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ProPublica: The human toll of the Navy’s relentless push to punish one of its own

Bryce Benson, here at his home in Northern Virginia, spent months in limbo not knowing when or under what conditions he'd be able to leave the navy after it failed it its attempt to prosecute him.

HECTOR EMANUEL/SPECIAL TO PROPUBLICA

By MEGAN ROSE | ProPublica | Published: November 20, 2019

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.

***

In the early hours of June 17, 2017, a trio of junior officers guiding the USS Fitzgerald made a calamitous series of mistakes in basic navigation that veered the destroyer directly into the path of a hulking cargo ship three times its size.

As the civilian vessel bore down, the panicked officers squabbled about what to do. Benson’s written orders were clear: When in doubt, wake me up. But no one called the captain, sleeping in his cabin just a 30-second walk away.

At 1:30 a.m., the cargo ship slammed into the side of the Fitzgerald, knocking the warship into a violent tilt and ripping it open like a can of tuna. Water rushed into an enlisted sleeping area below deck.

Benson awoke trapped in his destroyed cabin, which had been shoved 20 feet by the impact and no longer had an exterior wall. He called for help, delirious, bleeding and perilously close to the gaping hole and the black, cold ocean below.

Crew members battered his steel door open with dozens of wild swings of a sledgehammer and a kettlebell, then formed a chain in the darkness to reach Benson and haul him by his arm over the debris to safety.

Benson stumbled barefoot up the ladder to the bridge of the ship, determined to take charge. Amid the chaos, he sat in the captain’s chair, but before he could give any orders his arms spasmed awkwardly and he slid to the floor.

Benson, barely conscious with a traumatic brain injury, had to be airlifted off his crippled ship.

***

Two months after the collision, Benson, still struggling with nightmares and his memory, sat in a small, bare conference room, tensely waiting to be called into the 7th Fleet commander’s office.

Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, who was in charge of all the ships in the western Pacific, had summoned Benson for a disciplinary hearing called an Admiral’s Mast.

Earlier that day, after the Navy held a press conference announcing he’d be fired, Benson had the surreal experience of watching the end of his career flash on TV in the base gym. But he’d known lying in his hospital bed right after the crash that this is where he’d end up.

Now, his hair freshly cut and wearing a hand-pressed white uniform, Benson was relieved that the day had come. These formal proceedings would close the chapter.

And he hoped that the Navy would finally let him leave Japan to seek necessary medical care back in the States. A month had passed since doctors had said he needed critical neurological and mental health care at Walter Reed Military National Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. The base in Yokosuka, Japan, had limited resources to help him deal with his debilitating post-traumatic stress, and he was growing increasingly desperate.

Aucoin called him in. Benson took a deep breath, saluted and listened, occasionally looking down at his hands, as Aucoin matter-of-factly read the administrative charges against him. Aucoin emphasized that there had been serious mistakes, and as captain, Benson was ultimately responsible.

Aucoin regarded Benson with empathy. The admiral had spent his two years in charge of the 7th Fleet begging, to no avail, for more men and a more reasonable pace of missions. He’d taken the issues with the ragged fleet into account when punishing Benson. Aucoin had the backing of his boss, Adm. Scott Swift, who’d assured him that top Navy leadership wouldn’t have supported anything more severe.

Aucoin came around the table and shook Benson’s hand.

“That’s done now,” Aucoin told him.

Benson had the right to appeal the findings of his disciplinary hearing, but a Navy lawyer told him he wouldn’t be able to leave for the States until any appeal was completed. Benson waived his rights on the spot.

Later that day, Aucoin wrote an email asking when Benson would be permitted to move. Vice Adm. Robert Burke, the head of Navy personnel who has since been promoted to the Navy’s No. 2 position, responded that he’d been “awaiting word from [Navy lawyers] that all the paperwork had been signed regarding [Benson’s] intent to appeal.” With that finished, Burke wrote he’d now release the orders. A Navy spokesman, citing privacy concerns, declined to answer questions about specifics, saying only that the Admiral’s Mast process did not affect Benson’s move.

Nearly nine weeks after his doctors’ recommendation, Benson stepped into Walter Reed for the first time.

***

On Halloween, Benson grabbed a bucket of candy and strode down his driveway in a brown, furry Chewbacca suit. He sat out there for awhile, gaily greeting trick or treaters.

