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Second USS Fitzgerald Officer Defers Plea to Negligence, Hazarding a Vessel Charges

USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) returns to Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka following a collision with a merchant vessel while operating southwest of Yokosuka, Japan. (U.S. Navy Photo By Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kryzentia Weiermann/Released)

An officer charged with negligence for her role in the collision of USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) reserved her right not to enter a plea on Monday during an arraignment before a military judge.

Lt. Natalie D. Combs now faces a general court-martial for hazarding a vessel and negligence in performing her duties when she served as the tactical action officer aboard Fitzgerald on June 17 when it collided with the merchant vessel ACX Crystal off the coast of Japan. The collision resulted in the death of seven sailors.

The trial is now set for February.

Combs had also faced much more serious negligent homicide charges but those were dropped in June by Adm. James F. Caldwell, the consolidated decision authority (CDA) for the accountability actions from last year’s fatal Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) collisions.

Caldwell dropped the more serious homicide charge against Combs after the hearing officer who oversaw an Article 32 hearing for Combs and Fitzgerald officer Lt. Irian Woodley recommended all criminal charges be dropped for the pair. Following the recommendation, Navy dropped all charges against Woodley and he will likely face separation from the Navy via an administrative board.

Caldwell also dropped the negligent homicide charge against former ship commander Cmdr. Bryce Benson who declined his Article 32 hearing. Benson pleaded not guilty to similar charges negligence charges on July 10.

All three were given non-judicial punishment for their roles in the incident shortly after the collision.

In the remaining charges, prosecutors allege Combs did not comply with Navy regulations and Fitzgerald’s commander’s standing orders to monitor contacts around the ship when she led the watch in the ship’s combat information center during the destroyers transit to sea from its homeport in Yokosuka, Japan. CIC is responsible for fighting the ship in combat but while underway in peacetime the watch provides a backup to the watchstanders on the bridge maneuvering the ship.

“The TAO has other areas of focus, but if they aren’t worried about the [air] or subsurface threat, they can truly focus on the surface picture,” retired Capt. Bud Weeks, an instructor at the service’s Surface Warfare Officer School said during the Article 32 hearing of Combs and Woodley in May.

The officer of the deck at the time of the collision, Lt. j.g. Sarah B. Coppock, pleaded guilty to a single count of negligence in May.

Combs’ lawyers said the blame for the incident goes much higher than the sailors who were on watch on the destroyer.

Fitzgerald had systemic problems with its equipment and training — to single this young woman, who has served honorably and with distinction, for prosecution is very troubling in the circumstance,” attorney David Sheldon said in a statement provided to USNI News last month.

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.

  • ew_3

    “CIC is responsible for fighting the ship in combat but while underway in peacetime the watch provides a backup to the watchstanders on the bridge maneuvering the ship.”

    Not the way I remember it. But perhaps things have changed.

    The bridge crew had a radar repeater to check when CIC passed along contact information, but focused on situational awareness. Visual observation being an important part of situational awareness. We’d call up a contact and if possible the JOOD would try to visually confirm it if it was within visual range. The bridge also managed contacts called in from the deck watches.

    Steaming through the English Channel we had 4 radar guys watching screens in short shifts, 2 senior radar guys plotting on the DRT, a senior radar guy managing the scope dopes, a chief radar guy managing the managed, and a CIC watch officer who oversaw the whole operation.

    The bridge crew relied upon all this talent not as backup, but as it’s primary inspiration for decisions.

    Most people in CIC had more years of service then the OOD and JOOD and most of the bridge watch.

    • bob

      Puddle pirate here; what happened to the mark-one eyeball as back up to all the technology?

      If it was on a buoy-banger, underway in the Lower New York Harbor approaches, a 41′ in the North River, or a 44′ in Lake Huron, a competent set of eyes backing up the radar was always the rule.

      Buoy Tender would have a flying bridge lookout, bow and fantail underway at night, backing up the bridge watch. Small boats in particular all eyes were out lest an errant tug with a tow sneak up on you. The assumption was not to assume the other guy saw you, with the law of gross tonnage trumping all else.

