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Former USS Fitzgerald Officer Pleads Guilty to Negligence Charge for Role in Collision

USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) sits in Dry Dock 4 at Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka on July 11, 2017. US Navy Photo

WASHINGTON NAVY YARD – Lt. j.g. Sarah B. Coppock was contrite and quiet when she pleaded guilty on a single criminal charge for her role in the collision between the guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and a merchant ship that killed seven sailors.

Before a military judge and almost a dozen family members of the sailors who died, she pleaded guilty to one violation of Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Coppock was the officer of the deck when Fitzgerald collided with ACX Crystal off the coast of Japan on June 17. As part of a plea arrangement, she told military judge Capt. Charles Purnell her actions were partially responsible for the deaths of the sailors who drowned in their berthing after the collision.

“My entire career my guys have been my number one priority,” she said.
“When it mattered, I failed them. I made a tremendously bad decision and they paid the price.”

In her plea, Coppock admitted that she violated ship commander Cmdr. Bryce Benson’s standing orders several times during the overnight transit off the coast of Japan, violated Coast Guard navigation rules, did not communicate effectively with the watch standers in the Combat Information Center, did not operate safely in a high-density traffic condition and did not alert the crew ahead of a collision.

Purnell sentenced her three months reduced pay and issued a punitive reprimand.

While Coppock did admit to wrongdoing, both the prosecutors and defense attorneys painted a picture of a difficult operating environment.

Bridge layout of Fitzgerald on June 17, 2017. US Navy Photo

When Fitzgerald collided with Crystal, the malfunctioning SPS-73 bridge radar was tracking more than 200 surface tracks – a mix of large merchant ships and fishing vessels near the coast of Japan, according to the findings of fact in the trial. Coppock was under orders for the ship to cross a busy merchant shipping lane – a so-called traffic separation – that wasn’t labeled on the charts provided by the navigation team. She was also ordered to keep the ship moving at a high-rate of speed during the transit – 20 to 22 knots. The high speed lowered the time the crew could react to ships around them.

Coppock said she didn’t rely enough on the officers on watch in the ship’s combat information center (CIC) to help keep track of the surface contacts as a back up to her crew on the bridge. Prosecutors and defense attorneys that the conditions aboard Fitzgerald made the collision more likely.

“Coppock failed in her duties, but she received very little support,” prosecutor Lt. Cmdr. Paul Hochmuth argued during the sentencing portion of the trial.
“Being complacent was the standard on USS Fitzgerald.”

During the sentencing portion of the trial, lawyers for the defense outlined the gapped billets and inability to complete training on Fitzgerald. For example, the ship had been without a chief quartermaster for two years before the collision, and the SPS-73 navigation radar was unreliable, defense attorney Lt. Ryan Mooney said, quoting from the Navy’s investigation into the collision. The watch stander in the CIC who operated the SPS-67 search and surveillance radar was unfamiliar with the system.

“Lt. Coppock was not put in a position to succeed,” Mooney said.
“She was set up to fail.”

As part of her statement to the court, Coppock described a tattoo on her left wrist that she got shortly after she returned to shore after the incident. The tattoo includes the coordinates of the location of the collision; the motto of the ship, “Protect your People”; and seven shamrocks, one for each of the sailors who drowned in the flooded berthing.

“I’ll never forget [the coordinates],” she told the judge.
“I spent two hours yelling it in a radio trying to get help.”

ACX Crystal off of Japan following the collision with the guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) on June 17 2017. The Yomiuri Shimbun Photo

The trial now supersedes a non-judicial punishment issuance by then-U.S. 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin for Coppock shortly following the collision. Her case was reconsidered for court-martial following the assignment of Adm. James Caldwell, director of Naval Reactors, as the Consolidated Disposition Authority who was appointed to oversee additional accountability actions for the Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) collisions.

One military attorney told USNI News that trying a service member at court-martial after assigning punishment at NJP was an unusual move.

“It’s unusual to follow [non-judicial punishment] with a court-martial,” Rob “Butch” Bracknell, a former Marine and military lawyer, told USNI News on Tuesday.
“So the increased punishment is effectively a couple thousand dollars fine and a misdemeanor conviction on a charge of dereliction resulting in death? What was the point?”

The charge Coppock faced on Tuesday as part of the plea agreement was less severe than charges announced by the Navy in January, in which Coppock and two other unidentified junior officers on Fitzgerald faced a combination of charges that included negligent homicide and hazarding a vessel.

While not specified in the trial, the nature of the plea agreement suggests Coppock will likely be a prosecution witness against the upcoming courts-martial of then-Fitzgerald commander Benson or the two other junior officers who have been charged, two military lawyers told USNI News last week.

The two watchstanders who were in the CIC during the collision will face a judge on Wednesday for preliminary hearings on criminal charges for their roles in the collision that include hazarding a vessel and negligence.

  • D. Jones

    “Purnell sentenced her three months reduced pay and issued a punitive reprimand.”

    For gross negligence resulting in deaths of sailors?

    • LT Rusty

      It sounds like the prosecution was endorsing her claim of mitigating circumstances. And it really does sound like she’s going to be doing quite a bit of talking about those circumstances at the trials of the people who created them.

