The former captain of the destroyer USS Fitzgerald who was in command during a 2017 collision that killed seven sailors will appear before a board of inquiry that could determine if he will be reduced in rank and what kind of discharge he will receive, a Navy official said.
Cmdr. Bryce Benson was asleep in his stateroom when the Fitzgerald was struck by a merchant ship in the early hours of June 17, 2017. The Navy initially charged Benson with negligent homicide, but that charge was dismissed in June 2018 and all other charges against Benson were dropped in April, in part because top Navy leaders had repeatedly blamed him for the tragedy, running afoul of unlawful command influence.
Now the chief of naval personnel has notified Benson that he will have to appear at a board of inquiry to argue why the Navy should not separate him, said his attorney Cmdr. Justin Henderson. The administrative board is called a "show cause hearing."
"The prospect of having to show cause at a board of inquiry is as disappointing news as all the other decisions that have impacted this case," Henderson told Task & Purpose.
The date for the hearing has not yet been set, he said.
A chief of naval personnel spokeswoman declined to comment specifically on the Benson board of inquiry, citing privacy concerns.
"The purpose of a BOI is to give officers a full and impartial hearing at which they may respond to and rebut the allegations which form the basis for separation for cause or retirement in the current grade or a lesser grade and present matters favorable to their case on the issues of separation and, if applicable, characterization of service," said Capt. Amy Derrick.
The Fitzgerald incident was one of two ship collisions in 2017 that cost a total of 17 sailors their lives. Subsequent investigations revealed systemic training and manning problems in 7th Fleet that were factors in both cases.
Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, who was commanding officer of the destroyer USS John S. McCain when it turned into the path of a tanker on Aug. 21, 2017, pleaded guilty last year to dereliction of duty as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors. Ten sailors were killed in the collision.
"The death of a sailor, a mother and father's pain of losing a child, was the only thing I dreaded in command," Sanchez told the judge at his May 25, 2018 special court-martial. "Thirteen years have passed and I still vividly remember notifying my mother of the death of my sister. My family and I are still healing from our loss."
"I still see the suffering in my parents' eyes," he continued. "I see the same suffering in the eyes of the family members here today or whom I have seen at memorial services – I feel that pain with them."