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Fitzgerald, McCain collisions: Are the right people being held to account?

Fitzgerald, McCain collisions: Are the right people being held to account?

The collision-damaged USS Fitzgerald sits in dry dock at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, July 13, 2017. Leonard Adams/U.S. Navy

An unlikely speaker took the podium last month at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory in Maryland to honor the life of one of the 17 sailors killed last year in two separate Navy destroyer collisions.

Cmdr. Bryce Benson, the former commanding officer of the USS Fitzgerald, spoke of Petty Officer 1st Class Xavier Martin’s achievements during his time on board his ship. The young sailor was thriving when the Fitzgerald collided with a container ship off the coast of Japan on June 17, 2017, killing seven sailors, including Martin.

Benson, who was in his quarters and found injured and hanging off the side of the ship, is the most senior officer to face criminal charges for the collision. He pleaded not guilty at an arraignment last week and faces a court-martial in January.

Martin’s father invited Benson to speak. He doesn’t blame Benson or the more junior officers who were court-martialed – at least not fully. Through a haze of grief, Darrold Martin says he sees one thing clearly: The tragedy is much bigger than those on board.

“How can you blame them totally for everything when (the Navy’s) report clearly states these levels of errors and decisions were made at a much more senior level?” said Martin, who works at the Army research facility.


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Two months after the Fitzgerald crash, another Navy destroyer, the USS John S. McCain, collided with a merchant vessel near the Singapore Straits, killing 10 sailors. Since then, Navy investigations and reviews have revealed a pattern of underlying problems.

The Japan-based 7th Fleet – which included both destroyers -- was undermanned. Sailors were working 100-hour weeks, cutting corners on training and repairs just to keep pace with their tasking. A Strategic Readiness Review commissioned by the Navy showed that these problems were Navy-wide and had created a culture of circumventing or relaxing “processes and procedures designed for safe and effective operations.” Risks once deemed unacceptable had become routine to get the ever-growing tasks done, particularly in the busy Pacific waters.

The review said the Navy must “fully embrace a learning culture,” in which accountability “must be sought and assessed in a systemic way, at institutional levels” in order to rein in this “aberrant behavior.”

The McCain and Fitzgerald collisions revealed a pattern that forced the Navy to recognize that it had neglected basic seamanship training to the point of disaster.

A recent Navy review of competency of junior officers certified to be officer of the deck – to drive the ship – found a disturbing 84 percent raised concerns with their ship handling; many exhibited poor knowledge of radar and equipment; and more than half were not able to make critical decisions when facing danger.

A year later, the Navy says it is acting to hold those responsible to account and to address the institutional issues. The careers of several admirals have come to an end, including the heads of 7th Fleet, the Navy’s surface force commander in San Diego and Pacific Fleet – some were fired while others took early retirement. The Navy has been forthcoming about tackling the more than 100 problems identified. It disciplined nearly two dozen sailors and brought charges against six, including the two commanding officers. After one case dismissal and three plea deals, two cases remain, and the Navy says disciplinary actions are ongoing.

“Accountability is fundamental to the Navy,” said Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Day, a Navy spokesman. “In the wake of the collisions last year, Navy leaders took an appropriate range of actions to address the cause of these tragic events. These actions include reviews of surface force procedures as well as the establishment of an oversight council to enact recommendations from the reviews.”

Not everyone is satisfied.

Cmdr. Bryce Benson, the former commanding officer of the destroyer USS Fitzgerald, speaks on June 20th at a dedication ceremony in June for Petty Officer 1st Class Xavier Martin, one of seven sailors who died when the Fitzgerald collided with a container ship off the coast of Japan in June 2017. Photo by U.S. Army Research Laboratory

As Benson and a junior officer on the Fitzgerald await court-martial, some of those affected by these collisions wonder whether the right people are being asked to shoulder the bulk of the burden for these double tragedies.

Watching from the outside, retired Cmdr. Kirk Lippold sees a pattern of punishments and disciplinary actions that he believes failed to address the larger causes of the collisions. The calamities struck close to home for Lippold, who was commanding officer of the USS Cole in October 2000, when a small fishing vessel laden with explosives pulled alongside his ship off the coast of Yemen and blew itself up.