  • Curtis Conway

    Naval Service has always been a dangerous business, and no amount of technology will ever negate that truth. There are few environments where mistakes can turn one into food for the inhabitants, or a safe stay time is sometimes measured in minutes. The high seas are only for the most serious. When you are there on a ‘Ship of the Line’ there is NO ROOM for anything but attention to detail, and focus on your assigned duties. There is no greater duty than to see to the safety of all hands, particularly when you are Officer of the Deck underway. Both cruisers on which I served, the junior officers were placed at the front of the line for learning ship handling, UNREP CON training, and bringing own ship alongside the pier, even without tugs. They also participated in the IC-man Preventative Maintenance checks on the ships alarm system every day from the various QD stations during the week. In CIC our PQS was to learn every console mode and job function in detail. A team player not only understands their duties, but those of interfacing elements so they can perform their function most efficiently, even under dire circumstances.
    Having read the proceedings thus revealed, I am convinced that Lt. j.g. Sarah B. Coppock is indeed contrite, and understands the ramifications of her misdeeds, given the circumstances at hand.
    It would appear that proper CASREPs, on all AN/SPS-73 Surface Search Radars across all classes of ships in such need of repair, be expedited . . . and an emphasis of training for all operators and technicians be emphasized and accomplished ASAP. This also makes the case for non-rotating AESA radar equipment that can maintain a constant radar picture, self-diagnose and report problems, while continuing in degraded operations. The 3-array face 3-RMA AN/SPY-6 should become a standard for shipboard operations on all vessels. That will sure bring the cost down with so many in production.

    • D. Jones

      Radar malf and no lookouts while transiting a congested sealane?

      Look at that bridge diagram.

      • Curtis Conway

        The spots aren’t filled in. I was lookout PO on both cruisers. My boys were good too (mostly Deck Division). She sure could have used some lookouts. Manning? The visual watch and SMs always helped the CIC team. Squawk boxes were always going. We did a lot of visual communications too. No SMs anymore? What is my Navy turning into? These guys are not just derelict, they are down right dangerous. We don’t have to put them in the rigging anymore, but they still have to be there. This is basic seamanship 101, and a fundamental element to safe navigation, particularly in congested waters. Mode 3 Ops must always be observed. So the moral here is there was NO ONE outside maintaining a visual watch . . . and the radar was broke? The women wanted to go to sea to show us how dangerous and professional they were. Time to do the deal.

        • Bud Wyllie

          Excellent assessment Curtis, the one thing I would add is that the CO has an “AT SEA” cabin adjacent to the bridge. That is where he should have been with the ship in a high traffic situation. Had he been there instead of the in port cabin, he might have averted the collision and certainly would not have been in the middle of the collision.

          • Curtis Conway

            The location of the At Sea Cabin being adjacent to the Bridge is very instructive. However, VISUAL monitoring 360⁰ from the Bridge remains sacrosanct. There is NO SUBSTITUTE for eyes on target in this regard. HiStorically, a visual watch is THE #1 REQUIREMENT for a bridge watch. Electronics can assist, particularly on the High Seas, and if SIMONE (Ship Infrared Monitoring Observation and Navigation Equipment) or similar system were operational and in use, it would mitigate the requirement, and potentially could replace that requirement if the equipment is optimally functional.

          • Bud Wyllie

            Had the Captain been in his Sea Cabin, it stands to reason that he would have been called by OOD to render his expertise on how to maneuver the ship to avoid the collision. Lookouts are indispensable.

      • Bill Ridings

        Any OOD worth their salt should be moving in a loop from bridge wing to radar repeater to other bridge wing….in a congested environment, that movement is repeated many, many times. And when you see a potential CBDR contact visually (no relative bearing drift) you give it a lot of attention. There was no need for a separate bridge wing lookout. LTjg Coppock was also on the Lieutenant selection list in Sept, 2016, so by this point in her career, she should have been competent. She says she made “a mistake”…..I wonder what she thought her mistake was….I see many mistakes.
        Culpability lies with those who trained her when she was a JOOW and JOOD, amplified by the truly stupid policy of fleeting-up XO’s to the CO’s chair. Also, let’s not forget the decision to end the SWOS in Newport and SD….that decision might have repercussions for years to come.

        • wilkinak

          For those not familiar with the Navy, the only requirement to be on the LT selection list is to be breathing.

          Virtually every Ensign makes JG and 99% of them make LT. It has been that way for DECADES. It is rare for anyone not to be promoted from those ranks.

          There was a rumor one of my power school classmates stayed an ensign for a number of years, but that was because he intentionally failed in the nuke pipeline & nukes are not forgiving people.

    • tiger

      Contrite? Great. Does that warrant a plea Bargain? And how does a Billion dollar DDG have fewer working eyeballs than JFK did in his ramming?

      • Curtis Conway

        I can speak to the wariness and accuracy of a West Texas Country Boy’s observation skills. I will let the Ivy League speak for itself.

  • RunningBear

    Seven dead shipmates are the warning to the Navy, Et al. what the politicians will demand when you ignore the standards of the USN. From the CNO down to the lowest recruit, the NAVY will now pay for what those unreasonable demands from the politicians and their sycophants, by not relying on the standards. If and when you don’t have the people, materials, systems, money or time to achieve a command requirement, then the risk may out weight the results. The Navy is at fault (not a LTjg) for sending this ship in harm’s way.

    “No Win” situations yield “3 mths, reduced pay and a punitive reprimand” and jeopardize what was hopefully a rewarding career.

  • Brian J McNally

    I see a OOD, JOOD, a Conning officer, a BMOW, and a QMOW. I would have traded the “Conning officer” position for even just 1 “Lookout!” Let the JOOD be the Con. In many night time, high shipping density situations, the Captain needs to be on the bridge for the transit – or needs to BE CALLED TO THE BRIDGE for the transit and let the deck log state that the OOD called the captain to the bridge even if the captain “likes it or not!” Let the skipper get mad at you and give you a lower grade on your FitRep. At least everyone would still be alive and still have a career.

    • Duane

      When your surface ship radar, which was found to be not working correctly and its operator unfamiliar with its operation, is tracking 200 plus targets in a densely populated shipping lane, and your OOD is not coordinating properly with CIC and is violating multiple CO’s standing orders, having one too few eyeball lookouts is not your main problem, and adding one lookout would not have prevented the collision.

