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More Punishments Issued for Fatal Western Pacific Destroyer Collisions; Dates Set for Initial D.C. Criminal Hearings

USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) stands by before it is loaded onto the heavy lift transport vessel MV Transshelf. Transshelf will transport Fitzgerald to Pascagoula, Mississippi to complete repairs. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class William McCann/Released)

THE PENTAGON – Navy leadership has issued more punishments to sailors involved in the two fatal collisions in the Western Pacific, senior service officials told USNI News on Thursday.

The service held six non-judicial punishment hearings in Yokosuka, Japan, on Jan. 25 related to the collisions of guided-missile destroyers USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56). The head of Naval Reactors Adm. James F. Caldwell oversaw the hearings. He was appointed in October as the Consolidated Disposition Authority tasked to oversee additional accountability actions following the two collisions in which 17 sailors were killed.

Four sailors were issued non-judicial punishments as a result of the hearings in Japan.

Caldwell found then-Fitzgerald executive officer Cmdr. Sean Babbitt and command master chief CMC Brice Baldwin guilty of dereliction of duty that resulted in the June 17, 2017, collision of the coast of Japan that killed seven sailors. Both were issued a punitive letter of reprimands.

Babbitt and Baldwin were removed from their positions on the destroyer in mid-August along with Fitzgerald commander Cmdr. Bryce Benson.

Cmdr. Bryce Benson, Cmdr. Sean Babbitt and CMC Brice Baldwin were removed from their positions on USS Fitzgerald

“In another case involving a [Fitzgerald] officer, Caldwell reconsidered a previous finding of guilt and set aside the action based on his review,” read a statement from the service provided to USNI News.

Caldwell also oversaw three NJP hearings for one officer and two enlisted sailors aboard McCain on allegations related to the Aug. 21, 2017, collision of McCain and a merchant tanker off the coast of Singapore.

“Caldwell dismissed the NJP charges against one officer and one enlisted [crew] member. The second enlisted member was found guilty of violating Article 92 (dereliction in the performance of duties) of the [Uniform Code of Military Justice],” read the statement from the service.
“The member was awarded a punitive letter of reprimand, forfeiture of a half month‘s pay for two months and reduction in rate to the next inferior paygrade. The forfeiture of pay and reduction in rate were suspended for a period of six months.”

In total, 17 sailors have been issued non-judicial punishment on charges related to the two collisions.

In addition to announcing the NJP hearings, the service gave the dates for the Article 32 preliminary hearings for negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and hazarding a ship charges for the former commander and three sailors on Fitzgerald and the former commander of McCain.

Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez. US Navy Photo

Former McCain CO Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez will appear before a military judge at the Washington Navy Yard on March 6. Former Fitzgerald CO Benson will appear on March 7, and three Fitzgerald officers will appear on March 8 in a joint hearing, according to the statement.

Caldwell is expected to take additional accountability actions related to the collisions, according to the service.

Previously announced accountability actions include removing Vice Adm. Tom Rowden from his position as the head of naval surface forces earlier than his planned Feb. 2 retirement date.

Capt. Jeffery Bennett, commodore of the Japan-based Destroyer Squadron 15 to which both ships belonged; the Japan-based task force commander, Rear Adm. Charles Williams; and the commander of U.S. 7th Fleet, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, were all removed from their positions.

U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Scott Swift announced his earlier-than-expected retirement in late September.

While ongoing actions are still possible for sailors involved with the collisions, the Navy had previously stated that additional accountability actions beyond the senior leaders already disciplined were not likely.

“The CDA did find that sufficient and adequate actions have been taken against officers higher up in the chain of command,” Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Dan Day told USNI News in a statement on Jan. 17.
“The actions taken thus far have been firm but fair at all levels of the chain of command.”

The following is the complete Feb. 1, 2018 statement provided to USNI News.

WASHINGTON — Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran designated Adm. Frank Caldwell as the Consolidated Disposition Authority (CDA) on Oct. 30, 2017, to review accountability actions in relation to USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain collisions, and to take additional administrative or disciplinary actions as appropriate.

To date, in addition to the measures already taken, Caldwell has held six additional non-judicial punishment (NJP) hearings in Yokosuka, Japan, on January 25.

For USS Fitzgerald, the executive officer, command master chief and one officer were found guilty at NJP for violating Article 92 (dereliction in the performance of duties) of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Each was given a punitive letter of reprimand. And in another case involving an officer, Caldwell reconsidered a previous finding of guilt and set aside the action based on his review.

For USS John S. McCain, one officer and two enlisted members received NJP hearings during which Caldwell dismissed the NJP charges against one officer and one enlisted member. The second enlisted member was found guilty of violating Article 92 (dereliction in the performance of duties) of the UCMJ. The member was awarded a punitive letter of reprimand, forfeiture of 1/2 month’s pay for two months and reduction in rate to the next inferior paygrade. The forfeiture of pay and reduction in rate were suspended for a period of six months.

Additional CDA actions are pending. As appropriate, information will be available when action is complete. This is required to ensure a fair, thorough and equitable process and that members are afforded their rights.

