Article 32 hearings delayed for commanders in 'avoidable' collisions
By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 27, 2018
WASHINGTON – Hearings to determine whether the commanders of two Navy destroyers that collided with commercial vessels in the Pacific last year should face criminal charges that include negligent homicide have been postponed after defense attorneys asked for more time, according to a Navy spokesman.
Cmdr. Bryce Benson, who commanded the USS Fitzgerald, and Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, former skipper of the USS John S. McCain, were slated for Article 32 hearings at the Navy Yard in Washington on March 6 to 8, along with three other Fitzgerald sailors.
Seven sailors died June 17 after the Fitzgerald crashed into a civilian merchant ship about 60 miles southwest of Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Just two months later, 10 sailors were killed when the McCain collided with an oil tanker near Singapore. Navy investigations found that the collisions were “avoidable” and caused by failures in planning, training, procedures and operations. Part of that, the Navy found, was caused by the intense operational pace the fleet has been maintaining in recent years.
The devastating collisions so close to each other left the Navy’s Pacific Fleet reeling and led to firings, forced retirements and nonjudicial punishments conducted by Adm. Frank Caldwell, who was tapped in October to oversee disciplinary actions for the accidents.
The Navy relieved the commanders of both ships last year, along with the head of 7th Fleet, as well as leaders of Task Force 70 and Destroyer Squadron 15, which oversee the fleet’s destroyers and cruisers. The service also said it conducted a comprehensive review of incidents to ensure systemic problems are fixed.
Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Scott Swift announced his retirement in September and Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, the former Surface Forced head, retired in January ahead of schedule after the recommendation of disciplinary actions against him.
In late January proceedings, Caldwell found the executive officer, command master chief and another officer on the Fitzgerald guilty of dereliction in the performance of duties and issued letters of punitive reprimand. An enlisted sailor from the McCain was also found guilty of dereliction of duties. He received a punitive letter of reprimand, and forfeiture of half-pay for two months and a reduction in rate to the next pay grade – both delayed for six months.
In mid-February, Cmdr. Jessie Sanchez, executive officer on the McCain, was found guilty of dereliction of duty for the Aug. 21 crash. He received a punitive letter of reprimand. Caldwell dismissed charges against an officer and an enlisted crewmember from the Fitzgerald, in what the Navy said would be the last planned nonjudicial punishment proceedings for the collisions.
The Article 32 hearings for former commanders Benson and Alfredo Sanchez will determine the most serious charges of negligent homicide, along with hazarding a ship and dereliction of duty. Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Day, a Navy spokesman, did not specify the length of the continuance. He said a new hearing date would be announced later.
Stars and Stripes reporter Tyler Hlavac contributed to this report.