Home » Budget Industry » UPDATED: Senior Enlisted USS McCain Sailor Pleads Guilty to Dereliction Charge in Collision


UPDATED: Senior Enlisted USS McCain Sailor Pleads Guilty to Dereliction Charge in Collision

Guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) is towed away from the pier at Changi Naval Base, Oct. 5, to meet heavy lift transport vessel MV Treasure on Oct. 5, 2017. US Navy Photo

WASHINGTON NAVY YARD — A senior enlisted member of the guided-missile destroyer USS McCain (DDG-56) crew pleaded guilty to a single charge of dereliction of duty for his part leading up to a fatal August 2017 collision in a summary court-martial.

Chief Boatswain’s Mate Jeffery Butler, 40, admitted to a military judge on Thursday he had inadequately trained the sailors who manned the bridge during the collision between McCain and the merchant oiler Alnic MC. Butler, the senior enlisted sailor in charge of the deck division on McCain, was not on the bridge at the time of the collision. He was sentenced to a reduction in rank from E-7 to E-6 – Boatswain’s Mate First Class – by military judge Cmdr. William Weiland.

Butler had previously faced admiral’s mast shortly after the collision off the coast of Singapore that resulted in the death of ten sailors. At mast, Butler received a punitive letter of reprimand and was ordered to forfeit one-half month’s pay for one month.

As part of a plea agreement, Butler admitted to not properly training watchstanders on McCain’s touchscreen integrated bridge and navigation system. Failure to properly the operate the IBNS led to watchstanders on the bridge losing control of the ship and moving into the path of Alnic MC, the Navy said in a summary of its investigation into the collision.

During the transit in a heavily traveled shipping lane off Singapore early in the morning, ship commander Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez ordered the responsibilities of steering the ship and maintaining the throttle to be split between to watch stations on the bridge – the helm control and the nearby lee helm.

“This unplanned shift caused confusion in the watch team, and inadvertently led to steering control transferring to the lee helm station without the knowledge of the watch team,” read a summary of the investigation released late last year.
“The CO had only ordered speed control shifted. Because he did not know that steering had been transferred to the lee helm, the Helmsman perceived a loss of steering.”

As the enlisted head of the deck department, it was Butler’s job to train the sailors standing watch how to use the system correctly. In addition to manning the helm, the deck division is responsible for tasks on a destroyer like anchoring, mooring, underway replenishment, small boat operations and working the flight deck.

Butler reported to McCain after serving aboard the amphibious warship USS Germantown (LSD-42), where he had won the sailor of the year award on the ship in 2014, according to former Germantown commander Cmdr. Gary Harrington, who testified on Butler’s behalf during the trial.

He was promoted to Chief on Germantown and reported for duty on McCain in April 2016. Around the same time, the IBNS system was installed on the bridge of the destroyer.

In testimony, Butler said the extent of the training he received in the use of the new navigation system was about an hour-long tutorial from a master helmsman familiar with the IBNS and then reliance on technical manuals. After the tutorial and reading the manuals, it was then his responsibility to teach younger sailors how to operate the system. He said it was difficult to find others nearby with experience on the system because McCain was the only ship at the time in U.S. 7th Fleet with IBNS.

“[It was] difficult to get training,” he said.
“We asked for the techs to come over, but they never showed.”

Regardless, Butler said he could have done more to better train his division.

“With time and more training, I could have stopped all that,” he said.

Since the collision, Butler has been still part of ship’s company, working as the destroyer was taken from Singapore on a heavy-lift transport and moved to a dry dock in Yokosuka.

“I’m still attached to the John S. McCain working every day since Singapore,” he said in a statement during the trial.
“I put the ship on the heavy lift, came home a week later, went to Admiral’s Mast, received punishment, got the ship off the heavy lift, brought her pier side, into dry dock, and then was told I was going to court-martial. Even through all that, I remain the Chief, still training and guiding sailors daily.”

He also addressed the families of the ten sailors who died in attendance.

“I met many of your sailors… I knew them on different levels,” he said.
“I am truly sorry for your losses. They were more than my shipmates – they were family to me.”

Tomorrow, former McCain commander Sanchez will face a special court-martial for his role in the incident on one count of dereliction of duty.

The trials are overseen by Adm. James Caldwell, director of Naval Reactors, who is the Consolidated Disposition Authority appointed to consider additional accountability actions for the fatal McCain and June 17 USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) collisions.

  • Ed L

    Not the first Chief busted for being incompetent. Will not be the last. But this BMC was set up to fail and not incompetent . If this to correct to The amount of formal training the Chief received. Where was the Tech Rep support. Was it Sequestered. Was this the case of the Chief and his Petty Officers were told “I don’t care how you do it. Just get it done”

    • TransformerSWO

      The Chief is guilty of being derelict in his duty to train sailors, not of being incompetent. And it’s not the last accountability action in this case. The CO’s responsibility was greater, and his accountability will be greater as well.

