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Former USS Fitzgerald CO Benson Vows to Take Collision Case to Trial

Cmdr. Bryce Benson, then-executive officer, assists in bringing down the battle ensign aboard USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) in 2016. US Navy Photo

This post has been updated with a statement from the Navy.

The former commander of the U.S. warship involved in a fatal collision off the coast of Japan last year is vowing to take his case to court-martial and is accusing Navy leadership of trying him in the press before his trial.

Former USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) commander Cmdr. Bryce Benson will not seek a plea deal on charges of hazarding a vessel, dereliction of duty and negligent homicide and intends to take the case to court-martial, according to a statement from his attorneys provided to USNI News.

“Cmdr. Benson was the Commanding Officer—and rightly understood the accountability that is the historical burden of command at sea. As such, following the collision, he declined his right to appeal both his non-judicial punishment and his detachment for cause by commander, U.S. 7th Fleet,” read the statement.
“A fair court-martial will expose the facts of the collision’s causes and Cmdr. Benson’s actions.”

According to Navy investigation summaries, Benson was sleeping when the bow of ACX Crystal smashed into the side of the ship, bending the metal of his stateroom leaving him clinging to the side of the ship for 15 minutes before the crew rescued him.

“Cmdr. Benson commanded Fitzgerald a mere five weeks, and irrefutably was in his stateroom when the ship collided with ACX Crystal,” the statement read.
“It has also been clearly established that he was never alerted his ship was in danger, in direct contravention of his standing orders.”

Benson was given an unspecified penalty following a non-judicial punishment hearing and was removed from his position as ship commander by then-commander of U.S. 7th Fleet Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin several weeks following the collision, but before the fatal Aug. 21 USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) collision. Following the McCain collision, Aucoin was removed from his position and forced to retire early.

USS Fitzgerald pier side at the U.S. naval base at Yokosuka, Japan in June 2017.

Following the McCain incident, Navy leadership appointed Adm. James F. Caldwell, director of Naval Reactors, to serve as the Consolidated Disposition Authority to oversee accountability actions related to the Fitzgerald and John S. McCain collisions. Caldwell’s decisions would supersede any previously made accountability actions, and in January Caldwell elected to bring the much more serious criminal charges of hazarding a vessel, dereliction of duty and negligent homicide against Benson and three junior officers who were on duty during the collision.

The officer in charge of the bridge during the June 17 collision has already pleaded guilty as part of a plea arrangement. Lt. j.g. Sarah B. Coppock, the officer of the deck at the time of the collision, pleaded guilty to a single charge of dereliction of duty as part of a deal that could include testifying against Benson or the two other junior officers on duty who were charged: Lt. Natalie Combs and Lt. Irian Woodley.

Combs and Woodley appeared in court as part of an Article 32 preliminary hearing last week before a hearing officer who will offer a recommendation to Caldwell whether or not to proceed with the trial.

Benson waived a similar hearing on his own criminal charges. In his statement, his lawyers said the decision was to spare the families and the crew “any unnecessary recitation of events and circumstances surrounding the tragic collision.”

In addition to pledging to go to trial, Benson’s statement accused Navy leaders of waging a public relations campaign that would hurt his case.

“Cmdr. Benson’s approach to accountability stands in stark contrast to the Navy’s method of litigating this case through the media and other out-of-court opinions and declarations from senior Navy leaders,” the statement read.
“As Cmdr. Benson recuperates from his own debilitating injuries and proceeds through the institutional, administrative and disciplinary procedures triggered by the collision, senior Navy leaders have repeatedly used public forums to assign guilt, foreclose legitimate defenses, and cast unwarranted aspersions.”

For example, shortly after Benson was removed from command in August, 7th Fleet issued a statement saying the ship suffered poor leadership.

USS Fitzgerald bound for the U.S. naval base at Yokosuka, Japan following a collision with a Philippine-flagged merchant vessel. The Yomiuri Shimbun Photo

“The collision was avoidable and both ships demonstrated poor seamanship,” read the statement.
“Within Fitzgerald, flawed watch stander teamwork and inadequate leadership contributed to the collision that claimed the lives of seven Fitzgerald sailors, injured three more and damaged both ships.”

The Navy issued a response to the statement to USNI News.

“These earlier administrative actions are separate and distinct from the ongoing criminal proceedings convened by the CDA,” read the statement from the service.
“The Navy’s public discussion of earlier administrative actions does not imply guilt of [Uniform Code of Military Justice] charges. Those accused are always presumed innocent unless proven guilty, and our communication of the status of criminal proceedings have been fact-based and in accordance with service regulations.”

With Benson electing to waive his Article 32 hearing, he will now wait for Caldwell’s determination on which charges he may face at trial. His hearing would have been on May 21, and it is now unclear when Caldwell will make a determination.

The following is the complete May 15, 2018 statement from Cmdr. Bryce Benson’s Attorney.

As always, Commander Benson’s first thoughts remain with the families of the fallen FITZGERALD Seven, the crew who continues to recover from the tragic collision at sea, and their families. Every day, he grieves for his seven brave Sailors who lost their lives.