      Like virtually all accidents of every kind, there were many contributing causes and factors.

      • airider

        Any investigation like this shows a long chain of issues that,if any link in that chain were broken, likely would have avoided this incident. Trading an officer looking at a scope for a topside lookout using their Mk 1 Mod 0 eyeballs and the RT system, could have been more effective.

        Most times, the simplest solution is the best.

        BTW, 200+ contacts is typical in many of the operating areas of U.S. Warships today. Japan, Singapore, Arabian Gulf, Mediterranean, Red Sea, San Diego, Norfolk, etc…

        • Duane

          A single lookout at night is less valuable than a functioning radar operated by a competent operator properly maintaining the plot in CIC under the command of a competent OOD who is doing his or her job correctly. A single lookout only has his/her eyes to rely on, cannot see unlit or improperly lit vessels, and cannot calculate speeds or projected tracks.

          The heart of any bridge team in crowded waters is the plot. No single lookout can serve as the plot. A lookout is merely a single data source for the plot. It is clear that the plot on this ship was not being properly maintained or communicated with the OOD.

          • tiger

            You still do not offer a plea bargain.

    • I agree! A junior officer should NEVER have been allowed to con the vessel. There was tooooo much traffic in a high traffic area and their bridge radar wasn’t working correctly. Captain shouldn’t been snoozing. Hang him and I believe the jg got off too light. Should have been canned from the Navy.

  • James B.

    A SWO Ens or LTjg is going to be a reflection of the commanding officer and the ship’s culture. That junior officer simply doesn’t have enough outside training or experience to be judged independently of the broader command. Consequently, if a LTjg (possibly an ensign at the time of the collision) is pleading guilty to negligence, the CO is going to get hammered for letting that happen.

    • airider

      Yep…Starts at the top (PACFLT), roles its way down

      • TerjeSanne

        I think it starts even higher. The culpability of the whole affair cooks down to three points: education, training and certification. In other words : look at CNO and above him.!

        • Leroy

          You forgot one more – COMMON SENSE! I’m not a SWO, but if I were in an imminent collision situation I’d at least sound GQ or a collision alarm (imagine, when this first happened people here criticized me for suggesting going to GQ. My response to them was, anything to rouse people out of their bunks. Even one extra minute of warning might have saved lives. But what do I know?). Anyway, this goes beyond bad head-work. Did everyone on the Bridge freeze? Even the Senior Enlisted? I still can’t get my arms around this!

          • TerjeSanne

            Common sense should have been vetted out during training and certification. My self being a retired Captain having served with the USN as a destroyer OOD and beeing spesialist trained by the RN as a qualified Navigation Officer. A part of that training included conning a frigate criss crossing the English Channel at night. I strongly feel that the Navy in this case is shooting the “piano player”

          • Leroy

            “Common sense should have been vetted out during training and certification.”

            Problem is, you’re talking about a lot of people present on the Bridge that night who seemed to be lacking.

          • tiger

            No…. the Piano player is getting no jail time so she can hang the bar owner & bartender.

      • Delbert63

        During the Obama administration, the things that got your promoted were not professional competence and warfare excellence, it was EEO, promoting Social Justice, gender equality, etc. DefSec Mattis is working to reverse this, but our military will be paying the price for the community organizer’s Alt-Left genealogies for years.

    • Matthew Schilling

      Could she have been elevated from Ensign AFTER the accident?

      • James B.

        Potentially. According to 10 U.S. Code § 624(d)(1), officer promotions can only be delayed if there are pending charges, separation proceedings, or they fail to meet section 5947, a catch-all for professional and moral standards not otherwise covered. If NJP charges had been adjudicated and the Navy wasn’t actively trying to separate her, Ms. Coppock would be eligible for promotion whenever the board came up.

    • Richard Johnson

      It does not appear that USS FITZGERALD was LTJG Coppock’s first ship. The photo of her shows her wearing a USS ASHLAND (LSD-48) ballcap. A PERS 41 newsletter from July of 2015 states that she qualified as a SWO in USS ASHLAND.

      It makes me wonder if she was properly requalified as OOD in FITZGERALD or if she was just “signed off” and placed on the watchbill. There are huge differences between being an OOD on a LSD vs a DDG (size, maneuverability, top speed, radar systems, etc.).

      I wonder if the fleet is doing the right thing when requalifying JOs when they move to a dissimilar class of ship.

      • James B.

        Good eye! If she got her SWO pin by July 2015, she probably commissioned in mid-2014, and was probably fairly close to the end of her tour on FITZGERALD when the collision happened in July 2017. By SWO standards, there was probably ample time to train her as an OOD on a DDG.

        I will note that aviators virtually never earn an Aircraft Commander or Mission Commander letter with less than 18 months in the squadron, and never on a second airframe so quickly, so the SWO community ought to reevaluate their training “program” with help from people who actually have a rigorous and standardized program.

        • Richard Johnson

          I made a mistake in the original post. It was an August 2015 PERS 41 newsletter that announced her SWO qualification. I cannot post links here, but you can find it online. The same document shows the “latest as of 2015” Division Officer Sequencing Plan for how long the two SWO Division Officer tours should be. I think that they are 24 months each for a total of 48 months with extra time for training in the mix for travel and assignments.

          There are multiple articles about the collision, but most do not report or ignore these important facts:

          1. USS FITZGERALD was in an Extended Drydocked Selective Restricted Availability (EDSRA) in Yokosuka from June of 2016 until early 2017. I cannot find the exact end date of that yard period, but she was out by April 2017. This was a major overhaul and the ship should have conducted refresher training on all of the new equipment and old equipment for the watchstanders.