Alex Benson watched from the window, her breath caught in her chest. It was her first glimpse of the old Bryce in more than four months. She’d come to understand it would be a long time before her husband of 18 years grasped his way back to any semblance of who he used to be.

She and her children had quickly become alert to the signs of his PTSD, jumping to the aid of the man who once seemed indomitable. In crowded public spaces like the grocery store, they looked out for when his face would suddenly go blank with his light blue eyes staring unfocused in the distance. One of them would step in front of him, take his hand and lead him out.

Alex felt like she was always watching him, ever since he checked “yes” on a hospital form in Japan asking if he was suicidal. She’d even sit vigil by the tub when he took a bath.

Benson attended therapy twice a week at the sprawling Walter Reed complex. He was doing a nine-step, cognitive behavior therapy program for PTSD. At his Monday group therapy session, he was quiet at first. He’d always taken a while to open up to new people. But he’d hit it off with a Navy chief and veteran of Fallujah, Iraq, who was a regular at the group. As “accountability buddies,” they’d check in with each other regularly and text pictures of their workouts to show they were doing the self-care helpful in recovery.

The Navy assigned Benson to the office that oversees special events in the Capitol, such as the planning for Sen. John McCain’s funeral. It wasn’t where he’d thought he’d be, but after a few months he started to believe what Aucoin had said after the disciplinary hearing back in August: “You’re a good officer who could still provide value to the Navy.” Benson knew he had only a short time left to serve, but putting on the uniform most weekdays felt like stepping back into himself.

The Navy had been the center of Benson’s identity since he was 18 years old and joined the ROTC at Marquette University in 1995. In the service, he’d found a place that suited his idealism, said Benson’s friend since that ROTC program, retired Navy Cmdr. Ryan Farris.

Throughout his career, Benson struck colleagues as quiet and focused, and he had an almost cliched Midwesterner’s hardworking earnestness that lent itself to teasing. “He only spoke when he had something meaningful to say,” Farris said.

Benson and his wife heard on the news that the Navy assigned an admiral to review the punishments from the Fitzgerald and McCain collisions. But his lawyer told them that since he had already been disciplined at a high level — by a three-star admiral — he was unlikely to be a target. Richardson had agreed with Aucoin’s judgment at the time, and it was rare for an admiral’s discipline to be overturned.

And the Navy’s internal reviews into root causes of the collisions pointed to policy decisions made at the Pentagon level, involving critical shortages in training, manning and maintenance time, none of which were controlled by Benson and Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, captain of the McCain.

In December on vacation in Massachusetts, Benson surprised his family when rather than staying home by himself, he joined them snowshoeing. They laughed together as they got caught in a big snowstorm. Alex Benson took out her phone to capture the moment in a selfie, each of their hats covered in fat snowflakes, her husband with a wide grin.

***

On Martin Luther King Day in 2018, when the halls of the Navy Yard would normally be fairly quiet, lawyers scrambled to finalize homicide charges against Benson and Sanchez. Richardson was due for a second battery of questions from outraged lawmakers later that week.

During heated hearings earlier that year, then-Arizona Sen. John McCain had warned Richardson and the secretary of the Navy. “We will identify shortcomings, fix them and hold people accountable,” he said, as family members of some of the fallen sailors looked on.

Afterward, Navy leaders had decided the “close temporal proximity” of the two crashes meant they needed to reassess “whether all appropriate accountability actions have been taken,” Adm. Bill Moran, the second-in-command at the time, wrote in an order assigning an admiral to the task.

Benson, who’d thought his punishment had been levied, would now face harsher scrutiny because another captain on another ship crashed two months after him.

Richardson announced the new charges days before he sat in front of the House Armed Services Committee, assuring its members that the Navy was taking accountability very seriously. Richardson, now retired and newly installed on the board of Boeing, didn’t respond to requests for an interview. A Navy spokesman said the hearings helped guide policy changes to prevent future tragedies and did not affect disciplinary actions.

The news rocketed through the Navy community, stunning current and former officers, and angering many Fitzgerald sailors.

“This breaks my heart,” Cmdr. Sean Babbitt, the executive officer on the Fitzgerald, messaged Benson.