Yet, even as Cmdr. Benson recuperates from his own debilitating injuries and proceeds through the institutional, administrative, and disciplinary procedures triggered by the collision, senior Navy leaders have repeatedly used public forums to assign guilt, foreclose legitimate defenses, and cast unwarranted aspersions. This effort includes last week’s Navy press release containing the callous implication that by declining to plead guilty at court-martial, Cmdr. Benson refuses to “accept responsibility.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Cmdr. Benson commanded FITZGERALD a mere five weeks, and irrefutably was in his stateroom when the ship collided with ACX CRYSTAL. It has also been clearly established that he was never alerted his ship was in danger, in direct contravention of his standing orders. Nevertheless, Cmdr. Benson was the Commanding Officer—and rightly understood the accountability that is the historical burden of command at sea. As such, following the collision, he declined his right to appeal both his non-judicial punishment and his detachment for cause by Commander, U.S. Seventh Fleet.

He has also taken every opportunity to spare the families of the fallen, and the Fightin’ FITZ crew, any unnecessary recitation of events and circumstances surrounding the tragic collision—including by unconditionally waiving his right to a preliminary hearing at court-martial.

Cmdr. Benson’s approach to accountability stands in stark contrast to the Navy’s method of litigating this case through the media and other out-of-court opinions and declarations from senior Navy leaders. Rather than achieving accountability, the Navy’s strategy harms the very system of justice that is designed to protect Sailors. Congress enacted the Uniform Code to provide every service member a constitutional framework to separate fact from fiction—so justice can prevail. A fair court-martial will expose the facts of the collision’s causes and Cmdr. Benson’s actions. Subverting this time-tested process through extra-tribunal statements only undermines fundamental fairness and erodes public confidence in the entire military justice system.

Despite the Navy’s prejudicial public affairs approach, Cmdr. Benson awaits the outcome of his law-bound, fact-finding tribunal, and hopes for a swift and just conclusion to these proceedings.

  • D. Jones

    “Caldwell elected to bring the much more serious criminal charges of hazarding a vessel, dereliction of duty and negligent homicide against Benson and three junior officers who were on duty during the collision.”

    Giving the OOD 3 months reduced pay and a bad letter. Similar for the two in CIC. As stated in another USNI article, it’s “deal city”, and the people who didn’t do their jobs that night are being let off with a slap on the wrist. Sailors died. Politics at its worst.

    A trial may be the best sunlight for what was a series of gross errors. Benson may well be ultimately at fault, but it’s easy to understand why he would request a trial. Perhaps trials should have been in order for the flags who were allowed to retire (with full pensions). The significant numbers of collisions and groundings is bigger than an individual captain or ship problem.

    I have never in my life heard of any organization investigate anything and find “we are at fault”. There’s always a scapegoat or some nebulous “process” that nobody owns up to.

  • Paul Berkebile

    There are many inconsistencies & unanswered questions in the official narrative. Was the nav radar working or not? Why was the ACX Crystal’s AIS transponder acting like a Class B transponder before and immediately after the collision, but later reverted to Class A timing? Where were the XO and Navigator at the time of the incident? These and other issues have been discussed on the YouTube channel of “Florida Maquis.”

  • proudrino

    It’s an interesting tactic by CDR Benson’s lawyers. They are tying to turn him into an unfortunate victim of circumstance.

    When I took command, everything that happened from the moment I said “I relieve you sir” was my responsibility. The legal tactic here seems to be based on trashing the previous CO and the Navy. And what of the fact that CDR Benson fleeted up from XO? Doesn’t that mean any faults in the crew before his five weeks in command were, in part, due to shortcomings in how he performed his previous responsibilities.

    It appears to me that CDR Benson’s legal team are the ones attempting to try this case in the court of public opinion where “he only was in command for five weeks” may play better than in the actual trial. CDR Benson deserves all the benefit of doubt and protections of the military justice system but sending out his lawyers to claim victimhood smacks of whining and blame shifting than a valid legal defense.

    • bob

      My apologies Sir, but you state he was the XO on the same ship prior to becoming CO?

      It’s been a long time since I served the flag, and the Coast Guard does things different than the Navy, but I thought once you got promoted, you moved on to another command.

      If he was the XO, then shame on him; he knew the ship, the crew and any deficiencies. It’s one thing to have ideas on how you’d run things if you were the boss, but totally something else once you ARE the boss.

      Certainly, it takes time to sort things out. As a fire service officer, I’ve found it prudent to keep my mouth shut and observe before before implementing changes at a new command, getting to know the flow, your subordinates, the “culture” at the new shop. But if he was the XO, he knew.

      Five weeks should have been more than enough to square away at least the watchstanders and sort the immediate glaring issues.

      • proudrino

        CDR Benson took over as XO of Fitzgerald in November 2015 before assuming command in 2017 as part of the Navy’s “Fleet Up” program. My criticisms of that program are a topic for another day.