          2. CDR Bryce Benson relieved CDR Robert Y Shu as Commanding Officer of FITZGERALD on May 13, 2017. The collision occurred just over a month after CDR Benson was in Command. CDR Benson was CDR Shu’s XO from November 2015 to March 2017.

          CDR Shu gets to walk away from this disaster to his new job at CTF 70 Headquarters in May 2017 with zero culpability for this incident. CDR Shu was the CO from December 2015 until May 2017 and he was also the XO of the same ship from May 2014 to November 2015.

          I am not making excuses for any of the Officers involved. I just want to provide the background on this case which has never been reported properly. They have made mistakes, but I agree that they should also get a fair and impartial trial at their trials.

          • yobroman

            I disagree with you bringing CDR Shu into this. Shu left in March, the ship remained in extended drydock until April. Let’s forget the fact that CDR Shu wasn’t on board when LTJG Coppock was put in charge that day. After the fact she admitted to failing to communicate with CIC, stated she had “trust” issues with LT Woodley, and pled guilty at her court martial.

          • Richard Johnson

            Please explain how CDR Shu left the ship in March and the Change of Command was held on May 13, 2017. There is an article on the Navy website that talks about the ceremony and gives the date. I can’t post a link, but the article is easy to find.

          • yobroman

            It’s a moot point. The Department of Defense’s own briefing on the matter, particularly statements made by ADMIRAL JOHN RICHARDSON, Chief of
            Naval Operations, states the flaws come from the top, which in turn caused the operators of both ships (Fitzgerald and McCain) to “rationalize” what the standards are, and whether or not to enforce them, based on lack of fundamental support.

            Secondly, consult testimony in the trial. Lt. Cmdr. Ritarsha Furqan, who was on board the USS Fitzgerald since 2014 prior to the incident, testified that she told CDR Shu her concerns the ship was “unsafe” due to numerousmechanical and training issues. CDR Shu responded by acknowledging this, yet told her they had to deploy. Again, this comes from the top.

            Even if you insist on blaming CDR Shu, or any particular people involved, then
            please also place as much accountability on the people who put them in charge in the first place.

          • Richard Johnson

            This is not a moot point as you seem to want to call it and shut down further discussion. It seems that you are an apologist or a defense lawyer for CDR Shu.

            CDR Shu worked for the fired DESRON 15 Commander CAPT Jeffrey Bennett.

            CDR Shu admitted to not doing anything with the maintenance problems on his ship. He helped set up this attitude with just getting underway with manning and material problems. CDR Shu was just “following orders” to get his ship underway. That is a tired WW2 defense.

            CDR Shu should be directly involved with this FITZGERALG investigation because he was the Commanding Officer until about 40 days before the collision. He set up the bad command climate for watchstanders that made it OK to not call the Commanding Officer per the standing orders. Bad habits and poor command climate did not happen in the month after CDR Bennett relieved him.

            Somebody should FOIA CDR Shu’s Navy Command Climate Reports for his time as CO of FITZGERALD before the other trials start.

            The Navy will never release these details, but I am sure that CDR Shu signed off on the OOD letter for LTJG Coppock, the TAO letter for LT Natalie Combs and Surface Warfare Coordinator letter for LT Irian Woodley.

            I will FOIA all of these records and show that CDR Schu signed all of them for their final qualifications.

          • yobroman

            You are now steering the conversation on a personal level. “I will FOIA all of these records and show that CDR Schu signed all of them for their final qualifications.” Really? If anything, YOU are the one pretending as though you are personally involved in the prosecution of CDR Shu in a make-believe trial.

            And because it’s not going anywhere near what you are talking about, doesn’t it tell you MORE about the lack of accountability at the top? If you disagree, where in the process should this have commenced? And by whom? You’re not talking about that kind of failure.

            Furthermore, you are avoiding discussing the specific assessment from the chief of naval operations. He certainly has more intimate details than both you or I have when it comes to his oversight of 7th fleet operations.

            Because you are not offering any explanation to the points I’m making, and adding projections of unrelated topics (me? a lawyer?) this IS a moot point, an exercise for you to “be right”, and every reason to shut down further discussion.

          • Richard Johnson

            I guess that you won this “moot” argument. I will leave this discussion and crawl back into my hole.

    • Oldflyer

      Oh BS. She testified that she ignored multiple standing orders and Command policies.

  • proudrino

    “Being complacent was the standard on USS Fitzgerald.”

    Being complacent was the standard of the entire 7th Fleet.

    • Duane

      And you know that how?

      • airider

        Read the news Duane….

        • Duane

          There are no, I repeat no “news stories” that claim or document that all or most or a majority or even a sizeable minority of 7th fleet ships are or were complacent. Two ships out of 70 suffered major collisions in 2017. That is 2 too many, but does not establish that the entire fleet was as poorly led as were the Fitzgerald and McCain.

          Apparently it did not occur to you guys that slandering an entire fleet composed of tens of thousands of sailors, based on the performance of 2 of 70 ships, is not only a misrepresentation of known fact but is also a scurilous thing to do … especially coming from a few armchair admirals of dubious expertise and entirely undemonstrated direct personal knowledge.

          • Jon Tessler

            there have been plenty of articles about short manning and lax training and stadard’s across 7th fleet. heck even the convening authorities report on the collision talked about this after the investigation into both collisions occurred(released in November 2017).

            The fact is ANY transit through congested waters should have the BEST Nav team on the bridge, along with either the CO or XO there in the event something comes up, that the OOD or Conn is not sure of.

            we can argue she “got off light” all we want, but she will live with the knowledge that her actions or lack of them and those under her, both on the bridge and in CIC cost the lives of 7 shipmates. That is a burden to carry that i wish on no one.