“Bryce, call me if you need anything. I’m worried,” Babbitt wrote later when he hadn’t heard back.

The night after the charges were announced, Benson and his wife, nauseated with worry, lay side-by-side in bed, messaging on their phones with friends in Japan. Alex Benson, who couldn’t stop shaking, told Babbitt’s wife, “I don’t understand why they are doing this, and why THAT extra charge.”

Sanchez’s wife, perhaps the only other person who could truly grasp what Alex was going through, messaged that she couldn’t shake the feeling that their husbands were the sacrificial lambs for the Pentagon.

“I feel the same way,” Alex wrote back. “This is so much bigger than our husbands.”

When Benson went into work after the charges were filed, he was greeted by stares of awkward pity. His boss sent him home, telling him he should focus on his defense and recovery. Benson was devastated that this job, too, was taken from him.

Why, Alex asked, would you want to put any more time into the organization that charged you with homicide?

Because, he told her, “I love the Navy.”

***

Holding the hand of his 7-year-old son, Benson stepped into the red brick Methodist church a few minutes from his house. He’d been raised a Baptist, but he figured that’s where his neighbors went. He and his son slid into a wooden pew in the back right before the service started and slipped out just as it was ending.

He was uncertain he’d be welcomed. When the TV news covered the developments of the Navy’s case against him, his official portrait, displayed like a mugshot, and the word “homicide” were often on screen together. He worried his neighbors might not want their kids to play with his.

The Navy community Benson and his wife had devoted their entire adult lives to had largely abandoned them long before the court-martial. Capt. Joe Carrigan, who’d been the skipper of the USS Antietam when it ran aground six months before the Fitzgerald crash, had called to prepare him: “You know, your membership to the club is revoked.”

After the Antietam accident, several mentors offered Carrigan support, but the institution cast him aside. He went from being widely regarded as a future admiral to being left off the invite list for official Navy functions. Carrigan knew how swiftly Benson would be ostracized and how lonely it would be, and “I wanted him to know that he had a friend in me.”

Benson started cataloging responses from friends and colleagues, if he got any at all, by how long they waited to reach out. Many checked in only once.

After deflecting for months the offers of the church’s pastor, Grace Han, to help him work through his despair, Benson finally agreed.

At a small table in her office each week, he tried to figure out why he survived when others didn’t. He wept about meeting the mother of one of the sailors who died and professed his fears about the court-martial, the seriousness of his life being on the line and what it was doing to his family.

“I think in part he came out of some desperation to want to be able to find a supportive voice or person that wasn’t his lawyer or his therapist,” Han said. “He didn’t feel safe in a community, and it’s hard to heal from something you feel like you can’t ever talk about.” 

When Benson made it out of the Fitzgerald alive, he was expected as captain of the ship to offer himself at least metaphorically as a sacrifice. By long Navy tradition, the skipper bears “absolute accountability,” which has often meant accepting whatever punishment the Navy imposed and quietly going away, properly chastened.

But to Benson and many of his peers, the homicide charges pushed that concept beyond reason.

“It was such an unprecedented aberration,” said Michael Junge, a captain and professor at the U.S. Naval War College who wrote a book about the history of command accountability.

In other accidents involving deaths in the Navy’s modern history, the commanding officers were not charged with homicide or manslaughter. And in several instances when lower level sailors have been court-martialed on such charges, they were acquitted. (A Navy spokesman said the commanding officer of the USS Belknap, involved in a deadly collision in 1975, was charged with manslaughter, but ProPublica has not found evidence in the public record of such a charge.)

The accountability the Navy thrusts on its commanders today, Junge said, far exceeds their actual authority.

“In this case, as the investigation detailed, there were many significant contributing causes to the accident that extend well beyond the captain and crew,” said retired Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan.

Those who know Benson well weren’t surprised when he decided to fight. “That’s his character, to stand up for what he thinks is right,” said Cmdr. Jean Marie Sullivan, who served with Benson on their first ship and has been a close friend since.

Benson was assigned a local Navy counsel, then-Lt. Cmdr. Justin Henderson, a tenacious lawyer with a reputation for not bowing to the company line.

Henderson told Benson that the charges on their face were bogus. What the Navy was alleging weren’t actual crimes that could be punished under military law, he said. The official charge sheet itself was so sloppily put together the Navy later had to use pen to cross out words and replace phrases.