        Because he had been aboard as second-in-command for that long, his (or his lawyers’) complaints about his short tenure in command seem to be less valid than would be the case if he was newly reported to the Fitzgerald. There is more validity in the fact that his standing orders were ignored by the watchstanders in combat and on the bridge. But that comes back to the fact that monitoring watchstander performance was part of his duties as XO.

        No matter the outcome of the military proceedings, CDR Benson will have physical and emotional issues for the rest of his life as a result of the Fitzgerald collision. Nevertheless, this public declaration of being the Navy’s scapegoat comes off more as lawyerly trial tactics than an unfair representation of the facts.

        • bob

          Thank you for that concise explanation.

          I suspect your views on the “fleeting up” program are not unlike mine when we promote someone and keep them in that command or put them back after a couple of months. It is a recipe for shenanigans. When I was first promoted I had a significant change of scenery and I think it made me a better Fire/EMS officer. Keeping people in place leads to at best complacency and at worst cronyism. I suspect that is what happened here. He never cracked the whip as the XO, and people took liberties.

          While I really feel for CDR Benson, as he will bear this for the rest of his life, you hit the nail on the head; He knew the ship, it’s strengths and weaknesses. That there were people in the chain of command who thought it was ok to ignore his standing orders, is breathtaking.

          • Ser Arthur Dayne

            Im pretty sure the fleet-up program is designed for 3 year assignments…you have been already identified for the command grooming and fleet up program, and you get assigned to a ship with a 3 year tour, as the XO. The previous XO will have just been promoted to CO. Then after 1.5 years as CO, you’ll “fleet-up” and become the CO, and the prior CO ends his 3 year tour and moves on.

            I am not a fan of this, and I am not a fan of the military up-or-out system, but that is how it is and no one cares what I think lol.

          • bob

            I’m surprised. The reasons to promote out of a command make sense; that guy you hit the bar scene with is now your subordinate. “Remember that time…” Or you are aware of some sad story involving a subordinate, and cut some slack on a critical issue. Nothing good comes out of any of that.

            It still comes back to he knew the ship and any strengths and weaknesses. He had some time to address them. granted five weeks may not be that much, but enough to establish command authority. And judging from the comments by the JOs so far, “standing orders” appear to be “standing suggestions” on that particular ship under this Captain.

            I agree, up-or- out is counter productive. Unfortunately, no one is interested in my opinion either! lol

  • James B.

    CDR Benson may have only been CO for five weeks, but he had been XO before that. The XO is focused on personnel training and discipline, so the failures of the junior officers on the bridge are directly on him.

  • David C

    The Skipper needs to bring the CNO and CINCPAC in to testify why they routinely sent poorly manned and poorly maintained ships to sea. Big Navy needs to be on trial here.

    • Marc Apter

      That won’t happen! The DoD political structure, the Navy Political structure, and the Flag Officer structure won’t allow that precedent to e established.

      • David C

        I’m afraid you’re right Marc. I spoke with Senator Cotton’s office regarding this issue. At least he was interested.

        “At the end of the day” it always comes down to this: If you don’t go to sea with the crap we give you, we will find somebody who will. That is what the CNO has been saying, on down the line to the guy who actually has to go to sea. Big Navy needs to be on trial here.

        • proudrino

          “At the end of the day” it always comes down to this: If you don’t go to sea with the crap we give you, we will find somebody who will.

          Has that actually been put to the test? Has any CO reported “unable to get to sea because of the crap you gave me to work with?” Or if told to go to sea anyway, has any CO bucked the decision?

          That being said, you can’t indict and convict “Big Navy” in the middle of a perfectly legitimate court martial of a single incident. You are conflating two very different issues. One is a tactical/operational failure the other is a strategic gap in readiness. CDR Benson and the seven sailors who were killed deserve accountabiliy based on what actually happened without dragging in systemic and cultural problems with Fleet readiness. These problems may be brought out as contributing factors but “Big Navy” needs to be tried separate of these proceedings.

          • AJG45

            …”you can’t indict and convict “Big Navy” in the middle of a perfectly legitimate court martial of a single incident.”

            You absolutely can, and must. If it isn’t done here, it will never happen. I don’t disagree with the responsibility of the Commanding Officer in these cases, but BIG NAVY is not going to change unless somebody makes a huge public issue out of it and this is the only forum for that. Retiring a few senior flag officers early on solid six figure retirements IS NOT seriously addressing the problem. Quite the opposite, it is condoning the status quo while throwing a scapegoat (CDR Benson) to the wolves to cover it up. Benson may fully deserve to be eaten by the wolves, but the Flags who failed miserably in doing their jobs don’t deserve to be retired at the taxpayers expense and playing golf and earning extra money for sitting on corporate boards. They are no less responsible for these events than Benson is.

