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'This is not closure': Navy families want answers on McCain, Fitzgerald deaths

Rachel Eckels, mother of Petty Officer 2nd Class Timothy Thomas Eckels Jr., who died in the collision incident involving the USS John S. McCain, looks on as she is recognized and applauded during a House Committee on Armed Services hearing on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By CHRISTINA TKACIK AND JOHN FRITZE | The Baltimore Sun (Tribune News Service) | Published: December 19, 2017

On her living room table, Rachel Eckels keeps a note her son wrote when he was 4. On the refrigerator door hangs a later photo of the young man, movie star-handsome in his dress blue uniform.

And on the kitchen counter, in a FedEx box, is his death certificate.

Timothy Eckels Jr., 23, of Manchester, an Information Systems Technician 2nd Class aboard the USS John S. McCain, was killed in August when the destroyer collided with a tanker in the crowded Singapore Strait.

Eckels was one of three Marylanders killed this year in two separate collisions involving ships of the Navy’s 7th Fleet in the Pacific Ocean. Electronics Technician 1st Class Kevin Bushell, 26, of Gaithersburg, also died aboard the McCain Aug. 21. Petty Officer 1st Class Xavier Martin, 24, of Halethorpe, died aboard the U.S.S. Fitzgerald on June 17.

Now their families are grappling for explanations — and growing increasingly dissatisfied with the Navy’s response.

“I want answers,” Rachel Eckels said one recent afternoon in her Arlington, Va., apartment. In her lap lay an open folder filled with documents related to the crash.

“It just doesn’t make sense to us.”

The grieving parents are questioning the official accounts they’ve received from the Navy. They say the 72-page report released by the Navy last month puts too much blame on the ship’s crew while glossing over problems with training, manpower and maintenance that have plagued the Japan-based 7th fleet for years. And they’re angry at what they view as a lack of will in Washington to pay for the demands placed on the military.

“How dare you blame the crew?” said Darrold Martin, Xavier Martin’s father.

Martin said his son called days before the incident to say the ship lost power and was forced to return to its base in Yokosuka. Martin, a Navy veteran himself, said he later learned there had also been a problem with one of the ship’s radars. Neither incident was mentioned in the report.

The Fitzgerald crashed into the Phillipine-flagged container ship ACX Crystal off the coast of Japan in early-morning darkness.

“There’s more to it than this,” said Martin, waving a hand over the document on his dining room table.

The Halethorpe man also pointed to a near-miss in May, when the Fitzgerald almost collided with another ship.

“That wasn’t a wake-up call?”

The 7th Fleet, the largest Navy fleet deployed overseas, has suffered at least six high-profile accidents this year.

In January, the guided-missile cruiser USS. Antietam ran aground in Tokyo Bay. In May, the USS Lake Champlain collided with a fishing vessel east of the Korean Peninsula.

Ten sailors died aboard the McCain. Seven died on the Fitzgerald. The 17 fatalities represent more ship-related deaths in one year than the Navy has seen in at least two decades.

The 7th Fleet operates in some of the world’s most volatile waters. North Korea is rattling its neighbors and the world with nuclear detonations and missile tests, and China has angered the international community by building islands in the South China Sea. Both have drawn a large U.S. presence, and placed high demands on U.S. sailors.

Concerns about maintenance in the 7th Fleet have been well documented for years. More than a third of its cruiser and destroyer crews were operating under expired training certifications, the Government Accountability Office said in an audit this year, and two thirds of those had been expired for five months or more.

Last month, a C2-A Greyhound transport plane carrying 11 crew crashed into the Philippine Sea. Three crew members were lost.

For the families, each mishap provokes anew the fear that nothing has changed — that it will happen again, and again.

“How’s this our reality now?” asked Theresa Palmer, of Illinois. Her son, 23-year-old Logan Palmer, an Interior Communications Electrician 2nd Class, died on the McCain.