          • Duane

            Short manning does not equate to “complacent”, at all. Speaking as one whose billet was always short-handed (reactor operator on a Cold War SSN, such that I and my fellow ROs were forced to stand port and starboard watches under way on SpecOps about a third of the time. We were often exhausted but we were not complacent. Complacency is not common in the sub service).

            Complacency is an attitude that can afflict an individual, a division, even an entire crew if it stems from the CO’s own attitude and standards of command practice.

            To charge that an entire fleet is complacent, absent any investigation report that actually said any such thing, is a slander.

            Yes, many systemic contributing factors were cited in the several investigation reports. But not a one stated that the entire 7th fleet is or was “complacent”. Indeed, the senior naval leadership did state that many if not most systemic contributing factors were expressly NOT peculiar to the 7th Fleet.

          • Oldflyer

            The Commander of the 7th Fleet is not responsible for training. He should be assigned ships that are operationally ready in terms of crew and equipment. Sorry to say the USN needed a high profile scapegoat.

            It does sound a lot like the Navy that I knew back during the Vietnam and Carter years.

          • tiger

            The Sec Nav & CNO feel different.

  • johnbull

    Here’s a question for you folks who have been there. Who’s fault is it that there are no lookouts posted? Was it hers as OOD, or would that be with the ship’s commander? It is headscratching that when you have one malfunctioning radar, someone unfamiliar on the other, that there are no lookouts in a high traffic area.

    • forspoons

      Where is the Senior Watch Officer in all of this. The SWO reports directly to the CO about the members of the watch team, as well as being the principal officer overseeing watchstanding qualifications, and writing the watch bill. Prior to starting this transit, there should have been a Navigation brief where the requirements of the watch, special CO orders and who would be one watch at the time should have been established. Lots of failure before the ship left the pier.

      • OleSquidd

        It’s been a few years but I don’t seem to see any indication that a Navigation Briefing was held prior to getting underway. In my Navy it was mandatory for all members of the Bridge, CIC, Navigation and Commanding Officer to attend to discuss any potential issues.

    • tiger

      She had control of the bridge. If she lacked lookouts, she should have found some.

      • hrcint

        Exactly! Don’t assume the OOD watch if everything is not up to your satisfaction.

  • A2er

    A scapegoat. The Captain should have been on the bridge in such a congested area. But the folks at the top always find someone else to blame just like in US corporations.

    • Duane

      The CO and XO are facing much more serious charges at courts martial … this junior OOD was allowed to plea a lesser charge and receive a very light punishment. Also, senior officers up to flag rank were relieved of duty and/or forced into early retirement.

      This is not scapegoating – this is accountability at all levels of responsibility.

      • tiger

        Agreed. But the deal sucks.

    • proudrino

      “Coppock admitted that she violated ship commander Cmdr. Bryce Benson’s standing orders several times during the overnight transit off the coast of Japan, violated Coast Guard navigation rules, did not communicate effectively with the watch standers in the Combat Information Center, did not operate safely in a high-density traffic condition and did not alert the crew ahead of a collision.”

      These do not sound like the actions of a scapegoat. Nor do I agree with her lawyer that Coppock was set up to fail by conditions beyond her control. She isn’t the only officer involved culpable in this collision but she isn’t a victim and she most certainly is not a scapegoat.

    • @USS_Fallujah

      Quite the opposite, the prosecutor’s comment that “Being complacent was the standards on USS Fitzgerald” She was offered the opportunity to plea to a lesser charge in exchange for cooperation in the prosecution of the CO & XO, both of which IMO are looking at lengthy prison sentence for the death of 7 of their crew.

  • pennant8

    “Coppock was under orders for the ship to cross a busy merchant shipping lane – a so-called traffic separation – that wasn’t labeled on the charts provided by the navigation team.” When the first reports about this collision began to trickle out I suspected that crossing the traffic separation lanes probably played a role in this collision. My bridge experience pre-dates the age of digital charts. Traffic separation lanes were clearly printed on all paper charts. I would assume they would be on digital charts as well. The article says that the separation lanes were not on the charts in use at the time. Paper of digital? In either case, very strange.

    • Bill Ridings

      I’m wondering, in this case, if the CO’s night orders said something to the effect of “Be at (Latitude, Longitude) at time XXXX.” The CO (and the Navigator) should have known that to get to Point B from Point A, the traffic separation scheme (TSS) would have to be crossed. There are rules for crossing such schemes….or the OOD could have properly entered the TSS at one end, and then veered out at the appropriate time.
      The grades on “Rules of the Road” test given to other ship’s officers, discussed elsewhere as averaging less than 60%, is a huge red flag.

      • Delbert63

        The #1 standing order for OOD’s, is when in doubt call the CO. LTJG Coppock failed at this order. There is ALWAYS flexibility in the ship’s schedule to ensure the safety of the ship and crew!

  • PolicyWonk

    A sad, Sad, SAD day for the USN.

  • DaSaint

    Problems and failures in so many respects to this accident. Leadership, training, and maintenance all have roles in this fiasco.

  • Da Facts

    No lookouts. In a congested water way. In-FUCK-ing-conceivable. Yes, radars are wonderful things…when they work, if they aren’t misinterpreted, if they aren’t damaged. But lookouts will see things radars won’t, and see things danger close. No way a container ship could have snuck up on a destroyer if their had been even one alert lookout. The other problem with not manning lookouts, is the loss of the very essence of seamanship that lookout watches provided. The mix of officer and enlisted watch standing, the formality and seriousness it imparts on the process. These are warships, and they need to return to acting like them.

    • tiger

      Pt 109 times ten…

    • Jack Purcell

      No lookouts!! Unbelievable! When I served on a submarine many years ago, we would not leave the dock without two lookouts posted. They were posted as we went down the Thames river toward Long Island Sound! In dangerous situations(or worse as in battle stations), such as the Fitzgerald was in, we would add another lookout or even two more.
      A junior officer should never have been OOD at night in such a congested area—-our junior officers had the OOD duty during daylight hours.