Navy leadership, Henderson told Benson, had overreached.

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Benson went over the details of his 35 days in command of the Fitzgerald again and again.

He’d stepped into the role as captain after more than a year as the ship’s executive officer, but he set out to sea with a largely new, and green, crew. He knew his exacting standards had helped him rise through the ranks, but they also at times made him difficult to work for.

Almost immediately, Benson’s bosses had upended his plans to get his crew up to speed, cutting short his training schedule in favor of an unrelenting series of missions and forcing him to do training on the fly. He worried about deploying when his crew lacked competency in high-skill tasks like ballistic missile defense.

But, he said, “if I felt my watch standers couldn’t avoid a 30,000-ton tanker, I would not have gotten underway.” Of course, if he hadn’t gone forward, he said, “I would’ve been left there on the pier and someone else would’ve got the ship underway.”

After the crashes, lawmakers had pressed Richardson on just this point: Could a commander say his ship couldn’t safely do the mission without blowback?

“If I could go down there and give that commander a handshake and a medal, I would do that,” Richardson replied at the time. “This is exactly the kind of honesty and transparency we need to run a Navy that’s safe and effective.”

Many current and former ship captains scoffed at what they saw as Richardson’s hypocrisy. In the real world of the Navy, a ship captain telling his command he couldn’t safely get underway is “impossible,” one former skipper said in an interview. No one believes there is a legitimate risk, only that the captain is failing to do what’s needed. “The subtext is that you’re a bad officer and probably a bad person too,” another officer said.

By pursuing Benson, the officers said, Richardson and others atop the Navy hierarchy could avoid taking responsibility for their role in setting commanders, and their ships, up for disaster. For years, a ProPublica story in February found, the Navy had ignored reports, audits and the warnings of many top Navy and Pentagon officials that the fleet was dangerously overworked, undermanned and in disrepair, putting sailors’ lives at risk.

Navy spokesman Cmdr. Clay Doss said in a written response to questions that the service “cannot fail to learn from these tragedies” and is working to change its “must-do culture.”

“The direction from our fleet commanders is clear: The Navy will not deploy ships if they are not ready to sail safely and confidently,” Doss wrote, and the service expects commanders to “raise problems loudly … without fear of repercussions.”

Shortly before the Fitzgerald’s collision, the destroyer had been stuck in port because of computer system glitches on the ship. A senior officer remembered overhearing a phone call in which Benson’s boss, the commodore, Capt. Jeffrey Bennett, berated him for asking for help.

“You expect me to fix your problems now?” Bennett yelled. Benson could say only that he’d try harder to take care of it on his own.

“His choice was to do the best he could or be relieved,” the officer said. Bennett couldn’t be reached for comment.

Now, Benson tortured himself over what he could have done differently.

He’d certainly faced criticism for some of the decisions he made that night, such as choosing to sleep instead of overseeing his young crew during a nighttime passage. And some said it reflected badly on Benson that his officers ignored his orders to wake him at the first sign of trouble.

But he couldn’t fathom how any of his decisions had landed him in a courtroom.

He’d been dismayed when Sanchez, the McCain captain, had tearfully pleaded guilty in May of last year to lesser charges in front of the fallen sailors’ grieving family members. Sanchez “is not a criminal,” Benson said. The Navy “shouldn’t have done that to him.” Sanchez declined to comment.

Then in June, without explanation, the Navy dropped the homicide charges against Benson. It pushed forward in prosecuting him for dereliction of duty resulting in death and hazarding a vessel, charges that carried more than five years in prison.

***

Benson reached into his closet for the Navy uniform he now only wore when he was due in court. In the fall of 2018, Henderson had filed a flurry of motions, knocking back a little bit more of the Navy’s case against him, but the wheels seemed to keep moving inexorably toward a trial.

With the lead-up to each hearing, Benson was on edge even more than normal. Once he launched a pill bottle at the wall, sending a watercolor of a sailboat crashing to the ground.

Not only had the Navy dumped him, it seemed determined to bring its full weight publicly against him. Almost any time Benson heard the Navy’s top officers talk about the collision, they framed it as preventable if not for his incompetence and said he “owned” the tragedy. He was frustrated by their megaphone and how he had to wait until the court-martial to tell his own story.