Lippold lost 17 sailors and, though an initial investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing and credited him with saving many lives, his judgment was called into question. He was forced to retire in 2007 after being repeatedly denied promotion. He knows his words can sound like sour grapes. But he still calls the service “my Navy” and says he wants to see a powerful surface force that will own up to -- and learn from - its mistakes.

Observing the aftermath of these two collisions, he said he had a “larger obligation” to speak out. He questioned not only whether the courts-martial proceedings were meting out real justice, but also whether an honest reckoning was taking place to prevent similar tragedies.

“I see leadership reluctant to bear any responsibility for the root causes of why that happened,” Lippold said. The collisions are “indicative of systemic failures of Navy leadership over a decade that resides squarely with admirals in Washington who are responsible by law to adequately and properly man, train and equip the force.

“They have failed in that duty,” he said.

A question of justice

After the Fitzgerald collision, a reeling Pacific Fleet determined that the best course of action was nonjudicial punishment.

Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, the now fired commander of 7th Fleet, disciplined seven servicemembers on the Fitzgerald. On Aug. 17, the Navy announced that he had relieved the ship’s commanding officer, executive officer and one senior enlisted officer of their responsibilities.

Three days later, the McCain collision occurred. Aucoin was fired within days amid a shakeup in Pacific Fleet that also led to the removal Rear Adm. Charles Williams, the commander of Task Force 70 and Capt. Jeffrey Bennet, Destroyer Squadron 15 commander. Within weeks, the head of surface forces in San Diego and the commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet announced early retirements.

The new 7th Fleet commander disciplined six from the McCain in nonjudicial punishments. But in late October, the Navy appointed a “consolidated disposition authority” to revisit the punishments.

As the Navy conducted reviews and began taking actions, the CDA got to work, bringing the number of nonjudicial punishments to 18 and sending five of those servicemembers to court-martial on criminal charges -- among them the commanding officers from both ships.

Officials say those actions are the mark of justice at work.

“Due to the magnitude of these collisions, Navy leadership appointed an independent Consolidated Disposition Authority (CDA) to review the incidents and the Navy comprehensive review to ensure proper accountability at all levels of command,” Day said.

He said the Navy would not comment further on the cases because the punishments and courts-martial continue.

Earlier proceedings revealed specific missteps on both ships – from poor communication between the deck and the combat center below deck to poor training and understanding of onboard systems, to an apparent failure in setting proper watch standers to back up electronic equipment.

Under the Navy’s “charge of command,” the commanding officer bears absolute responsibility for “the safety, well-being and efficiency” of their command. The CO of a naval vessel must answer for everything that happens on board.

Darrold Martin, left, speaks with Cmdr. Bryce Benson, the former commanding officer of the destroyer USS Fitzgerald, at a dedication ceremony on June 20th at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, for Martin's son - one of seven sailors who died when the Fitzgerald collided with a container ship off the coast of Japan in June 2017. Photo by U.S. Army Research Laboratory

Darrold Martin, left, speaks with Cmdr. Bryce Benson, the former commanding officer of the destroyer USS Fitzgerald, at a dedication ceremony on June 20th at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, for Martin's son - one of seven sailors who died when the Fitzgerald collided with a container ship off the coast of Japan in June 2017. Photo by U.S. Army Research Laboratory

At the institutional level, Navy officials say the ouster of the head of 7th Fleet and the departures of surface warfare and Pacific Fleet commanders were appropriate for the severity of the collisions – climbing up the operational chain of command. A Navy fleet commander has not been removed for cause since 1942, when VADM Robert Ghormley, commander of the South Pacific, was relieved after operational disasters around Guadalcanal.

“I can’t recall a case where both the type commander and a numbered fleet commander were removed for a collision,” said retired Vice Adm. Pete Daly, a former deputy commander of U.S. Fleet Forces who heads the U.S. Naval Institute. “I think it’s too early to say the Navy isn’t looking at the whole thing and they are not taking an institutional approach. I think they are.”