  • Kim Chul Soo

    Was this little sweetie in over her head? Poor baby.

    • dotlane


      • Kim Chul Soo

        Back atcha mate.

        • tiger

          Ball bounced back to your court.

    • Duane

      No more so than the male CO and XO were.

    • wilkinak

      She was in over her head because she was poorly trained by the Navy and her command.

      IF she wasn’t capable of being OOD, she should not have been qualified. That lands squarely on the CO.

    • tiger

      I do not see any of her crew doing any better. Except the one who died trying to rescue those below.

    • jetcal1

      No sea clock on your 214 is there?

  • Matthew Schilling

    This is just appalling at so many levels. The specific failures committed by specific people in this fiasco was just a particular boil coming to a head on a much bigger wound. That is certainly borne out by essentially the same thing happening on another ship within such a short time frame.
    A smug complacency was allowed to fester. I’m just glad this pervasive, stale incompetence was revealed outside of open conflict. Otherwise, the anecdotal evidence might have been an ignoble defeat – with the loss of tens of billions in essential hardware, and the deaths of hundreds, maybe thousands, of crewman.
    Each of them would have had every right to assume, when they volunteered to serve, that their Navy wasn’t being run by a gaggle of Les Incompetents.

  • Patrick Bechet

    I was going to make a quip about female drivers, but I actually feel sorry for this officer. The United States Navy (not just 7th fleet) has incredibly poor SWO training, crews lack basic seamanship (surprisingly on shore and computer training using multiple choice questions does not great seamanship make) and lack numeracy and navigation skills. USN ships for years have been feared on the high seas by other mariners because of the sheer incompetence and arrogance of its officers in ship movement and communications. Having enagaged with many USN officers and senor POs myself about their roles, ships, missions, weapons sytesm etc I’ve found them to be, with exceptions, ignorant and misinformed. Talk to any RN or RAN officer about their USN counter-parts; its eye opening. I hate saying this and for years tried to ignore the obvious since I love the USN, but that’s the truth. Training of SWOs and indeed their calibre needs to be massively improved (stop sending the best to aviation and submarines), extensive reform is needed in training and career management. Improvements are happening, but its the bare minimum. This officer is a reflection of the very system that is now prosecuting her, not an exception. Note I say all the above as a civilian, not a service member, I’m open to being competely wrong (and indeed hope I am).

    • Ed L

      I spend my first eleven years at sea as a Boatswain Mate. Stood many a bridge watch as a lookout, messenger, lee helm, helm, BMOW, after steersman, even did a cruise as a backup JOOD when I was 1st Class ( ( we were short of junior Officers so certain 1st class and Chiefs were drafted). Our BMCM was OOD board qualified. Upon reading the article i really wonder why the Commanding Officer or the XO would at least not be on the bridge in a high traffic area. Over 200 contacts! Sounds like the English Channel. There should have been a navigation detail set at least. On one NATO cruise as a Boat Coxswain the amphibious group had a boat coxswains did a training course at Portsmouth England, the instructors were excellent and some of us colonials show them an few interesting maneuvers too A real learning experience

  • rmm200

    Sure, go after the low hanging fruit. A Lt JG was not responsible for this collision. No one under the rank of Captain was. “Military Justice” is somewhat a contradiction in terms.

    • tiger

      Bull. Low hanging fruit. She had more gear and crew to use than JFK did when he lost his whole boat.

  • Ruckweiler

    As a non-sailor, I find these navigation problems amazing. Hasn’t the Navy sorta done navigation before? Complacency seems to be a real problem here. While these incidents are regrettable, to say the least, these crashes don’t seem to be a Navy-wide phenomenon. Mind you, this is in peacetime. Hope the Navy doesn’t have these problems in combat.

    • tiger

      Well they have slacked in the training & are trying to do more with too few people. Add liitle sleep and darkness…. you get clusterbleep.

  • TomD

    “Lt. Coppock was not put in a position to succeed,” Mooney said.
    “She was set up to fail.”

    Are people trained to know they are in such a position? Are they trained to know what to do when they are (that is, other than CYA)?

    Sometime in combat you are not in a position to succeed. It would seem that their is a direct applicability here. If we train only for success, it might make it impossible to do well in spite of the circumstances.

  • hollygreen9

    I am an OLD sailor, that still remembers the days when women were not allowed onboard combatant ships.

    • tiger

      Non issue.

      • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

        That is your opinion…

        • Ed L

          It is a non issue. Unless the CO set her up to fail

          • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

            I doubt he did that. My issue is women in forward combat but I am old fashioned. Not sexist, just unit cohesion, especially, infantry and situations where a high probability of POW situations can occur…

      • hollygreen9

        So what is the non issue. All that I am saying is that we didn’t have these problems prior. This includes pregnancies, etc!

        • tiger

          We have had ship collisions before. Even had them cut in two. Not a female for miles. Non issue.

  • Scott C

    Ignore orders & kill 7 people…get a tiny fine and a REPRIMAND!!!! Ouch!! Yep, that seems fair. Typical Navy Clown “justice”. Psh…..

    • jetcal1

      “Coppock failed in her duties, but she received very little support,” prosecutor Lt. Cmdr. Paul Hochmuth argued during the sentencing portion of the trial.”

      Kinda’ telling there, ain’t it?

  • Bob Mhoon

    There was a severe deficit of common sense and unparalleled complacency. Not asking for help never works.