          • Capt DJ

            The best strategy appears to be to throw him to the wolves, then shoot the wolves as well. No question he is responsible. No question that “Big Navy” (aka the wolves) is also responsible. I do not know the command climate, but any bridge team that fails to wake up the captain when entering a heavy trafficked separation scheme is woefully deficient. During my 18 years on sea duty (out of a 27 year career) I studied every collision and grounding report at length. The common thread was that in nearly every case 3 people knew what was about to happen and were either afraid to speak up, or were ignored due to poor command climate. I doubt that this is any different.

    • proudrino

      Fair enough. But he better be able to answer the question about what he told his superiors when ordered to sea in a poorly manned and maintained ship.

      Big Navy is not on trial here. There is no doubt that there are systemic problems in the way the Fleet is maintained and manned. That isn’t even an issue at this point. But, at the end of the day, the ship’s commanding officer is ultimately responsible for the safe navigation and operation of a Naval warship. It is that accountability that is being tried. I’m on the fence about the manslaughter charge but negligence and hazarding a vessel are clearly aspects that only the commanding officer (not Big Navy) should be held to account. The seven sailors killed in this collision deserve that much without injecting “Big Navy” into the discussion.

      • Bryan

        The vice admiral of 7th fleet already let the cat out of the bag on that. Not only did the Navy just rewrite manning rules. But they rewrote rules that were written in blood.

        On top of that, according to the Admiral, big wigs in San Diego frequently took sailors from 7th fleet in order to fill out their ships fully. Sometimes the ships were over-manned. This made cross decking normal in the 7th fleet.

        If your orders are not followed it is the sailors fault.

        If your orders were not clear it is the Admiral’s fault.

        If you give orders that you knew or should have known the sailors cannot follow, you are not fit to lead sailors.

        The real argument with the Navy isn’t just about fault. It’s about simply asking sailors to do something they can’t do.

        How to fix it? The Navy has a long tradition of asking for money and then hollowing out the force during recessions when their budget is cut. They also have a history of twisting the acquisition process in order to keep their programs from being cancelled.

        This is a tradition in the Navy. That tradition needs to stop. The civilian leadership needs to demand a more resilient Navy. Sort of a meeting in the middle. Every ship needs to get better fuel economy. Every new ship such as a DDG(x) or FFG(x) should be selected to hit the sweet spot of manning to size ration. Every ship must be either level II or III survivable. We will not have as much tasking issues this way. Then over time during the recessions we can reduce tasking slightly to ride out the pain. Then the problems will evaporate.

        Will we do that? Not a chance. Bigger ships with more VLS and lasers. Bigger ships with more sortie generation is what gets people promoted. Never mind that there is no way we could ever get the Nimitz class to sustain it’s sortie rate when we had 95 aircraft on it. And never mind that we will never use the, “Increased” sortie rate for Ford. Even if it ever actually could do that with it’s defective EMALS (remember I mentioned those procurement games the Navy plays?).

        Unfortunately the current CNO is already setting up the Navy for the next nightmare to occur with his new random cruises but not reduced tasking scheme. It will happen during the next mid to large recession. I guess in about 3-5 years. The irony is they will just have got their manning back to where it was written in blood when their tasking kills more people. Idiots one and all.

        How to force

      • AJG45

        The seven sailors killed in this collision deserve to have all of those responsible held accountable, including those that “Big Navy” has protected from any meaningful accountability in this case.

        The manslaughter charge was brought for leverage. The Navy assumed that the charge would frighten the CO into making a deal on the negligence and hazarding charge to get rid of the manslaughter charge and they could then put this whole thing away without anyone getting on the stand and pointing his finger at one of the SOB’s that has been allowed to retire as “punishment”. Now they have a problem. Good, they deserve it.

    • Duane

      68 of 70 7th Fleet ships did not collide with big slow merchant vessels last year. 277 of 279 Navy warships did not collide with big slow moving merchant vessels last year.

      Seems that you should start out assigning blame with those most directly involved, and expand upward as the facts lead you.

      The Navy has already relieved and ended the careers of quite a few admirals and four stripers, including a four star.

      There is no limit to your notion of pushing culpability upstairs. What do you suggest, firing SecDef Mattis? Impeaching the President? It gets beyond ridiculous.

      Navy leaders have already pleaded guilty, collectively, to numerous errors of management of the naval force, and came up with 96 specific recommendations to change procedures, of which 80% have already been carried out in less than 6 months.

      CDR Benson is clearly culpable for the leadership failures under his command. He is also entitled to defend himself in a courts martial.

      • bob

        Duane; Not disagreeing that punishment has been meted out in a variety of ways to the seniors of CDR Benson. But here’s a valid question;

        At what point does your moral obligation to your sailors supersede the mission?

        We are all taught that we are expected to be able to register professional concerns and reservations about mission-critical issues to our seniors. We aren’t expected to merely salute and “aye-aye, Sir”. We are expected to say something, and accept the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” if our seniors decide to shoot the messenger.

        We are taught we have a obligation to our subordinates to ensure their safety and well-being. Not saying you whine and bellyache, but if you have an untrained crew, or broken equipment, you need to make sure those north of you understand it, and if need be, you down-check your vessel. You owe it to your people to speak up.

