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Navy Official Recommends No Criminal Trial for USS Fitzgerald Junior Officers

USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) moves into Dry Dock 4 at Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka to continue repairs and assess damage sustained from its June 17 collision with a merchant vessel. US Navy Photo

Two officers who faced negligent homicide charges for their role in the fatal June 2017 USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) collision have been recommended not to face court-martial and instead be separated from the Navy, according to a recommendation following a preliminary hearing last month.

The report, following a May 9 Article 32 hearing, recommended Lt. Natalie Combs and Lt. Irian Woodley face a board of inquiry for administrative separation rather than a criminal trial for charges that include negligent homicide, according to the recommendation of hearing officer Cmdr. Anthony Johnson.

Both officers were on watch in the Combat Information Center of Fitzgerald when the collision between the destroyer and merchant cargo ship ACX Crystal occurred off the coast of Japan on June 17, resulting in the deaths of seven sailors.

Johnson’s rationale for his decision hinged on two issues, according to details of the decision that USNI News has confirmed. The first is that poor performance in service isn’t inherently criminal and that the Navy has administrative actions to address failures in duty, such as removal from command, other than court-martial.

Second, the light punishment for the officer of the deck at the time of the collision was a factor in the recommendation. Lt. j.g. Sarah Coppock was sentenced to three months reduced pay and issued a punitive reprimand as part of a guilty plea deal with prosecutors. Coppock had faced more charges similar to Combs and Woodley prior to the plea deal.

The recommendation is now before consolidated decision authority (CDA) Adm. James Caldwell, who will make the final determination on whether the case will proceed to court-martial. In a statement, the Navy would not directly comment on the results of the recommendation but did outline the process going forward.

“The recommendation of the preliminary hearing officer is pre-decisional and deliberative. We will not discuss anything short of a decision by the CDA,” the service said in a statement.
“The CDA is not bound by the recommendations of the Article 32 officer, but he must consider them. In addition, he must consider the advice of his military lawyer (the staff judge advocate). Only after weighing this information can he determine what the next step will be.”

While Caldwell, tasked to oversee punishments related to both the Fitzgerald collision and that of USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) as the CDA, could still elect to take the case to court-martial, Combs’ attorney said it’s likely Caldwell will concur with Johnson’s decision.

“I think what is happening is the Navy wants coverage in terms of saying ‘we went through the process, we held those accountable, including taking these two officers to an Article 32 hearing and we’re going the accede to the recommendation of the preliminary hearing officers.’ And to that extent, the Navy’s position is borne out,” David Sheldon told USNI News on Friday. “Obviously we’re happy with the recommendation. Lt. Combs is happy with the recommendation, but she does not believe that she is culpable for the tragedy that occurred.”

Prior to the charges put forth by Caldwell in January, Combs and Woodley had received unspecified punishments at admiral’s mast following the incidents.

The recommendation from Caldwell could come as early as next week, USNI News understands.

In addition to Woodley and Combs, the former commander of Fitzgerald still faces charges that include dereliction of duty, negligent homicide and hazarding a vessel.

Cmdr. Bryce Benson waived his Article 32 hearing and pledged to take his case to trial in a press statement last month.

“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 May statement.
“A fair court-martial will expose the facts of the collision’s causes and Cmdr. Benson’s actions.”

Last month, the former commander of John S. McCain and a senior enlisted sailor in charge of training bridge watch standers pleaded guilty to single counts of negligence for their roles in the fatal Aug. 21 collision between the warship and a merchant oiler off of Singapore.

Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez was sentenced to a punitive letter of reprimand and forfeiture of $6,000 in pay on May 25. As part of the plea agreement, he has requested to retire, and that request will be allowed or denied later in the accountability proceedings.

Then-Chief Boatswain Mate Jeffery Butler pleaded guilty to one count of dereliction of duty on May 24 and was reduced in rank to E-6.

In addition to the court-martials, 18 sailors who served on McCain and Fitzgerald have received non-judicial punishment.

  • Mooseflstc

    As for the USS John S. McCain, the Commander will pay $6,000 and the Boatswain Mate will loose an estimated $140,000 over an average expected retirement. Something isn’t right about that.

    • publius_maximus_III

      Da trumpster will fix it.

      • Rocco

        Stupid comment!!

        • publius_maximus_III

          Oh come on, Roc, give me your real opinion.

    • Rocco

      Agreed!! Who’s the Fall guy here!! He may have been Chief of the Boat … But not totally responsible!!

      • Lt Nemo

        Ummm…not “Chief of the Boat.” That’s a submariner term. A chief bosun’s mate is not even going be the senior enlisted on the ship (not a boat). The senior enlisted is going to be a master chief.

  • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

    Translation: We have a manpower and retention issue and we cannot afford to lose more officers?

    • proudrino

      There is no doubt that Combs, Woodley, and Coppock were all more than merely derelict in their duties. I think the Navy should have used these incidents to send a message to all the other slugs standing watch on ships in the fleet. But like the LT who managed to get his command captured by the Iranians, these three got off extremely lightly to save the Navy from further embarrassment.