    In the early 60s I served on WWII Diesel subs and was a Radar operator in the conning tower. We were packed in like sardines when on the surface and the old SS-2 Radar with a tiny 10 inch scope was augmented by true navigators who constantly plotted a position via periscope and paper chart. The old Radar was hot enough to burn your belly. The operator also had to run a paper plot to manually compute target course, speed and CPA for each contact.

    There was always an OOD and two lookouts while on the surface. Sometimes it was so rough that they had harnesses and were chained to the bridge. One one op we were operating on the surface in 50 foot waves. The helmsman had to estimate when the next wave was coming over the bridge and slam the bridge to conning tower hatch shut. When timing was off he was greeted with a massive dose of sea water. It did get so bad that they had to secure the bridge and only had the OOD on periscope lookout.

    I served on four diesel subs and three nuke attack boats. There was never room for complacency. To earn your Dolphins, the process was the same for the cook as the ET. Final Cert. was to start in the bow and work to the stern with the qual officer. How do you fire a torpedo; In the engine room you were required to line up everything needed to start and run one massive engine. If you hit the air start pedal and it ran you moved aft. In the electrical controller room you had to demonstrate how to position each of the multiple motor control levers to get the boat underway. The essence was to ensure that the single duty section could get underway in any emergency.

    • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

      Sounds amazing. I commend you for surviving it. I oft wonder, if men like you exist today, in the US…

    • Ed L

      On the 4 ships I served on. We would usually have two to three lookouts a BMOW, QMOW, Helm, lee Helm, messenger. Sometimes we would go to one forward lookout and no lee helm CIC would usually supply a plotter for the bridge. We had an SPS-10 repeater on the bridge that almost every bridge watchstander learn to used, I learned MOBoard as a BMOW Some junior officers thought they could do it on there own. But many learn the value of a good bridge team. we usually had the same OOD and JOOD each watch

  • Ed L

    It is so simple. The OOD forgot the number one rule. When in doubt call the CAPTAIN!!!

  • NorthAndoverSnark

    Any update on what happened at the Article 32 hearing today? The two officers on watch in CIC were supposed to appear today, right?

  • tiger

    Bad plea deal. She getting off light just to hang the CO & XO.

    • wilkinak

      Training her is the job of the CO & XO – they should hang.

      • tiger

        Long run, true. Stuff runs downhil.

  • Jack D Ripper

    She gets a slap and flips on the CO and others,,poor thing and that tough tattoo

  • D. Jones

    Let’s see what the story is with the OOD on McCain.

    • Richard Johnson

      I completely agree! Nothing will happen to the OOD in McCain with that collision at sea. That CO was on the bridge and ordered things that eventually caused that collision.

      The McCain story is much different because the CO was on the bridge and gave orders that caused the problem.

  • Bhess

    A CO has to set up his people for success by not sailing to ship out of the congested area for the night the CO set his crew up for tragedy.

  • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

    Why don’t ships use anti-collision transponders like aircraft? TCAS and ACAS? I mean, same issue, much lower dynamics?

    Maybe they do? I realize non-compliance with hostiles and small craft is a issue but negotiating the Sea of Japan at peacetime seems like it should be manageable with a high level of automation augmentation with alert crews?

    I realize hostile waters, and wartime are a exception but in a busy seal lane with freighters, sharing TSPI info is almost a trivial matter technologically?

    • homey

      the SPS-73 radar is supposed to support the automated radar plotting aid(ARPA) which includes collision avoidance…..i’d like to know exactly the scope of the supposed casualty their 73 radar was having and what settings they had their SPS-67 radar set to…

      • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

        Well, in my thinking, each ship has a active transponder. So the radar is somewhat moot. I realize, on a warship, this is not always possible but in many cases, in shipping lanes, and on a peacetime footing, it seems to me the same anti collision hardware might make sense?

        Maybe they do, my speciality is aviation.

  • NofDen

    This problem and collision may go back to Congress cutting funding for the military.
    These problems listed go back to at least the commanding office, XO.
    A Senior officer should have been running the show. Making sure all the systems were
    operating. Also needed more outside watches.

  • NofDen

    This also sounds like a training problem. CO/XO not taking care of business.
    This may go back to Congress cutting funding to the military about
    eight years ago. When another collision happend, they discussed Navy Training.

    All the conditions call for outside watches and a more Senior Officer keeping track of this
    transition of a busy shipping lane at night.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    I worry that the Navy will use these proceedings to punish some but not all who deserves punishment. There are a lot of questions that have yet to be answered, at least in the sources I have accessed. Looking at the manning chart provided, why on Earth would lookout positions not be manned? WHO is responsible for that? Does an OOD have the authority to order someone to man those positions? 15 positions are listed on that chart, and all of 6 were filled. Was this the rule or the exception? It has been well known for years that Navy ships often sail while technically undermanned. The article mentions “gapped billets” and lack of training. Why have certain equipment on board any platform if the personnel on that platform don’t know how to operate it, as the article also pointed out concerning the SPS-67 search and surveillance radar? The SPS-73 was ‘unreliable’? Wow! Just….Wow!!

    “Being complacent was the standard on USS Fitzgerald.” If that is indeed true, that is the biggest indictment in all of this. ‘Complacent’ can mean a lot of things, most of them bad in this case. Was there an atmosphere in place to deter or discourage subordinates from asking relevant questions? Was there an atmosphere in place that “all was always under control”? Let’s see here. If what is alleged in the article proves to be true, then we had one of our most sophisticated warships traversing an extremely busy and crowded shipping area at a high speed while undermanned and with unreliable equipment. And the Navy is going to be content to target the j.g.’s and just the ship’s company? This strikes me as an institutional failure.

  • Warships with too-small crews. Trying to save money. Who can do the myriad tasks at sea and ashore? Who will fight the ship while the battle damage is being repaired? Simply not enough personnel. Then toss in incompetency and lack of professionalism and the seas are getting mighty choppy.