        You may end up being the CO of an outhouse in Alaska, but you wont be going to sleep thinking about the seven sailors you lost.

        That is a value that needs to come back, not simply carrying on and hope nothing goes sideways. In that respect Big Navy needs to soul search, and step back from zero-defects. If a CO says their ship isn’t ready, that needs to be accepted, and addressed . And that isn’t the fault of the SECDEF or POTUS, rather it’s the institutional Navy that has turned into this “we can do it all with nothing” and crushing anyone who says otherwise. And sacking all the four stripers and brass hats will not change that fact.

        CDR Benson did appear to be lacking in certain areas, and those will be addressed. He will have his day in court. But to ignore that the Navy is trying to accomplish everything with limited resources does a disservice to those who serve her. There comes a time where you must say “no, we can’t”, and damn the consequences.

        • Duane

          Agree with most of what you say.

          At some point, we the voters also have to take responsibility too. We voted in the doofuses of both parties who passed the Budget Control Act of 2011 (the “sequester”) and made the Inouye Amendment the law of the land. And who allowed our naval leaders to become subserviant to theater commanders, and who’ve repeatedly failed to fund our military on time each fiscal year. We voted ’em in. We need to vote for competent Congressmen and Presidents. They issue the orders, and our uniformed leaders have no choice but to salute and obey.

          • bob

            I agree. We really need to take a real look at what we are voting into the Congress. We elect schmucks and then react in shock, horror, and amazement when it doesn’t work out. I’ve always been a moderate by inclination; who is best for the office rather than what party. Lately we seem to vote label and not ability.

            The “salute and carry on” is more towards the uniformed chain of command. I’m not sure if this generation would ever spawn a “Revolt of the Admirals” but we really need to get back to basics and be honest when we accept mission after mission without proper funding. Sometimes the Congress needs to hear; “We can’t do XYZ, because we lack…..”

            The Coast Guard was/is notorious for accepting one mission after the other but would fail to get the manpower or ships to get it done. “No” was never in the lexicon. Laudable, but you have only so many ships, so many people. The Navy has followed them down that rabbit hole. Nothing good comes from it.

        • AJG45

          Do you really view being forced to retire early with a retirement check of $10,000+ per month, excellent second career opportunities with a defense contractor, the opportunity to sit on corporate boards and lots of time to play golf as “punishment”? I don’t, particularly when the navy is attempting to “punish” the subordinate for something that these seniors are at least partially culpable for by sending him to prison.

          My read is a bit different. They are bound and determined to hang the CO (a punishment that is perhaps appropriate) so that people won’t ask questions about the Flags who are also responsible and are being let off the hook scott free

      • James Bowen

        I do think two things do need to happen here: 1) the Navy and our nation’s leaders need to say no to a lot of the assignments and taskings the Navy has been receiving…there is currently simply more than we can do, and 2) there does need to be a large reorganization that results in a 90% reduction in the number of flag officers. We have too much brass manning too many commands that have few forces assigned but are always demanding more.

      • Fail Bot

        I think firing people is a poor way of “fixing” problems. One major issue I believe exists with Navy ships, especially 7th Fleet, is the 2-3 year rotation of the entire crew. Firing only makes it worse. Every 3 years it’s 100% a different command. All that stays are ship’s parts. Sailors get “short” a whole year out. So it’s more like 1-2 years of paying attention. And there’s always a learning curve, which cuts it down further. Effectively putting actual invested time working on the ship’s systems and procedures in a less than 2 year cycle. Anyone who’s served on a ship knows the ship they boarded isn’t the one they left. 2 years is not enough time. Issues begin to creep in. People don’t feel ownership. Bigger issues are simply ignored.

    • James Bowen

      Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more.

    • NEC338x

      246 of 247 Coast Guard vessels did not have a collision last year, despite putting more nautical mile under the keel in close proximity with commercial vessels than the Navy. (4/18/17 collision between the cutter Tampa and the Cerro Santiago, NTSB report MAB1737).

      I’m not sure what it means, but numbers are clearly very important in this discussion. Must be some kind of metric OODs use.

      • Duane

        In case you missed it, the problems that led to 2 warships stupidly colliding with large slow movers does not require a conclusion that everybody in the chain of command up to CNO is guilty of crimes deserving a courts martial, or short of that being fired for malfeasance, as some here suggest. In point of fact, most naval warships don’t do stupid stuff and their commanders aren’t derelict in their duties. Lots of somebodies are doing their jobs right. Most, in fact.

        Yes, there were other contributory causes that were systemic in nature. But that is no cause for wildly illogical leaps to grossly broad conclusions of the type so typical of internet comment threads.

    • Paul Bethel

      That excuse will not fly, it will hurt his defence more than expected

  • MDK187

    The good CDR obviously knows that higher-ups own a lot of dirt and complicity in these collisions – and not merely in the oversimplified context of “negligence”. Brave choice to push that into a trial, he could get “suicided” easily.

  • Duane

    Cdr Benson’s defense is understandable. It will be good to have a full airing of what went on in that ship up to and thru the collision sequence.