      • Ed L

        So if You were given a one hour tutorial on the system the you never used before and a stack of technical manuals. You would have Been able to train the watchstanders. At least he didn’t place the blame on anyone else. A system that appears was one of a kind among other Burke DDG’s in the area

        • BillyP

          Can we infer, therefore, that this complex control systems muddle is NOT present in other USN units?

      • draeger24

        Trans, how can one be considered “qualified” on the systems with an hour tutorial, and, the techs that were supposed to train him never showed up? It is unclear whether he trained his sailors – but, how could he train them on a brand new (to him) system.? The GERMANTOWN, where he was Sailor of the Year, doesn’t have nearly the complicated systems that a BURKE does. They still use paper and the tech is a backup – I’m not a SWO, but this seems very peculiar.

  • Mick Rankin

    I am not happy with this outcome. Part of our problem is allowing our enlisted to take responsibility when the division officer should be held accountable. Not saying he did not deserve being punished, but that should have been local to the ship and squadron rather than in a public big Navy forum. It’s time to be officers and leaders and take care of our Sailors, which means shielding them from this type of court.

  • D. Jones

    Who was th OOD?

  • proudrino

    First time in the discussion of the 7th Fleet debacles that I feel like using the word scapegoat.

    Yes, as the enlisted head of the deck department, it was Butler’s job to train the sailors standing watch how to use the system correctly. But he wasn’t expected to carry out that job by himself. Did anybody higher in the chain of command identify the fact that the sailors were improperly trained? Certainly those that were standing OOD would see that the sailors were subpar, right? I’m not sure the sentence fits Butler’s role in the many factors that led up to the McCain’s inability to operate safely in peacetime steaming operations.

    Also, Butler’s comments are the first from any of those involved in these debacles that shows real contrition and remorse.

    • Stephen

      So, as an instructor, I am responsible for all the students I sent to the Fleet? We could take this right back to the Naval Academy. Watch team training is critical before the ship ever went to sea! Submarine Forces attend simulator training. Not exactly like the ship, but close enough. Shifting controls has got to be under the OOD direction. The Chief stepped up & took responsibility; right to do so, had he been on the Bridge. Where was the UCMJ in all of this? Justice seems to have escaped the nautical realm. You start hacking the heads off of everyone in the training pipeline; be prepared for a lot of sharks in the water.

  • Jeff Kindrick

    I separated in 1973, so am certainly rusty on the U.C.M.J., and/or there may have been changes, but my recollection is that Mast was held in lieu of Courts Martial. The article doesn’t specify the charges in each case, so perhaps they were significantly different; otherwise it would seem to be a case of double jeopardy. While the portion of Amendment V requiring a Grand Jury specifically excludes “cases arising in the land or naval forces”, that exclusion does not extend to the remainder of the Amendment covering double jeopardy and self incrimination by my understanding of the language. While the language specifies “nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb”, in practice in civilian jurisprudence it seems to be applied to any felony case. Does the fact that Mast is non-judicial punishment exclude it from the provision? I’m not trying to be a “sea lawyer” here, but am genuinely curious.

  • draeger24

    The guy got an hour tutorial, and, the techs never showed up to train him? This guy was sailor of the year on another ship NOT of the same class, and it is his fault? REALLY? Can you surface guys tell me – and I don’t mean this rhetorically nor with malice – how this guy was supposed to train a watch team if that was his only training? This seems to be very out of place…it would seem this guy was being made a scapegoat. Thoughts?

    • proudrino

      As the enlisted head of the deck department it was part of Butler’s job to train the sailors standing watch on the bridge. But he was not the only one that had a responsibility for that job. Most importantly, as far as I am concerned, are the officers who stood bridge watches. If BM3 Jones was a terrible helmsman, then Butler should have gotten feedback to help correct problems with the watch. To my mind, this is more a failure of leadership by the command triad than it is the fault of Butler.

      More importantly in this case is the fact that the CO ordered the responsibilities of steering the ship and maintaining the throttle to be split between to watch stations on the bridge. The unplanned shift caused confusion in the watch team, and
      inadvertently led to steering control transferring to the lee helm
      station without the knowledge of the watch team. Because he did not know that steering had been transferred to the lee helm, the Helmsman perceived a loss of steering. Which added more confusion at a critical time if collision were to be avoided.

      I personally think the demotion of Chief Butler to E-6 for this debacle is excessive.