The Navy says it has taken steps to address the problems. The commander of the 7th Fleet, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, was relieved of his duty in August. Officials have stepped up training and required ships to begin broadcasting their location in congested waters — a technology often required on commercial vessels that the Navy rarely used.

They also have recommended further reforms, including creating a “fatigue and endurance management policy,” replacing aging radars and dozens of other new policies.

The Navy did not make anyone available for an interview for this article. Cmdr. Bill Speaks, a Navy spokesman, responded to The Baltimore Sun’s questions with a lengthy statement.

Speaks said the Navy “certainly regret[s] any doubts some of those family members may still have about how we have handled the investigation, or our duty to inform them.”

“From the moments after the first report of a collision involving USS Fitzgerald, through the release of our investigations into the collisions involving both USS Fitzgerald and USS John S McCain, we have had no higher priority than tending to the needs of the families of the sailors lost in those collisions.”

Speaks noted that, in addition to the collision reports, the Navy also released a more comprehensive review in early November that addressed some of the fleet’s more systemic problems. The report made dozens of recommendations about training, scheduling and maintenance.

He said the recommendations “will institutionalize a culture of safety and make the surface force more efficient and more effective.”

Speaks did not confirm or deny Darrold Martin’s account of an electrical problem. He said only that “an electrical failure was not a contributing factor to the collision.”

While the radar systems were operational, he said, one radar repeater — a visual display of radar data — was in “a degraded status.” Speaks said Navy investigators determined that the degraded display also was not a factor in the collision.

The Navy, along with the rest of the military, has been operating under budget constraints enacted by Congress in 2011. Officials have acknowledged that spending caps have placed enormous constraints on Navy operations. Lawmakers might be poised to lift them this year.

The Navy acknowledged that fatigue among sailors played a role in the Fitzgerald collision. On the McCain, Eckels says her son, a 2012 graduate of Manchester Valley High School, regularly worked 12-hour shifts, sometimes with as little as two hours rest between them. “I’m so tired,” he would say over and over again when they spoke on the phone.

“He was always tired,” Eckels said. “Always.”

Once, he told her, he worked 24 hours straight when a shipmate forgot to relieve him.

The GAO found that some sailors were often working more than 100 hours a week.

For Logan Palmer, from Decatur, Ill., joining the Navy was a chance to see the world far away from his small hometown. He was excited to be in Japan, a land he’d come to know through anime.

He worked hard, said his mom — harder than he’d ever thought himself capable of. One week he logged 100 hours.

“Our nation lost a lot of good men,” Theresa Palmer said. “Smart guys, who were possibly overworked and tired.”

Thomas S. Bushell stood on the front step of his Gaithersburg home, sucking down the last few centimeters of a cigarette as a huge American flag flapped in the breeze.

He’d quit smoking 12 years ago, but picked it up again when he learned his son was missing. For months, he says, he sat in his backyard, chain smoking as he flipped through old photos of his son, a 2009 graduate of Gaithersburg High School.

“That’s all I did,” he said. Bushell acknowledged that "most people think all their kids are perfect." But he stressed that his son was a man of honesty and integrity, someone with a "great soul" who knew right from wrong at an early age.

“To me, he was destined for greater things,” he said.

Like the others who lost loved ones in the collisions, Bushell said he believes there’s more to what happened than the Navy is saying. Families, he said, have received conflicting information about whether the sailors who died were awake or asleep at the time of the collision. He said he believes the McCain was sailing without a full crew on the bridge because a barbecue was held the night before to boost morale.

“They weren’t ready for it,” he said.

The report describes in harrowing detail the chaos aboard both the Fitzgerald and the McCain when the collisions breached sleeping quarters. As the last group of Fitzgerald sailors tried to escape up a ladder, the water reached their necks. One sailor said he had begun to breathe water when a shipmate pulled him to safety.

Ultimately, Bushell said, he believes the cause of the McCain crash was a failure of leadership.