The Navy, along with Congress, made decisions over two decades that diminished readiness and training, Daly said. It took a blistering report in 2010 for the Navy to start making corrective changes in training, but those are slow to take hold, he said.

Daly also believes the captains of the Fitzgerald and McCain performed poorly. The collisions, he said, were the result of a perfect storm of events: “a fragile surface Navy trying to correct from some bad decisions in the early to mid-2000s, the budget hits right as you are correcting, and two [commanding officers] who don’t represent the average out there, who were then asked to perform at a higher level at a time when there was increased risk because of all those factors.”

The court-martial choice

Still, the process left some questioning what the Navy hoped to accomplish with the courts-martial. With the three who pleaded guilty, the same outcome could have been delivered through nonjudicial punishment.

“These courts-martial were, in my mind, very plainly designed to help the Navy save face -- to hold people accountable without severely litigating these shortfalls at a senior level,” said Daniel Conway, a defense attorney who specializes in military courts-martial.

A judge advocate -- or military lawyer – on one of the defense teams said it was like senior Navy leaders had a bag filled with accountability and they pulled punishments from the bag and showed them to Congress, military and political leaders. When those weren’t enough, they went back into the bag and pulled out the court-martial.

“Is a court-martial the right action?” he wondered, speaking anonymously because he is still involved in the case. “Well, it’s in the bag, and if it’s in the bag we can use it.”

Lawrence Brennan, an adjunct law professor at Fordham University Law School and retired naval judge advocate with decades of expertise in international maritime law and casualty investigations, said he believed the courts-martial are unfair, with the most junior sailor charged receiving what Brennan sees as the harshest punishment.

Chief Petty Officer Jeffery D. Butler pleaded guilty in court-martial May 24 to one charge of dereliction of duty as the chief charged with training other sailors to use the ship’s complex navigation system. Confusion over operating the system was a key piece of the Aug. 21 collision, according to the Navy investigation. Butler testified that he was never properly trained to use it, but he acknowledged that he should have sought more training.

Butler was the only enlisted sailor brought up charges for either collision and the judge demoted him, despite the sailor’s pleadings that a loss of rank would cost him $200,000 in pay and retirement over the course of his lifetime.

To Brennan, the chief was served a burden far surpassing his responsibility.

“Since the captain and the officers did not receive such severe punishment, there’s arguably an injustice here,” he said.

The collision-damaged guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald sits in dry dock at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, July 11, 2017. Christian Senyk/U.S. Navy

“I am frustrated because I can’t see a message out of these cases,” Brennan said. “The message has to be to fix the training and fix the responsibility. But we are sending the message the responsibility is the lowest possible common denominator – the officers and crews on the ship. That’s not where it is.”

Learn from mistakes

While the Navy has acknowledged that it allowed readiness to wither and continued to push its ships on missions at a rapid pace, it limited criminal charges to the ship captain and below.

Brennan believes that’s unfair. Firing admirals or failing to let them retire with a third star is not equal to charging officers with crimes, he said. The Navy has an obligation to analyze the juncture between Individual responsibility and institutional culpability, which he believes goes beyond the operational chain of command to the administrative chain.

“There has been a reluctance for 75 years to bring a microscope to things that happen either in the fleet staff or in the shoreside command that cause or contribute to casualties,” he said. “I think we have to recognize there is institutional responsibility or culpability for what happens at the fleet.

“We don’t send lawyers to try cases without sending them to law school; we don’t get brain surgeons to operate without being board-certified,” he said. “I am not going to give somebody a multibillion-dollar ship who doesn’t know what he or she is doing. And that goes to the [Chief of Naval Operations], to the officers of the fleet.”

Lippold takes that argument a step further. The former Cole commander charged that the Navy’s top administrative leadership was insulating itself from accountability for the failures.

Navy leadership is top-heavy, he said, and bogged down by Washington politics. To climb the admiral ladder, commanders can have no marks on their record, so they become risk-averse at sea and learn to protect their reputations, he said.

“We have become a bureaucracy that doesn’t know how to man, train and equip the fleet but certainly knows how to protect itself,” he said. “This is once again the good old boys protecting the good old boys.”