      • draeger24

        proud…agree; however, my only concern is that the Chief, coming from a completely different class of ship, especially an amphib – (GERMANTOWN, which I rode during a contingency just after 9/11 as a NSW TU CDR and ESSEX), had little to no training, especially that kind of training on new systems. He was an amphib guy, not a CRU-DES trained guy. While having the basics down, which perhaps he didn’t undertake such as hand-nav, MO-Board, which were all done electronically on the new ship (I know, I am seriously dating myself), seems a wee bit unfair. Seems he should have had another entire C-school-like training on that class before going to that new class – just a thought. The responsibility lies in the officers and the bureaucracy not giving him the tools, and not simply a one-hour tutorial. We have become far too reliant on tech – the tech is great, but the basics in contingencies matter….I’m not a SWO, but OCS did teach the basics count, and they counted when we did nav before GPS in small boats and SDV’s, all by hand. GOD Bless.

        • proudrino

          We have become way to reliant on tech. Ironic since there is another Navy debacle where ignoring tech was the problem.

          In 1923, seven destroyers ran aground at Honda Point in California. Twenty-three lives and seven warships lost because there was inherent mistrust in using radio navigation instead of dead reckoning. The pendulum has swung the other direction where we trust the tech over the kind of watch standing that used to happen before the advent of GPS and other “systems.” The subsequent court-martial board ruled that the disaster was the fault of the squadron commander and the flagship’s navigator. The court-martial assigned blame to the captain of each ship, following the tradition that a captain’s first responsibility is to his own ship, even when in formation. Eleven officers involved would be brought before general courts-martial on the charges of negligence and culpable inefficiency to perform one’s duty. This was the largest single group of officers ever court-martialed in the U.S. Navy’s history. The court martial ruled that the events of the Honda Point Disaster were “directly attributable to bad errors and faulty navigation” by the squadron commander. Of note, the squadron commander assumed full responsibility for the disaster.

          Compare to 2018 where the CO of the Fitzgerald is claiming he isn’t at fault because he was only in command for five weeks (after 18 months as XO of the same ship) and the CO of McCain is also claiming victimhood. Tech isn’t the issue here. What really matters here is character and integrity. Our current crop of naval officers, apparently, don’t have it.

          • BillyP

            This is a devastating parable – is it well-known? Case study?
            This incident has more than a little flavour of the Royal Navy’s 1893 debacle off Lebanon when the Victoria and Camperdwon collided. Disgraceful incompetence abounded – unfortunately the consequent reforms had not worked their way through before the RN’s less than sterling performance at Jutland in 1916.

    • BillyP

      This guy, with his ‘training’ and all, was set up to fail. But how many hours had he spent with his hands on the kit prior to the collision? Didn’t any of his superiors notice that he was struggling?

      • draeger24

        agree….it would be interesting to see his qual sheet from reporting aboard. He was set up to fail, and a Sailor of the Year at that. I don’t think he was ONLY at fault – the Officers should have ensured he was truly ready with the tech – that said, were they using any paper/mechanical backups?

  • David C

    So we hang a CPO and many of the guys (0-6 thru 0-10) who signed off on the installation of this new system never considering/requiring adequate training go scott free. Yup!

    Until the CNO and CINCPAC are in the dock answering the tough questions there will be unaddressed issues. But we can all rest in the knowledge that there will be uniform changes. We seem to get plenty of those when top leadership is weak.

    • proudrino

      The real flags that need to be in the dock are those who endorsed, advocated, and defended the idea of SWOS-in-a-Box. I’m ancient (graduate of SWOS Coronado). It wasn’t a great experience but it was comprehensive and legitimate accession level training.

  • JimmyJM

    The IBNS is a very complicated system. There is an overload of information displayed at any one time and a one hour briefing isn’t even close to being adequate for anyone to operate it satisfactorily let alone teach someone else how to use it. I agree that in this case, Chief Butler is the fall guy. I’m sure others in the chain will be punished but feel that using Chief Butler as a scapegoat is shameful.

  • ADM64

    Plenty of blame to go around. The Chief may not have been responsible for certain things, but he failed to do what he was responsible for. The same is true of the OOD and TAO, the former of whom admitted in her court martial that she failed to follow standing orders, amongst other things. ALL of them should be held accountable. We need an Admiral Byng moment, too.

    • BillyP

      I agree that responsibility and accountability flows upward as well as downward

    • BillyP

      Admiral Byng was found to be guilty of “Not doing his utmost” – and shot on his own quarterdeck.
      Imagine if we applied the “Utmost” test criterion to these recent collisions, to all ranks, included the top brass in DC – I doubt there would be many survivors.
      Byng’s execution in 1757 had an electric effect on the RN, resulting in one unlikely victory after another: Hawke at Quiberon Bay, Duncan at Camperdown, Jervis/Nelson off St Vincent, Nelson at The Nile, Copenhagen, Trafalgar – assuredly they (and their men) did “their utmost”. Could we say that of the PORTER, the FITZGERALD, or the JOHN S MCCAIN?