    I don’t see any evidence of scapegoating or the Navy attempting to try him in the media. His lawyers are doing him no favors by attempting to paint him as a victim. The collision was more likely than not due to his poor leadership and decision making … but determination of guilt must await trial.

  • Ser Arthur Dayne

    What I want to know is how you miss a humongous-ass super tanker aimed directly at you on course to f your s right up. Just doesn’t seem possible unless there are “oceans” of negligence and carelessness etc. Its not like they bumped a buoy or an undersea shoal hit their prop etc. A mother freaking supertanker rammed them, and they are the most sophisticated warships we have. Just never made sense. And certainly not twice in a month or two

    • bob

      I have to agree. Even if there were radar issues, what happened to Mark1 eyeballs? Oh wait, we didn’t staff the lookout positions in one of the most heavily trafficked sea-lanes in the world. Or talk with the bridge from CIC and vice versa.

      At this rate you have to wonder how they got away the pier.

    • Eld

      When you push women through and lower the standards to boost diversity, this is what you get.

      • Ser Arthur Dayne

        Listen I hear that… I was a nominee to the USNA, finalist for the USCGA and the NROTC scholarships. Was practically told by a USCG officer I should expect some great news in the next few weeks (at the time) and similarly at my NROTC interview. All 3 letters came to me with a line similar to “Sorry we can’t offer you acceptance. Have a great life.” — I could not get any info from the USNA or NROTC people but I did see the same USCG officer who had shook my hand enthusiastically at a program for finalists right before I got told no, and said hey man, did I misunderstand?? I thought you were telling me I was in… He basically looked down and was very remorseful and was like, “You were… until you weren’t. Diversity. Numbers. That’s all I can say . And I’ll never admit saying it. I’m very sorry.” I have no problem not being one of the best qualified etc. I have a serious problem being one of the most qualified but not getting picked anyway because of my personal background and heritage and sex/race/etc. Sucks.

        • Eld

          Luckly I was fortunate enough to be in subs so I didnt have to deal with that horseshit. But I saw it in bootcamp left and right. Women being given opportunities that no male would ever be considered for. I shudder to think how much the standard has fallen at sub school because of diversity.

        • tiger

          The officer Corps is so far from diverse I find it hard to share your complaint.

          • Ser Arthur Dayne


    • Da Facts

      Okay, I’m as gobsmacked as the next squid about letting a container ship sneak up on a destroyer, but lets not get too hyperbolic. It wasn’t a ‘humongous-ass super tanker that hit the Fitzgerald, it was the ACX Crystal, a 29000 ton container ship, small for what passes as most container ships these days. Not that that is an excuse.

      All the whining about overworked, tired crews I don’t buy.

      I see three systematic and alarming things about the events.

      1. An apparent change in watch philosophy, with not having lookouts. I might almost see it for middle of the deep blue open water operations, but at night, in congested waters, crossing ship lanes, with inoperable or malfunctioning radar….unbelievable.
      2. Routine and ongoing disregard for standing orders, the most common of which is failure to maintain minimal separation distances and failure to notify the captain when closing within X many yards. That the Captain was asleep in his cabin during this night transit of a shipping lane, and not on the bridge or ‘resting’ in is sea cabin is also telling.
      3. Hate to be a sexist pig, but an OOD who was in a pissing match with the TAO (both women, and supposedly above the need of pecker contests) enough that he XO would state he lacked confidence in the OOD enough to station another male watch stander in the CIC…Holy Crap, High School Confidential. That the XO was not on the Bridge if he lacked confidence in the OOD is also telling.

      Commander Benson DOES warrant responsibility for these issues. He was the XO when these conditions were created, he WAS the CO when the event occurred. There very well may be others culpable and likely are. But spare me the martyr spin.

      • Ser Arthur Dayne

        Fair enough, tyvm for your thorough analysis and insights, very interesting.

  • Michael D. Woods

    This is part of the culture of blaming that’s endemic in the services. The leadership never asks what their responsibility might be, they just find some subordinate to blame, or in this case, to try. They call it “holding people accountable” but they don’t hold themselves accountable.

  • hollygreen9

    Welcome to the witch hunt.

  • Just Bill

    Oh Boy, smart money says Navy will buckle as the truth on this one is a hurting thing.

    • AJG45

      You may well be right. I’m guessing they called Big Navy’s bluff here. Again, while I don’t disagree with anything that has been said here about the culpability of the crew and the CO, I don’t think the Navy really wants to air this laundry in the public forum of a trial.

      • Just Bill

        What you need to do is to watch the course of Fitzgerald several hours before said collision and it will be only then you might understand why young sailors needlessly passed on to an all loving God.
        There are plenty of radars that are publicly available for this very busy area. The young female officer hold the keys and somehow Navy is depending on a young lady that tattooed the coordinates of the Fitzgerald on her wrist as she yelled them at least a hundred times. The Fitzgerald in my opinion was dead in the water and there was a reason for that.AJG above has the right mindset, but again the truth evaporates.

