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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on ProPublica.
It was 10 p.m. on Jan. 15, 2018, when the phone rang in Navy Cmdr. Bryce Benson's home tucked into a wooded corner of Northern Virginia.
Benson had just gotten into bed, and his chest tightened as he saw the number was from Japan. It was his Navy attorney calling. The lawyer said he wished he had better news, but he'd get right to the point: The Navy was going to charge Benson with negligent homicide the following day.
Benson, 40, stared at the ceiling in the dark, repeating the serenity prayer as his feet pedaled with anxiety. Next to him, his wife, Alex, who'd followed him through 11 postings while raising three kids, sobbed.
Seven months earlier, Benson had been in command of the destroyer the USS Fitzgerald when it collided with a massive civilian cargo ship off the coast of Japan, ripping open the warship's side. Seven of his sailors drowned, and Benson was almost crushed to death in his cabin. It was then the deadliest maritime accident in modern Navy history.
Benson, who'd served for 18 years, accepted full responsibility. Two months after the crash, the commander of the Pacific fleet fired Benson as captain and gave him a letter of reprimand, each act virtually guaranteeing he'd never be promoted and would have to leave the service far earlier than planned. His career was essentially over.
Then, days later, another of the fleet's destroyers, the USS John S. McCain, collided with a civilian tanker, killing 10 more sailors. The back-to-back collisions exposed the Navy to bruising questions about the worthiness of its ships and the competency of the crews. Angry lawmakers had summoned the top naval officer, Adm. John Richardson, to the Hill.
Under sustained fire, Navy leaders needed a grand, mollifying gesture. So, in a nearly unprecedented move in its history, the Navy decided to treat an accident at sea as a case of manslaughter. Hastily cobbling together charges, the Navy's top brass announced — to the shock of its officers — that the captains of both destroyers would be court-martialed for the sailors' deaths.
The Navy told ProPublica that “given the tragic loss of life, scope and complexity of both collisions," it had an “obligation to exercise due diligence" and its investigation had “informed charges against" Benson and the captain of the McCain.
To many officers, the Navy had gone too far. “There was a deflection campaign," one admiral said recently, likening the Navy's response to shielding itself from an exploding grenade. “It was pretty clear Richardson wanted to dampen the frag pattern."
Even then, no one, least of all Benson, could have predicted how relentless the Navy's pursuit of him would be.
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.
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