Navy Secretary Richard Spencer will dismiss all charges against the former captain of the destroyer USS Fitzgerald and the tactical action officer during a collision two years ago that killed seven sailors.
“At the recommendation of Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer will issue a Secretarial Letter of Censure to USS Fitzgerald former commanding officer Cmdr. Bryce Benson and former crew member Lt. Natalie Combs,” the Navy announced late on Wednesday.
The Navy offered no explanation about why charges against the two officers will be dismissed; the service's attempts to prosecute Benson had already fallen apart.
Although he was not on the bridge at the time of the June 2017, Benson was initially been charged with negligent homicide; however, that charge was dropped in June. Then a military judge ruled in January that the charges against Benson had been improperly referred to court-martial and disqualified the admiral overseeing the trial.
“Despite a relentless messaging campaign insisting ships' commanding officers are strictly liable for all operational risks, the Navy never tested that concept in court,” said Benson's attorney Cmdr. Justin Henderson. “For good reason: It's untenable, legally and factually. These charges against Cmdr. Benson never had merit.”
However, Henderson excoriated the Navy for issuing Benson a secretarial letter of censure without due process. “So in that sense, it fits the Navy's approach to accountability for the Fitzgerald collision,” he said.
Combs' attorney could not be immediately reached for comment.
The Fitzgerald case and a separate collision involving the destroyer USS John S. McCain in 2017 revealed crews in 7th Fleet were undermanned, undertrained, and overtaxed. The Navy has since increased the crew size for destroyers, but it still needs to fill 6,200 sea billets to be fully manned.
ProPublica reported in February that Adm. Philip Davidson, now head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, warned skippers shortly after the two collisions that if they did not feel their ships were ready to deploy, they would be replaced.
Davidson also raised eyebrows in February with his unique response to Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who pressed him on what the Navy could have done to prevent the two deadly collisions.
“We can't forget one other thing,” Davidson said. “These two collisions were a tragedy, there's no doubt about it. And all of the senior leadership of the Navy feels an immense amount of accountability for that, I'll come back to it. But the fact of the matter is 280-odd other ships weren't having collisions.”