  • James Bowen

    I am glad to see this officer is fighting the effort to scapegoat. Make no mistake, these collisions are the result of years of overcommitment and undertraining. The effort to pin it all on a few officers who were on these ships is little more than a despicable ploy by members of the top brass to save their own skin after many years of utterly incompetent leadership.

    • Duane

      Hey, guy, when your command screws up and kills a bunch of people under your command and care, and costs the taxpayers hundreds of millions, and deprives our Navy of one of its multibillion dollar warships for a couple years, there is no “scapegoating” – you’re it, you’re responsible. It has always been that way in the Navy. Even a builders’ defect does not relieve the CO of responsibility for properly responding to a casualty.

  • publius_maximus_III

    Motto of the USS Fitzgerald: “Protect Your People”

    One thing that seems strange to me about these proceedings is that two of the four accused, and one of them already pleading guilty, are female officers. Doesn’t anybody find that odd? How does that percentage comport with the percentage of female officers aboard the Fitzgerald and McCain at the time of the collisions, in the 7th fleet, in the USN as a whole?

    I realize this is PC-non-grata territory, but just thought I would state the obvious. And now, let the fur flying begin…

    Kramer on Seinfeld: “I love a good cat fight.”

    • waveshaper1

      There was at least one other female officer on the USS Fitzgerald and she seems to have performed well. The person on the USS Fitzgerald who was in-charge of the post collision damage control/rescue/etc was a “Female Officer”.

      Here’s a short excerpt from the US Navy official report on this collision (details start at paragraph 49/damage control response); Note-all members of the damage control teams did an exceptional job.

      49. At the time of the collision, the DCA was asleep in her rack. She woke up when she felt the
      ship lurch. The collision alarm then sounded and the DCA quickly dressed and proceeded to
      CCS. From there, she directed DC efforts, sounded the GQ alarm using the general shipboard
      announcement system (1MC), and set primary and secondary boundaries (a first and second line of defense to control the spread of the flooding).
      50. The DCA initially received a report that there was a 12ft by 12ft hole in AUX 1 and that
      the space was flooding. The DCA also received a report of a 3ft by 5ft hole and flooding in the
      starboard passageway to Berthing 1 and 2. The two reports concerned the same hole, which
      spread into two spaces. The hole was later determined to be 17ft by 13ft.
      52. When the 1MC stopped working, the DCA continued to communicate with the damage
      control parties on Net 80, an internal communications network which can be accessed at various locations throughout the ship. Along with sound powered telephones and hand-held radios, these comprise the normal communications channels used during emergencies.
      53, 54, 55, etc, etc, etc.

      • Duane

        As I recall, the DCA was lauded for her performance and credited with saving lives if not the ship which was in danger of sinking.

        Blaming this catastrophe on PC is stupid and wrong. The entire senior leadership team on the Fitz was male .. which only shows that doing your job well has nothing to do with gender.

        • publius_maximus_III

          See new comment above.

      • publius_maximus_III

        Use your favorite search engine to find the following string —

        Tip: Pentagon Covering Up Fact That Female Officers Nearly Sank Navy Ship

        It is an article posted 06-17-2018 in “The Other McCain.” Very interesting reading in light of yours and Duane’s comments. Apparently The OOD on the USS Fitzgerald was Sarah Coppock, and the Tactical Action Officer was Natalie Combs. Both were on watch during the fatal collision and were not speaking to each other. Here is a quote from the article:

        That two of the officers — Coppock and Combs — involved in this fatal incident were female suggests that discipline and training standards have been lowered for the sake of “gender integration,” which was a major policy push at the Pentagon during the Obama administration. It could be that senior officers, knowing their promotions may hinge on enthusiastic support for “gender integration,” are reluctant to enforce standards for the women under their command.

        But remember, you first read about it here with old publius a month ago…

  • proudrino

    Those screaming “scapegoat” in this case really need to go back and review the number of senior officers who were relieved and/or retired over the 7th Fleet debacles. I disagree with the ease in which some of those senior officers were able to avoid a more direct accounting for the lack of readiness BUT to suggest that the Navy is looking to pin the poor performance of the entire 7th Fleet on a single O-5 is absurd.

    CDR Benson is being treated like any other CO involved in such a serious mishap albeit in a more public forum than usual.

  • kalahun

    The author has it exactly right. The “prejudicial public affairs approach…” was obvious to many of us who served right from the start. I said last year, and I’ll say it again, this court-martial is the only way the public will ever find out the many organizational factors that were the underlying causes of this tragedy. One can only hope that this case becomes as important historically and has the impact that the General Bill Mitchell case had about a hundred years ago. As a former commanding officer I am personally appalled at some of the decisions Captain Benson made, but he is doing the right thing holding the Navy’s feet to the fire at this time. BZ.

    • WeeWully

      This is going to be painful, although not as tragic as the seven lost lives. For the good of the Service, though, it has to be done – and be seen to be done.

