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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.
When a sailor from USS Shiloh (CG-67) went missing last summer, presumably lost overboard in the Pacific, only to be found a week later hiding out in the ship’s machinery spaces, some readers could be forgiven for wondering what was going on in that command.
It’s been a rough year the Navy’s 7th fleet, marred by four major surface mishaps for the Pacific-based armada — two of which cost the lives of 17 sailors. Now, the branch is scrambling to address the root causes of the fleet’s startling accident rate.
7th Fleet, the U.S. Navy’s Pacific forward deployed naval force, has burned itself out; the cost of this burnout is poor readiness, loss of ships and equipment, and most importantly, sailors’ lives. Since January, four significant ship mishaps have occurred in the 7th’s area of responsibility (AOR), including fatal collisions with merchant ships for the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain. Those two incidents killed 17 sailors — significantly more than the number of U.S. service numbers lost in the Afghanistan war zone so far in 2017. This summer has been a watershed moment for the 7th Fleet family.
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.