "a lot had happened since then." Parlatore said Graffam had also said at the time that Gallagher was a good leader.

"That part remains unchanged, correct?" Parlatore asked.

"Yes," Graffam said.

The defense is expected to call more witnesses in the case, which continues on Thursday.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexi Myrick)

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(YouTube via Air Force Times)

Editor's Note: This article by Oriana Pawlyk originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

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