The CDA has also appointed Preliminary Hearing Officers and scheduled Article 32 hearings to review evidence supporting alleged UCMJ violations against USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain crew members.

The hearings are scheduled to take place at the Navy Yard, Washington, D.C., on the dates as follows:
March 6, 2018: commanding officer, USS John S. McCain
March 7, 2018: commanding officer, USS Fitzgerald
March 8, 2018: Joint hearing on three officers of the USS Fitzgerald

The scheduled hearings are subject to change and will be posted on the regularly scheduled public docket issued by Naval District Washington, available at https://www.cnic.navy.mil/regions/ndw/om/northern-judicial-court.html.

An Article 32 hearing does not reflect a determination of guilt or innocence related to any offenses. All individuals alleged to have committed misconduct are entitled to a presumption of innocence.

  • Ed L

    NJP article 92 against one enlisted? Who? QMOW or the BMOW? Anyone heard anything else

    • D. Jones

      Why is the Navy protecting and hiding the identities of the OOD???

      • waveshaper1

        Maybe because the Fitz OOD was a Female?

        • John Locke

          maybe you’re a misogynist

      • Ed L

        I laid odds that it was the BMOW or the Petty Officer or Chief Petty Officer who was responsible for the Watch Quarter Station Bill seeing that one of the lookouts was not manned.

    • wilkinak

      I saw the CMC was found guilty of dereliction… he’s enlisted.

      • Ed L

        I saw that. But two other enlisted with to NJP

  • kye154

    The Navy is so heavily bent on punishing sailors, but not so much on training them properly. Who is the real criminal here?

    • Da Facts

      While I empathize the concern about training deficiencies, you don’t need specialized training to know “Though Shall Not Let Thy Ship Be Run Over By a Freighter” and certainly not let it sneak up on you in the process. Apparently, neither ship sounded an alarm about a pending collision, or took any action to avoid the collision, indicating that they were unaware of the merchant proximity until the collision. That’s not training, that’s a total loss of situational awareness that would seem to only come from complacency or inattention to basics.

      • MarlineSpikeMate

        They didn’t even understand the steering controls… and the OOD on the Fitz had a clear lack of situational awareness, brm, and understanding of SA equipment due to lack of training. Mariners the Navy is not.

    • wilkinak

      It really isn’t expecting much of a helmsman, or CO for that matter, that they know how to transfer control of steering. That is, or should be, one of the bare minimums for qualifying to steer a ship.

    • pismopal

      Acts need consequences. Collisions are not forgiveable acts in the navy. Do it right or stay out.

  • Retired CO

    You can punish everyone on that ship, but it won’t fix a d a m thing. Who really needs to be punished is all the Admirals who promoted the failed p.c. culture the surface Navy finds itself in. As with any organization, military or civilian, the cultural buck stops at the stop, not the bottom. If the Navy was really serious about “fixing” the problem then they need to completely clean house and start over, starting with the CNO and every surface admiral, and keep firing them down the ranks until you can find some decent O-6’s and even O-5’s who haven’t been totally corrupted (but good luck with that). In the meantime, move some bubblehead and blackshoe admirals (bring some Marine generals in too, they’ll turn it around in a hurry) to fill in the service Navy gaps while the new O-6’s and O-5’s are being brought up.

    • NavySubNuke

      True. But the OOD of the Fritz should still face some charges since he (or she) recognized collision was imminent and essentially did nothing for 3 minutes according to the timeline. Even if you don’t have any idea what to do at least sound the alarm and get people up and out of bed so they have a chance of surviving.

    • John Locke

      LOL, you would have a point if there had never been any collisions when the Navy wasn’t, as you say, a p.c. culture.

    • BillyP

      Admiral Byng – where are you when we really need you? He was shot, on his own quarterdeck, for “not doing his utmost”. This may be seen as a bit harsh in these ‘enlightened times’, but what IS a suitable punishment for Doing Nothing At all?
      And when will the current C-in-C speak? Or, especially, the former C-in-C – remember him? The One who got us into this mess?

  • NavySubNuke

    Hopefully at least one of the officers found guilty was the OOD of the Fitz considering they recognized collision was imminent and essentially did nothing for 3 minutes according to the official timeline. Even if you don’t have any idea what to do at least sound the alarm and get people up and out of bed.

  • tzayad

    In other news, people question how the Blue Ridge, which has been forward deployed to Japan for now over 40 years, has been able to manage that without a single collision. The response was that a ship has to be underway to have a collision at sea.

  • Michael W Ratigan

    Reliance on electronics without the eyes of topside watches hey the navy did away with their professional lookouts when they did away with the Signalman

  • D. Jones

    So the private sector can be protected from hiring an incompetent when they ETS.

  • Murray

    The floggings will stop when morale improves.

  • Andrew

    Please move the commander of the Seventeenth back into commission Pentagon and your hierarchy of incompetent incomplete terms system chevrons and admirals and Commonwealth generals

  • MDK187

    Dereliction of duty resulting in collision and death => non-judicial reprimand. Fvking joke.

  • szőlősi

    Az élet már csak ilyen . Hajós kapitányok is tévedhetnek .