He urged Navy leadership to own their mistakes, he said, to ensure a powerful surface force that can learn from its errors.

“I don’t want these young men and women to bear the full burden of what happened with those sailors getting killed while the Navy leadership is essentially silent on the issue of accountability,” he said. “These young officers have the weight of an entire Navy saying, ‘You were negligent and you caused these deaths.’ Be very careful how far you want to push that.”

A culture of ‘yes’

After his early retirement, Aucoin, the former 7th Fleet commander, wrote a piercing article in the April edition of the U.S. Naval Institute magazine Proceedings, stressing the broad scope of problems that led to the collisions.

In addition to the well-documented manning, training and repair issues, Aucoin also addressed key points in the Navy’s internal comprehensive review: the fatal combination of failing to maintain resourcing on pace with demand in the busy Asia waters, and a culture of demanding “yes” from commanders despite significant risks.

The 7th fleet was frequently tasked with missions on short notice, Aucoin wrote. Even when his fleet would respond to say it would not recommend the mission -- along with an explanation of the cost to training and readiness -- more often than not, they would be ordered to execute it anyway.

Aucoin owned his part in allowing such extreme stresses on his fleet. He “should have pushed back more” than he did, he said. But the admiral also worried that Navy top leadership’s unwillingness to listen to commanders on the scene could hamper its ability to fix long-term training and funding issues.

“I am concerned that in some quarters, these collisions are viewed and characterized as a ‘local’ Japan only problem,” Aucoin wrote. “There certainly were pressures on the fleet in Japan, but there are also indications of problems elsewhere,” he said. “Without a full understanding of what happened, we will be limited in our ability to address the root causes and ensure this does not happen again.”

A sign at the Yokosuka Naval Base Chapel encourages thoughts and prayers for USS Fitzgerald sailors and their families, Tuesday, June 27, 2017. Tyler Hlavac/Stars and Stripes

Aucoin limits his scope internally to the Navy. But in a recent commentary in the political newspaper The Hill, former Virginia Republican congressman and attorney Randy Forbes and Steve Cohen, an attorney who served 10 years on the U.S. Naval Institute board of directors, said that there also needs to be far greater candor in the way military leaders address those who hold the purse strings.

Speaking to Stars and Stripes, Forbes said that long before the budgetary constraints of across-the-board cuts called sequestration brought Naval leaders to testify that they were struggling, the admirals went before Congress and said they could handle cuts. They said they could get the job done anyway, rather than candidly spelling out the risks.

Those testifying had instructions from higher echelons of power on what they should reveal, Forbes said.

“Oftentimes those individuals are not given the leeway to truly come in and say, ‘Here are the risks,’” he said. “Their statements were critiqued or rewritten not just by higher-ups in the Pentagon, but also in the administration.

“It’s like a leaky roof -- we fix where it has a leak but we haven’t gone back to really correct the source,” Forbes said. “I am not advocating the rolling of heads. What I am advocating is the fixing of the problem.”

So much bigger

Xavier Martin’s father said he has begun to think of Navy leadership as self-serving, though he acknowledged that other grieving families don’t necessarily share his perspective.

On May 8, the first day of court-martial proceedings for the Fitzgerald, Lt. j.g. Sarah Coppock – who was officer of the deck that night -- pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty. Martin, who was in court and watched her cry as she took responsibility for her part, said he saw a puffy-eyed Coppock in the halls of the building and asked to speak with her privately.

In a closed room, he reached out and hugged the lieutenant, he said, and placed one of his son’s dog tags around her neck.

“I told her this was so much bigger than her,” Martin said. “I said she’s nothing but a scapegoat.”

A month later, after the dedication ceremony for his son, Martin spoke with Benson. He wants the commanding officer to answer for the failures of his ship, Martin said, but again, he believes there should be higher-level accountability.

“I said, ‘Lately, my definition of the U.S. Navy is of a big corporation,’” Martin said. “They are looking out for the vice president or the CEO. But the guy down in the mailroom is expendable.”

By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 15, 2018