“They put training aside to do missions,” Bushell said. “They were compromising the training … because they had to be out on patrol. They were on patrol twice or three times as much as any other ships in any other fleet.”

On the McCain, Navy investigators concluded there was confusion after the commanding officer divided the ship's steering and speed among different helm stations. Crew keeping watch at the helm had “insufficient proficiency and knowledge of the systems,” the report said. The bridge ultimately lost track of who was steering the ship, the Navy said, as well as the tanker's course.

The Navy found that the Fitzgerald did not have the right of way when it collided with the ACX Crystal. The bridge crew misjudged the Crystal's course and did not try to maneuver out of the way until it was too late. Furthermore, investigators found, “officers possessed an unsatisfactory level of knowledge of the International Rules of the Nautical Road.” Watch team members were “not familiar with basic radar fundamentals, impeding effective use.”

None of the sailors who died in the McCain or Fitzgerald collisions were blamed for the collisions. But that's not the point, said Martin. By downplaying the broader issues facing the fleet in the incident report, he said, the Navy isn't confronting the real problems.

“This is not closure,” Martin said.

Xavier Martin, a 2010 graduate of Lansdowne High School, followed his father into the Navy. Darrold Martin served six years in the Navy, rising to the rank of Petty Officer 3rd Class at his honorable discharge in 1985. He has worked as a contractor in cryptology since then. He kept young Xavier close by while he worked — once, he said, his son picked up a “Top Secret” stamp and emblazoned his forehead with it.

Now Martin has been busy sorting through Xavier’s things, which are being shipped home from Japan.

It’s the incidental things that get to him most. A fidget spinner he never knew his son had. The furniture, all the same colors as his own. They really had the same taste.

Martin still sends his son text messages, though he knows he won’t get a response.

“He was everything to me. He was my kid. He was my best friend,” Martin said. “I have nothing now. I have nothing.”

A kinship has grown up among the parents of sailors lost in the McCain and Fitzgerald. They’ve set up a Facebook group. They often call and text each other to check in.

“We have become kind of close,” Eckels said.

Leveled by grief, and in the absence of more information, the families have developed alternate theories as to what’s really happening in the faraway seas. Some have asked whether the ships were attacked, perhaps a cyber attack on their systems — an idea the Navy dismissed in both collisions. Others have noted that Chinese officials expressed “strong dissatisfaction” in August after the McCain sailed past one of its man-made islands in the South China Sea.

“There’s too many coincidences,” Palmer said. “I have not met one person that thinks it’s an accident.”

China has claimed sovereignty over a huge swath of the sea, drawing condemnation from the United States and other Pacific Rim nations. It's not uncommon for U.S. ships to sail past islands claimed by China and draw Beijing's ire.

The families continue to search for answers. They riffle through legal pads and folders filled with reports. All of them want more for their sons’ memories.

“It’s just like they were disposable individuals,” Eckels said. “They deserve way more.”

Despite their cohesion and unified purpose, each of the families are dealing with grief in their own ways. Eckels stopped wearing a watch after her son died. Time, she said, lost all meaning.

On a recent Sunday, Eckels walked to her son’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. She crouched down to arrange a small Christmas tree for the man she still considers her baby. In a couple weeks, she’ll bring him homemade Christmas cookies.

Some days are easier than others, she said. Holiday songs become so depressing when you’re grieving.

Getting up, she gave the marble a loving pat and whispered something to Timmy. She liked to call him Timmy.

Sometimes she tells herself he’s still in Japan, eating sushi. He just can’t get to the phone right now.

Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer, right, talks with Theresa Palmer, mother of Petty Officer 3rd Class Logan Palmer, before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Sept. 19, 2017. At left are Austin and Sid Palmer, the brother and father of the sailor who died in a collision between the USS John McCain and a tanker near Singapore on August 21. In the background is Rachel Eckels, whose son, Petty Officer 2nd Class Timothy Thomas Eckels Jr., also died on the McCain.
JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

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