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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.
That's the thesis of the generational pearl-clutching published in the May 2019 issue of Proceedings, in which Navy Capt. John L. Bub, Jr., director of operations and training for Tactical Training Group Atlantic (TTGL), argued that the "highly distracting" chatrooms utilized by sailors aboard Navy vessels are a sinister threat to surface operations that desperately require our attention.
WASHINGTON — Lt. Cmdr. Jennifer Pollio could not believe what she was hearing from the Navy's top officer.
It was Jan. 25, 2018, and Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, was addressing an auditorium filled with Navy attorneys. One officer asked a question that touched on a sensitive topic: two collisions of warships in the Pacific in the summer of 2017 that left 17 sailors dead in the Navy's worst maritime accidents in decades.
The Navy had recently announced that it would criminally prosecute the captains of the vessels and several crew members for negligence leading to the fatal accidents. The questioner wanted to know whether officers now had to worry about being charged with a crime for making what could be regarded as a mistake.
Richardson answered by saying that he could not discuss pending cases. As a bedrock principle of military law, commanders cannot signal a preferred outcome. But then, almost as an afterthought, he attempted to reassure the man that the collisions were no accidents.
“I have seen the entire investigation. Trust me, if you had seen what I have seen, it was negligent," Richardson told the audience, according to court records.
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 promised changes after back-to-back deadly collisions. Many within doubt it’s delivering on them
After two of its destroyers were involved in deadly accidents in the summer of 2017, the Navy's leaders pledged real change: more sailors for their ships, and better training for those sailors and the officers who led them. Old or broken equipment would be fixed, too. Most important, the Navy's top command would stop forcing ships out to sea before they were ready.
In late 2017, as part of an effort to assure commanders that the Navy was committed to genuine reform, Adm. Philip Davidson embarked on a speaking tour. Davidson was in charge of “readiness" — responsible for making sure that the Navy's ships were fully staffed, and that sailors were adequately trained and equipped and ready for combat. He had recently authored a public report laying out dozens of specific weaknesses that the Navy had begun fixing.
One of Davidson's stops in November 2017 was in San Diego, and inside the base's movie theater, he addressed hundreds of concerned commanders and officers. He was met with a series of tough questions, including a particularly sensitive one: If the commanders believed their ships were not ready, could they, as the Navy had promised, actually push back on orders to sail?
Davidson, according to an admiral inside the theater, responded with anger.
“If you can't take your ships to sea and accomplish the mission with the resources you have," he said, “then we'll find someone who will."
Facing a shortfall of roughly 6,200 sailors at sea, top Navy commanders promised lawmakers that they won't force undermanned and undertrained crews to deploy.
In 2017, the destroyers USS FItzgerald and USS John S. McCain were involved in separate collisions in the Pacific that claimed the lives of 17 sailors. Since then, the Navy has tackled the underlying causes of the deadly collisions by increasing the size of destroyers' crews and adding training for surface warfare officers. But the Navy still does not have enough sailors at sea.