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2 USS Fitzgerald officers face courts-martial in wake of fatal collision a year ago

The Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald, which was involved in a collision with a merchant ship Saturday, June 17, 2017, is seen at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, Sunday, June 18, 2017.

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By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 19, 2018

WASHINGTON — The Navy will pursue courts-martial for two officers from the USS Fitzgerald in the wake of a deadly collision one year ago off the coast of Japan that killed seven sailors.

The decision by Adm. Frank Caldwell comes despite a recommendation by a pretrial hearing officer that Lt. Natalie Combs instead be sent before a board of inquiry to determine whether she should be discharged from the Navy, according to Combs’ lawyer.

Cmdr. Bryce Benson, the commanding officer of the ship at the time of the June 17, 2017, collision, and Combs, the tactical action officer inside the combat information center below deck, will each face general court-martial, the Navy said in a news release. Benson will not face an original charge of negligent homicide.

Charges against a third officer, Lt. Irian Woodley, the ship’s surface warfare coordinator, were dismissed. Instead, Caldwell recommended Woodley be sent to a board of inquiry, where he will be required to “show cause” why he should be allowed to stay in the Navy.

Caldwell was appointed consolidated disposition authority in late 2017 after the Fitzgerald collision was followed by the crash of another Navy destroyer, the USS John S. McCain. That collision killed 10 sailors in August. Part of Caldwell’s authority is to decide whether to convene a court-martial, and he has ultimate discretion on who should face internal disciplinary action and who should face justice in a military courtroom.

Combs and Woodley faced a joint Article 32 pretrial hearing last month. Combs’ lawyer, David Sheldon, told Stars and Stripes that the hearing officer Cmdr. Anthony Johnson had recommended that both cases go before a board of inquiry to determine separation from the Navy. That board makes findings only for purposes of separation, not guilt or innocence.

Sheldon issued a statement Tuesday saying his client is disappointed in the decision, but “nonetheless resolute in her belief that when the facts are fully presented, she will be exonerated.”

“The blame in this case is widespread,” Sheldon said. “The Fitzgerald had systemic problems with its equipment and training. To single this young woman, who has served honorably and with distinction, for prosecution is very troubling in the circumstance.”

The Navy said it will not release Johnson’s recommendations until all proceedings involving the collision are over.

After handing the helm over to the officer of the deck, Benson was in his quarters when the Fitzgerald and a commercial container ship collided in the busy coastal waters off southern Japan, and he suffered multiple injuries. Caldwell referred the counts of negligent dereliction of duty resulting in death, negligent dereliction of duty and one specification of negligent hazarding of a vessel to court-martial after Benson waived his right last month to an Article 32 hearing.

Combs will face charges of negligent dereliction of duty resulting in death and negligent hazarding of a vessel, the Navy said.

Combs and Woodley pleaded not guilty during their preliminary hearing on May 9 that revealed severe problems with the ship’s systems, along with an undermanned and overworked crew.

Prosecutors portrayed the defendants as failing in their jobs — not using the tools at their disposal properly, not trying to get faulty equipment fixed and therefore failing to see close calls in busy waters over the course of the night — the defense argued that the ship’s radars and electronic equipment never worked properly and the crew was exhausted from working 20-hour days with no time to train or do repairs. The problems were systemic, leaving the officers unaware of the other ship’s approach, the defense argued.

The Navy singled out Combs for her failure to communicate adequately with the deck and failing in her job of supporting the bridge to ensure it received vital information about contact with other vessels.

One expert witness during the Article 32 testified that Combs had just 13 actions involving monitoring or tracking other ships on her console that night – none in the last hour and 13 minutes, leading up to the collision, when there were many ships in the vicinity that night. Her attorney argued the Fitzgerald had faulty equipment and the Combat Information Center was unaware of any such contacts.

cahn.dianna@stripes.com
Twitter: @DiannaCahn

The USS Fitzgerald arrives back at Yokosuka Naval Base Monday, Nov. 27, 2017.
TYLER HLAVAC/STARS AND STRIPES

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