Benson was heartened somewhat when in December the judge called out Navy leadership for their PR campaign. The trial would be allowed to go forward, but the judge admonished Richardson and his deputy, Moran, for violating a sacred tenet of military criminal justice: to not poison the system by making their opinions clear. By doing so, any potential jurors would know exactly what the top brass wanted.

A month later in January, the judge handed the Navy a final blow: The admiral in charge of the criminal proceedings was disqualified for improperly using his position to help the prosecution gather evidence against Benson.

The Navy’s case had collapsed, but more than three months dragged by before it finally dropped the remaining charges against Benson. (The day the charges were dropped, ProPublica had informed the Navy it would be publishing a story detailing the extensive, troubling mistakes made by the Navy’s leadership in Benson’s case.)

The next day, the Navy took one more swipe at Benson, this time with a public letter of censure. The secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer, wrote an admonishment that repeatedly used the same words and phrases, such as “failure” and “unworthy of trust,” basically restating the charges the Navy was unable to bring to court, without an avenue for appeal. In an email, Spencer’s spokeswoman declined to provide details about why he wrote the letter.

Alex Benson felt like the ordeal was finally over, but when she looked at her husband, she saw someone with a still-open wound.

He’d lost his chance to affirmatively, publicly, be found innocent, because the Navy, Benson told her, “screwed it up.”

***

In June, Benson nervously walked into a ballroom at the stodgy Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, Virginia, for a job networking event. It was tailored for military officers leaving the service and he was surrounded by his peers.

For once, he was grateful he no longer wore the uniform, a silver oak leaf on his shoulder projecting his identity as a Navy commander. Just a blue suit, yellow tie, flag pin.

Still, he almost crept about the room, feeling as if a giant spotlight were on him. Benson listened to panels on pragmatic topics that a military career didn’t prepare him for, such as how to negotiate a salary. One panelist mentioned an interesting job opening at a nonprofit, and Benson approached him afterward.

The man squinted at him. “Bryce Benson,” he said, wagging his finger as he put it together. “You commanded the Fitzgerald during the collision …”

Panic seized Benson. He thought to himself, “All right, breathe.”

“You know, you’re really going to need to address this during any interview process,” the man told him.

Benson nodded, face tight. He made it through the conversation and fled the country club.

Just over two years ago, I was one of the most powerful men in the Navy as a destroyer captain at sea,” Benson said. Now he was having to rehearse lines before introducing himself to a professional contact. He didn’t recognize himself.

While his classmates celebrated the 20th anniversary of their commissioning, Benson had moments when he wished that he’d never joined the Navy. Alex Benson could tell he was obsessing when he chewed on the inside of his cheek. Some days she’d have to restrain herself from yelling: “Let it go!”

At a loss for purpose, Benson began volunteering a few hours each week at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

On a recent sunny Saturday morning, he stood across from the striking black marble wall etched with the names of those that died in the war. He wore a yellow polo shirt and ball cap stitched with the word “volunteer” and the round emblem of the national park.

“This has provided me a place to come in a uniform,” he said.

The namesake of the destroyer he captained, “William C Fitzgerald,” is engraved on the wall. Fitzgerald had sacrificed his life to save those of his men and defend his outpost when the base was overrun. Benson, like many captains before him, made a pilgrimage to Vermont to visit Fitzgerald’s widow before taking command. Volunteering near his name “makes me feel close to my crew,” Benson said.

When a hunched veteran shuffled up with his two daughters, Benson smiled broadly as he helped the man to locate his fallen comrade on the 10-foot wall. Then, keeping up a banter, he climbed a ladder to the top and used tracing paper and a pencil to make a rubbing of the name.

***

More than two years after the crash, Benson realizes he has become an infamous part of naval history, a cautionary tale.

A technician at a recent medical appointment casually mentioned that her son, an officer in the Navy, was unsure he wanted command because of what the Navy did to that poor guy hanging out of the side of a ship in Japan.

Benson told her she was talking about him. “It was like an out-of-body experience,” he said.

His treatment by the Navy has also jogged something loose among his fellow commanders. One officer said in an interview that he’d decided that he’d opt to retire before commanding a ship again.