      It also proves that one can not trust the current generation of SWO junior officers or the “leaders” who trained them.

  • proudrino

    These were the two that were surprised when a huge merchant ship popped up on the radar “dangerously close” to the Fitzgerald. While a trial may not be in order, merely kicking them out of the Navy doesn’t seem to be fitting punishment either. The sailors they had a hand in killing deserve better.

    • waveshaper1

      They were surprised because there wasn’t supposed to be any cargo ships where they thought they were at. Things like this happen when the Capt/Crew doesn’t even know what ocean they are sailing in. IAW with the ships log they said they were in the Sea of Japan. Obviously they were not in that particular large body of water but were actually in the Pacific Ocean:<)
      Excerpt from the Fitz log; See page 41 of the "Official US Navy Report on the USS Fitzgerald Collision".
      – 0000; FTZ underway in the Sea of Japan on the way to Subic Bay, Philippines.

    • CaptainParker

      They benefit from the “diversity mulligan.” Can’t be too hard on the women, you know.

  • tim

    There has always been a difference between doing wrong and doing wrong with consequences, such that the “wrong doing” is being uncovered. Abstronger sentence would have served as a warning. Now that we plan on expansion and need those greenhorns be our future leaders, it is critical to get them ship shape! Yes, they should not get life inprisonment, but a slap on their wrist is not enough and sends the wrong signal! They should definitely be out of the service!

  • publius_maximus_III

    If I were CDA, I would accept the Article 32 recommendation. Incompetence is not the same thing as reckless and intentional negligence, although the outcome of the two is usually the same. Somebody in the FBI, old what’s his name, explained to us two years ago that intent is now suddenly a very important part of decisions to prosecute any wrongdoing, no matter how far up the chain of authority the perpetrator may be. Good sailors are dead, but nothing can change that now. “Go and sin no more,” someone once said. I say let ’em leave and seek livelihoods elsewhere, their USN careers are toast already anyway.

    • Rocco

      Yeah & good luck getting a job!!

      • publius_maximus_III

        Pounding the pavement looking for a job sure beats circling the exercise yard at Ft. Leavenworth.

        • Donald Carey

          Well, ya get three hots & a cot at the Fort…

  • William Blankinship

    I would consider keeping them. They will never do this again. There is president here for you history buffs.

    • CaptainParker

      Equating the dollies to Ensign Chester Nimitz is a false comparison.

      • William Blankinship

        Probably so. Now the real issue is how do we get good men and women to train and learn to be good officers on the bridge.The only answer I know is longer and more complete training. It is obvious that the 3 had the best training the Navy has to offer so we must make it better. I know that when a person makes a mistake they are less likely to make the same one again. Now I have 6 grandsons and 2 granddaughters I hope one of more go into the Navy but not sure their mothers are on board with this. I was in the Navy 55 plus years ago and it was pretty screwed up then too 🙂 but we must have it to keep the sea lanes open and defend our interests.
        William Blankinship
        American Legion Post 293 Post Commander

      • William Blankinship

        I suppose so.The destroyer Decatur ran aground on a mud bank in the Philippines on July 7, 1908 while under the command of Ensign Nimitz. The ship was pulled free the next day, and Nimitz was court-martialed, found guilty of neglect of duty, and issued a letter of reprimand.[8] From what I read some where it was appealed because of poor maps for that area. Now if he had been kicked out of the Navy we would have lost one of the greatest Admirals of all time.

        • Rocco

          Interesting I didn’t know that!! & The Nimitz class Carriers would be ???? Who if he was?

          • William Blankinship

            Now I know his getting stuck on a sand bar with poor navigation charts is not the same as what happened here. Many young sailors were killed by negligence and poor training.

    • Bud Wyllie

      They WOULD do it again. This is no precedent and it is a terrible example to those we are trying to make good naval officers. CIC Officer of the Watch has specific responsibilities to the Watch Team, the ship and CO that are well defined by Navy Pubs. Do those mean nothing now? This is a tragedy to the families of those sailors who died needlesly.

      • William Blankinship

        You better believe it is a tragedy. Must get this fixed. I have 6 grandsons and 2 granddaughters and always wished one or more would go into the Navy. Is this incident just a tip of the iceberg so to speak on the quality of officers and training they get? I hope not. Could just take them out and shoot them in a firing squad but that would not accomplish anything. Take them off sea going duty and put them running a warehouse of something like that. 25 years ago my oldest son was up for the Navy academy. He was passed over and offered unfunded scholarship at UT. That was worthless. This was the year the killers from Arlington , Texas were selected. One went to Air Force and one to Naval academy. They were found out and are serving life now. My son now has 20 years with a major defense contractor and is making the big bucks. He is also a scoutmaster and very completive in Cross Fit competitions. I think he got passed over on one of those quota things. They will bit you in the butt later on.

      • William Blankinship

        I know if one of my grandsons had been killed I may not be talking the way I am now. Had some scraps when I was in the Navy but will not go into the online.

  • Retired

    Wait for it, wait for it, I suddenly hear the heavy breathing of admiral dueene running to this forum spitting forth “but no one has ever had a hang nail on a LCS, blah blah blah…”