    • Duane

      The organizational, systemic factors were investigated by multiple boards and published widely, with 96 specific recommendations for changing ongoing management practices, of which over 80% have already been implemented over the last 6 months. SecDef, SecNav, CNO, ComPacFlt have all been brought to testify before Congress on the collisions, the multiple causes, and what the Navy has done to fix the problems.

      Courts martials are not about politics or naval policy … they are about finding facts relevent to specific charges against specific individuals. They are not show trials.

      • kalahun

        Thank you for your restatement of the Navy story line. I am not drinking this Kool Aid. This trial will be about what the defense is able to bring to light. They will be fought by the “Knights of the Status Quo” at every turn. I would argue that in addition to the Billy Mitchell trial, there have been multiple other political trials-it’s just that it is usually the Government who wants the show trial.

  • RobM1981

    So, is Benson saying that the collision was UNavoidable? There was nothing he could do, as CO, to train the crew to avoid hitting another ship?

    His lawyer is saying that the USN “tried the case in the press,” by using such evidently inflammatory verbiage as “avoidable.”

    What outcome is Cdr. Benson hoping for, at this point? There are seven dead sailors and a wrecked ship. Is he hoping for the “Naval Mulligan” ruling, where he gets a do-over?

    IMHO it is Cdr. Benson who has tried this case in the press. His inexplicable statements now make me question his judgement more than I have in the past. In the past I recognized his short tenure and cut him some slack.

    Now? Not so much.

  • Ed L

    In command 5 weeks. With a crew that was undermanned. A crew in with some crew members did not follow the night orders. Is it still requirer for the CIC watch Officer, BMOW, QMOW to read the night orders along with the OOD and JOOD? Thank goodness the DCA and DC parties were on the ball

  • D. Greif

    I’m retired AF….but that doesn’t matter….just pick your flag since these types of problems are endemic among the services. As a medical professional, ALL roads lead back to the negative aspects of EGO. Nit pick as you all may choose but I would argue that the root is only rarely, truthfully, exposed.

  • W900A

    This is a systemic problem in the training of SWO’s that goes back to before the CO in question was probably out of high school. When the Navy shut down SWOS in the early 90’s and then continued to chip away at training and readiness over multiple administrations, you get to where we are now with people not well versed in the rules of the road, probably lower caliber people to boot. We are not getting the same quantity of top notch people who’s dream it is to serve as a Naval officer. More likely it is often it was a path to a college degree and they are fulfilling their obligations. As usual often the best and brightest see the light and find something else to do after their obligation is up and very few really good one’s are retained. And here we are. Frankly every perspective SWO needs a good 6 months PLUS of in depth seamanship training to a level where they hold a coast guard license at some level before they set foot on the ship. Bring back a SWOS, get simulators and run a extended syllabus. Compel ALL SWO officers to pass it before their next ship assignment. Should be akin to the FRS aka RAG that Aviators go through before they fly fleet aircraft. it would become a good shore assignment for both enlisted and mid grade officers to run the school and simulations. As for this man’s case. I think he may have a point. He was never called, did anyone log advising calling the captain or anyone else in the chain going up – OPS, TAO, XO. This stuff doesn’t happen that fast and if traffic density is picking up the standing orders probably state calling the Captain which didn’t happen. At this point punitive punishment of him beyond what has happened doesn’t really serve a purpose but getting the senior SWO leadership, Navy Safety Center and appropriate training entities re-engaged most certainly is.

    • Lazarus

      SWOSDOC was closed in 2003 and replaced by self service computer training that was labeled a failure by 2010.

  • MaskOfZero

    This looks like Benson is suffering from the Navy hiring females as officers.

    He was only in command for 5 weeks–what’s he supposed to do–stay awake the whole time?

    I know a CO is responsible, ultimately, for his ship–but when I ask myself what Benson could have done to avoid this incident–I have a hard time.

    Who are these watch keepers–are they paying attention at all? After little more than a month on the job, how could the CO know they were so incompetent?

    Keeping an Arleigh Burke from being rammed by a merchant vessel should not be that difficult.

  • Fail Bot

    I could wax on about how I served on this ship and anyone on board who served with me knew I was the loudest mouth about the problems that were inherent in 7th Fleet ( I was threatened with a mutiny charge once). But you don’t need any experience whatsoever to see two glaring problems here

    1. The CO was too new to try to pretend he fostered this dereliction.

    2. The smear campaign by the Navy from the get-go is abhorrent.

    That’s one of the things I’ve been railing against since I was onboard. The Navy reacts to bad press in the most unjust and extreme way. I have first hand knowledge of numerous instances where the Navy let bad press, or fear of bad press dictate their administrative actions and punishments. They have never been afraid of instantly ending careers and hanging scapegoats in snap reaction to any event that seems embarrassing.

    Think about it this way, by immediately stating the collision was due to poor leadership, they have tipped their hand. How could they know it so soon? Either they knew the CO was a poor leader already, in which case it’s the Admiral’s fault, or they are scapegoating. Either way it’s an admittance of corruption of power.

    *This website won’t allow the word h-e-double hockeysticks? Seriously