  • dmoore1961

    My take (admittedly from a partialy ignorant Point Of View / Experience, b/c I was Land Warfare/ Army) is what about the CO? Knowingly transiting a Heavy Trafficed Area ‘would seem’ to demand this ship’s BEST & MOST SENIOR Officers (I know, sometimes not the same)! The Captain must bear RESPONSIBILITY FOR His/Her Sailors..in fact, that IS The Military’s Definition Of responsibility. Officer’s & senior NCO’s must develop their sailors/soldiers willingness & readiness to be responsible for themselves & THEIR ACTIONS, when accepting the weight of command! Obviously (imho), this DDG-62’s CO’s &, to a lesser degree, XO’s responsibility for those Sailor’s deaths is void. OUR Nation’s warriors deserve better. OUR Country deserves better. IMHO, VERY FEW (during my service [1989-1997] & experience) are the military’s leaders who shirk their responsibility! When I was at my 1st “Hail & Fairwell” Party [Ft. Lewis, WA], I fortunately had the Honor To Talk Alone with the Then (1992) CO of the 2nd RANGER Bn & he told me “..there’s only one thing you have that can’t be taken away & will surely determine who you are in OUR Army, YOUR WORD! You have to Honor & Protect YOUR WORD, because no one else will & it WILL BE YOUR SUCCESS or your Failure.” I still vividly remember that (Now 26-YEARS AGO!!!). I was fortunate to have served with many great.., responsible Soldiers who kept THEIR WORD & were/are RESPONSIBLE. Since all those years, have American’s Military Leaders fallen from Honor. Fallen from Responsibility? The wo/men of OUR Military whom Obama appointed to higher than deserved leadership positions will harm OUR Country for many years to come. Was DDG-62’s CO & XO two of THEM?

    My sincere apologies for my lack of brevity. My UTMOST Condolences to the families of those lost sailors ~ May The Wind Always Be At Your BACK & The Sun Always On Your FACE, Brothers! R.I.P.🇺🇸

    et semper in fronte ~ MI Motto.

  • tiger

    No, the list of issues at sea and ashore does give that impression.

  • tiger

    While the Navy is cleaning house, what about the tanker crew??? They seem equally at fault. Why were they not seen? Who was on their bridge?

    • Vetus nauta

      The warship was the “give way” ship – rule 15 International regulations s for preventing collisions at sea. The boxboat would have neither the speed nor the manoeuvrability to take avoiding action in the last minutes of the warship approaching her. The warship also had her AIS switched off and may not have shown up on the boxboat’s radar. That sad collision was comparable to a pedestrian being hit by a truck on a pedestrian crossing – unavoidable!

      • tiger

        And where was their Capt.? Their lookouts? No radio call?

        • Vetus nauta

          Hi Tiger. The OOD on the cargo ship had seen the warship and had signalled a warning by light,(Rule 34). He would have been unable to radio the warship because as USS Fitzgerald didn’t have its AIS switched on the cargo ship wouldn’t have known what ship to call. The enquiry couldn’t seem to decide whether the warship was a crossing or an overtaking vessel but that doesn’t matter as in either case the Fitzgerald was in a “giving way” situation, (Rules 13 & 15). I’m afraid the warship had no excuse, it was just bad seamanship. The USN by their reaction to this incident have accepted this fact. The latest report states that Fitzgerald’s radar was not tuned properly and only showed 4 or 5 targets whereas the cargo ship was tracking over 30 targets. It was a tragic accident, I’m afraid that US OOD was let down by her team.

  • Vetus nauta

    Speaking as a retired ship master with 40 years experience this is what disturbs me most about this incident. That a junior grade officer was allowed to be OOD of a speeding ship in congested waters at night, whilst senior officers slept in their bunks. It defies all common sense. It shouldn’t happen on any ship, military or civilian. The Captain was responsible, Coppock was a scapegoat.

  • Michael Fredenburg

    After the fact, one can no doubt point out the things that should have been done differently that would have prevented the collision. But taking such an approach ignores the fact that it is the many years of decisions made by Senior Navy leaders and politicians who have utterly failed in their oversight duties that have destroyed the resilience of systems developed over centuries to prevent such accidents. Training has been radically reduced, both in quantity and quality. And the number of human watch-standers has been reduced under the flawed assumption that tech could replace them.

    It is a systemic problem and the people who are having their careers destroyed are part of a CYA exercise to divert attention from an increasingly dysfunctional system. It is past senior Navy leadership that created the situation that radically increased the chances such accidents would occur. Sadly, most of them have moved on to cushy jobs with defense contractors and will never be held accountable.

    But never fear, we may shortchange training, but we will never short-change investing in high risk, poorly thought out, unreliable, budget busting systems that each year and decade deliver less and less bang for the buck.

  • Delbert63

    Coppock, the OOD, and Benson, the CO, should be held accountable. They were the ones responsible for the safety of the ship and the lives of the crew. CIC was in a secondary roll to the bridge watch the Coppock was in charge of. Just watching the bearing drift of contacts should have given her a quick way to identify any potential threats to the ship. The Navy has become too complacent and relies too much on electronics.

  • Shane Broughten

    No lookouts? We never sailed without them. ( NOT ON MY WATCH, NOT IN MY NAVY). Former BMOW, USS New Jersey BB-62.

  • According to former British Colonel Kemp, women have no warrior ethos! Off they should go.

  • Merkaba

    How come the sailors had to sign Non-disclosure agreements when returning to home-port? Before you pass judgement on anyone, look at the AIS of the ACX for that early morning ramming.. From whom did the Japanese Coast guard get the distress call to aid DDG-62? That’s right! The vessel that had COMMS working- not the one dead in the water!