Home » Military Personnel » Former USS Fitzgerald CO Pleads Not Guilty to Negligence Charges

Former USS Fitzgerald CO Pleads Not Guilty to Negligence Charges

Cmdr. Bryce Benson. US Navy Photo

This post has been updated to include Cmdr. Benson’s redacted charge sheet.

WASHINGTON NAVY YARD – The former commander of USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) has pleaded not guilty to charges he committed criminal acts leading up to the collision of the guided-missile destroyer, in a Tuesday arraignment.

Cmdr. Bryce Benson is now set to face a general court-martial on charges of negligence and hazarding a vessel, after entering his plea during a brief hearing before a military judge today. The trial is set for Jan. 28.

Benson was in his stateroom asleep when merchant ship ACX Crystal collided with Fitzgerald on June 17, 2017, off the coast of Japan. The collision resulted in the death of seven sailors. The collision also crushed Benson’s cabin and left him hanging on the side of the ship for 15 minutes before the crew rescued him.

While serious, the charges Benson faces do not include negligent homicide charges that were initially announced by the Navy in January.

The Navy pared back criminal charges against Benson and two junior officers aboard Fitzgerald last month. The move from Adm. James F. Caldwell, the officer in charge of overseeing accountability actions for the collisions of Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56), followed a recommendation from an Article 32 hearing officer who recommended the junior officers not face any criminal charges for their roles in the collision.

For his part, Benson waived his right Article 32 hearing.

Caldwell elected to bring the charges of negligent hazarding a vessel and dereliction of duty resulting in death against Benson and Lt. Natalie Combs. Combs was serving in the destroyer’s Combat Information Center during the collision. Caldwell also determined that Lt. Irian Woodley, who was also on duty in CIC, not face court-martial but be separated from the Navy via an administrative board.

All three received non-judicial punishment soon after the collision, USNI News has learned.

The officer of the deck at the time of the Fitzgerald collision, Lt j.g. Sarah Coppock, pleaded guilty to a single count of negligence for her role in the collision as part of a deal with prosecutors in a special court-martial in May.

McCain’s former commander, Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, pleaded guilty to a single count of negligence in a special court-martial. Former McCain Chief Boatswain’s Mate Jeffery Butler, who was responsible for training enlisted watchstanders, pleaded guilty to one count of negligence in a summary court-martial.

In addition to the courts-martial, Caldwell has overseen 18 non-judicial punishments related to both collisions.

  • JohnByron

    Seems the right charging. The leadership of the surface navy should be in the dock with him.

    • David C

      CNO, CINCPAC, CINCPACFLT all need to be in the dock. Big Navy fired everyone in the C of C from 7th Fleet on down. But if VADM Aucoin is to be believed, and I certainly believe him, Big Navy sent undermanned, under-trained, poorly maintained ships to sea and they knew it. These Big Three have yet to answer the hard questions. Will they?

      • proudrino

        I think all the flags that instituted and defended SWOS in a box should be called to account. But since that isn’t going to happen, I wish that USNI would stop covering for those that are culpable (many of whom are contributors to Proceedings).

        Let the USNI take the lead and have a panel discussion with the flags that killed SWO proficiency on the same stage with those having to clean up the mess that was left behind.

        • JohnByron

          I’d settle for Tim…

    • Duane

      No. Flag officers are not responsible for negligent command and mishandling of individual ships. That has never been the standard of culpability in any navy that ever sailed a ship.

      This officer and his wardroom screwed up, and ditto with the McCain. But the COs and their wardrooms on 277 other US Navy warships did not.

      The systemic issues that contributed, but did not directly cause the negligent officers to perform negligently were the result of a quarter century of peacetime negligence by the entire nation, including all of our elected officials and all of us voters. This post war standdown happens in every nation post-war throughout history. Because of human nature, it is always unavoidable in the real world, if not in the fantasy world.

      But all that being aside, blaming leadership many rungs up the chain of command for the uncommon (2 of 279) errors of field commanders is nothing but a cop-out and detrimental to military discipline and preparedness.

      Fortunately neither the Commander in Chief nor Congress in its oversight role agree with you.

      • I have a book you might consider reading. It’s titled “Darker Shades of Blue: The Rogue Pilot” and is about the Air Force but it’s point is about how leadership erodes from the top down.

        • Alex Andrite

          sort of like a fish rots ?

  • proudrino

    So it is possible that the Fitzgerald’s commanding officer is innocent of negligent hazarding a vessel and dereliction of duty resulting in death- even though he had been onboard for over a year-and-a-half (18 months as XO)?

    Had he been doing his job and his crew was properly trained (as would have been his responsibilty as XO) I don’t see how that is remotely possible but this is the new Navy. CDR Benson was part of a failed system of leadership. Charging him with negligent homicide was a reach but, as far as the record shows, there is little doubt that he was negligent. Pleading innocent is a slap in the face of those who were injured or killed.

    • Duane

      He is entitled to mount a defense. The courts martial will figure out his culpability.