“We all realize we’re completely going at this alone,” another officer said, “and are expendable in the eyes of those who only crave rank authority and shirk responsibility.”

Commanders still talk about how Richardson was publicly saying safety first while privately urging commanders to be more daring and take more risks. One skipper boldly asked Richardson at a luncheon how his position squared with prosecuting commanding officers “when something goes wrong.” Richardson, said some in attendance, sidestepped the question.

Sullivan, captain of the USS Whidbey Island, said all captains accept that they are responsible for what happens aboard their ships — even if they are asleep. But, she said, it “was very shocking” to see Navy leadership decide to hold the commanders criminally accountable. “I’m willing to sacrifice my life; that’s my job. But it’s hard to do that when you don’t think the organization has your back.”

In all, Sullivan said, “The herd is spooked.”

***

The call, like the others before it, came when Benson thought his ordeal was mercifully over.

He learned in September that the Navy had not given up; it was taking him to a Board of Inquiry, an adversarial hearing before a three-person military panel that would judge the value of Benson’s 20 years of service in light of his “misconduct.” He’d have to fight to keep his rank and retire honorably.

“How much does the Navy want me to lose?” he asked, gripping the back of a dining room chair in his suburban Virginia home. “When is it going to be enough?”

Benson was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. Before the crash, he’d worn them often and had recently pulled them out again, hoping they’d help summon who he used to be. But now, as he seethed at the Navy, he cursed himself too. Why had he let hope creep in?

Alex leaned over and touched his face, fearful of the red mark blossoming on his cheek, a sign she’d learned meant he was upset — maybe he’d been screaming in the car or crying.

Over the summer, Benson’s therapist at Walter Reed had written to the admiral charged with deciding whether Benson could retire and told him that the Navy’s continued pursuit of him had “led to an exacerbation of his PTSD symptoms and stymied his progress.”

While he had improved, she wrote, “his status remains tenuous” and he had suicidal thoughts. She recommended that Benson be allowed to retire.

A military review board over the summer also found him medically unfit for service because of his PTSD.

When Benson’s 14-year-old daughter, Mia, learned there was yet another round to fight, she told her mom she wanted to write her own letter to Navy leaders to tell them how her house only used to have vitamins and Tylenol and now there’s lots of prescription bottles. How her house is a stressful place. How she’d just like to have her dad back.

***

On Oct. 28, after seven more weeks of limbo, the Navy reversed course and decided not to take Benson to the misconduct hearing.

But, with now-numbing predictability, the Navy swiftly followed up with a letter warning Benson that it might not be over. “You are advised this determination does not in any way preclude or limit … future administrative or other proceedings.” The head of Navy personnel could ask the secretary of the Navy to decide whether Benson should be allowed to retire with his rank, the letter said. Henderson said he’d never seen anything like it with this set of facts.

Then, a week after ProPublica sent the Navy a list of questions about its actions in Benson’s case, the Navy made a final decision: Benson would be allowed to medically retire at his current rank of commander.

For the first time in almost two and a half years, he had an end date. On Dec. 29, he’ll be a civilian again.

But neither Benson or his family feel their trauma has ended.

Alex Benson clings to a collection of screenshots of Facebook Memories, the old pictures resurfaced by the social media site. She opens her Facebook app and there at the top of the feed is her husband, livelier, freer. Maybe grinning as he swings their youngest in the air. The digital scrapbook is both a comforting testimony that their happiness did, in fact, exist and a source of grief.

“I just want to go back to those times before everything just went to shit,” she said.

Benson still talks about the shame he feels the Navy continues to cast on him. He tries to separate the guilt from who he is as a person, a distinction he said is crucial to stay off the path he describes as “blame, shame,” and then almost mouthing the last word, “suicide.”

Ever since it filed the charges, he said, it feels like “the Navy has been trying to put me back in my cabin to kill me.”

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. 

In a 2016 photo, USS Fitzgerald Executive Officer Cmdr. Bryce Benson assists in bringing down the battle ensign on board the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer in the waters off South Korea.
ERIC COFFER/U.S. NAVY

The USS Fitzgerald sits in dry dock at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, nearly a month after it was damaged in a deadly collision with a merchant vessel on June 17, 2017.
CHRISTIAN SENYK/U.S. NAVY

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