  • DanTootle

    This statement alone stands above all others as the reason for this courts martial for Commander Benson – “Benson was in his stateroom asleep when merchant ship ACX Crystal collided with Fitzgerald on June 17, 2017, off the coast of Japan. The collision resulted in the death of seven sailors.”

    Lt.Jg. Coppick should not have been conning the Fitzgerald through those congested waters with Cdr. Benson asleep in his at sea cabin. Both the CO and the Navigator should have been on the bridge and in control of the Fitzgerald with Lt. jg. Coppick and other junior officers present learning from their more experienced senior officers on how to plan and control their ship’s movements in that environment. Several systemic and operations failures that took place on the Fitzgerald have been well documented, but the basic command failure of Cdr. Benson to exercise his command responsibility before and during the accident and its aftermath, and now to deny his ultimate responsibility for what happened is not acceptable nor is it in accordance with Navy tradition and practice.

    • NsTiG8r

      I served as an OS in the Navy for 20 yrs and I have been so baffled and appalled by how this could have happened. It was like the “perfect storm” of disasters. Most everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. If only the OOD or JOOD would have reached out to CIC for recommendations. If only CIC would have done their basic function of managing the surface picture and providing recommendations to the bridge for safe passage. If either one of these two basic watchstanding procedures would have been followed, there is a good chance that this disaster would have been averted.

      • proudrino

        To quibble a bit with your wording. Nothing went wrong on the Fitzgerald. Everything but the crew was operating as it was supposed to.

        What happened was a breakdown in time-tested communication and procedures that are in place to prevent mishaps at sea. There should have been more experienced watchstanders in place for transiting busy traffic lanes. The CO or XO should have been on the bridge. The lookouts should have reported the ship visually. CIC should have been more dilligent in maintaining the surface picture. Etc. This is a failure of leadership from beginning to end.

    • proudrino

      An important fact is missing from your comments. CDR Benson was onboard Fitzgerald as XO from December 2015. He was part of the leadership culture that created those systemic and operations failures- not the least of which are the responsibilities of XO when it comes to watchstanding proficiency.

      Through his lawyer, CDR Benson claims victimhood because he was in command of the ship for only a few short weeks at the time of the collision. This claim, of course, is undermined by the fact that he had been assigned to the ship for almost 20 months as a member of the command triad. To argue that he was not guilty of negligence (hazarding a vessel and dereliction of duty resulting in death) is offensive and not supported by the facts.

    • Good point.

  • The female officers are the ones responsible. Maybe he did not properly train them but it sounds like an institutional failure, not his alone.

    • proudrino

      Institutional failure (the systemic Force-wide inability to create proficient surface warfare officers) is one issue. The leadership failures of CDR Benson and the command triad of the USS Fitzgerald is a separate matter because institutional failure does not relieve a ship’s commanding officer of the safe operation of their command. Gender isn’t relevant.

    • Alex Andrite

      huh ? I was told that Officers were not gender specific. oh well, that was in ’68 and on, Blue and Brown water chatter. What did we know anyway ?

  • Bwayne

    Notice who was on duty but not doing their duty. Lt. Natalie Combs and Lt j.g. Sarah Coppock were actually responsible for what happened. These women were mad at each other and not speaking. That is why the collision occurred

    • Navy5717th

      I’ve been following this debacle since it took place. This is the first time that I’ve read: “.. These women were mad at each other and not speaking.”

      Could you please cite your source?

  • G Joubert

    This goes a lot higher than the old man.

  • jimshi

    Hard to believe the US Navy does not require eyeballs on deck to stand watch. Eyeballs on deck would have seen that container vessel miles before it collided.

  • Navy5717th

    FYI, there’s a YouTube blogger who calls himself “Florida Maquis” that I’d recommend you check out. He claims to be a former US Army intelligence officer, but he seems to be a Jim Jones messiah type with a cult following — eager to drink the Kool Aid he serves, who has virtually no knowledge of the Navy. He began putting up video offering a plethora of implausible, often contradictory scenarios shortly after FITZGERALD’s collision that stretch all credulity — even for casual observers.

  • Navy5717th

    Dear Mr.La Grone: You might be interested in the fact that this charlatan, Florida Maquis, often displays your pages on his YouTube videos to disparage the Navy. I seriously doubt that he has asked for and received your permission to do so. Whether you’ve copyrighted your articles, I don’t know, but if you have, you might consider contacting YouTube about him.

  • Matt Conley

    When I was the Army as a Butterbar Platoon Leader, I didn’t get to take a piss without a half dozen set of senior eyes watchingmentoring me. A couple of Butterbars were left in charge of a $1.8 billion dollar piece of equipment speeding unsupervised in essentially the 101 Freeway of ship traffic while the CO, XO, Navigator slept? The Navy has some serious problems to work on.

  • wilkinak

    While I think he bears responsibility for the crash, I don’t think he bears all of it. I don’t blame him for not throwing himself under the bus the brass are driving.

    Interesting how the homicide charges have been dropped…I’m thinking Big Navy would prefer to see this whole thing disappear.