      • BobtheGrape

        Exactly. Someone should have seen the other vessel, either a lookout or a CIC/bridge watch stander with all the electronic gizmos. So, what were the lookouts doing?

        • bob

          Almost have to ask, does the Navy still stand a regular live watch out on deck?

      • Curtis Conway

        The Signalman are gone, and lookouts are a rarity evidently. It seems most of our sailors are ‘A’ ‘D’ ‘D’, and can’t concentrate that long. There are some automated systems that can do such things, but they are on other navy’s ships, not ours.

        • bob

          I had a BMC that would hang some azz from the mast if the flying bridge didn’t call out contacts that the bridge crew caught closing close. There would be no ADD on that cutter.

          • Curtis Conway

            A little humiliation goes a long way in the fleet.

    • Curtis Conway

      CIC can’t drive the ship, except in mid ocean. Until SIMONE (Ship Infrared Monitoring, Observation and Navigation Equipment), that possibility will never exist, nor will those in command and responsible for things, be able to maintain a watch on what is about to happen.

      • ew_3

        Didn’t mean to imply CIC would drive the ship.
        But CIC provides information to the bridge. Our CIC gave the bridge surface contact threats, air contact threats, ew threats and sonar threats.
        They made the decisions on what to do with that information.
        We had a few instances where CIC piped up more then normal and we got trashed for doing so. In one incident we were doing divtac stuff and while crossing the bow of the Intrepid we had an engineering casualty. RD2 xxxxx had the quick response and put out on the KY-8 “Mike speed zero”, which I gather is NATO speak for my speed zero.
        RD2 xxxxx got reamed by the CO for taking this action.
        The CO went on to get his 4 stars.

        • Curtis Conway

          Back in my early days of CIC Supervisor, it was common for the Bridge OOD and the CIC WO to compare notes over the squawk box about plans for dealing with this traffic or that contact. Anything else is not a team, and EVERYBODY has a hand in the responsibility to say something, plan ahead, understand the context. When you have ANYONE telling you to go back to your corner and shut up, they should never be in that position of Leadership/Responsibility again.

          When in the Battle Staffs . . . operations was always open to input. We were usually acting with limited information and hoping we knew what we were doing. One does not always have that luxury.

          • Guest

            IIRC from Coppocks testimony, Combs and Coppock weren’t on speaking terms…so no coordination between CiC and the bridge.

          • Curtis Conway

            So much for women being Professional naval officers. Cost us dearly.

    • hrcint

      Good observation. I served on small combatants, normally had no more than two or three maybe third class PO’s on watch but they were well qualified and maintained a complete surface status(didn’t have air search capability). They plotted all CPA’s, kept OOD advised on every single surface contact, screen status, etc. They also backed up the navigator at Special Sea Detail.
      I always went to CIC before relieving the OOD watch because they were supposed to have the complete picture, and if they did not (rarely), I would not relieve the watch, per CO standing orders.

      CIC also bailed me out several times when I got too smart for my own good as OOD.

      Old reserve OOD/NAV/XO

  • proudrino

    Combs’ lawyers said the blame for the incident goes much higher than the sailors who were on watch on the destroyer.

    Balderdash. Combs’ lawyer forgot the word “just.” As in “The incident goes much higher than JUST the sailors who were on watch.” At the end of the day Combs was negligent in her duties. To make the claim of victimhood because of her failings is reprehensible and dishonors those who were killed in an accident that wouldn’t have happened if Combs, Coppock, Benson, and others had been practicing professional seamanship.

    • TransformerSWO

      Exactly. The first words in the training film “I Relieve You Sir” are burned into our minds: “When ships collide at sea and lives are lost, there must be an accounting.”

  • BobtheGrape

    I don’t understand. There are lookout watch standers and this ship had all the electronic doo-dads that should have alerted the bridge and CIC watch standers to the ship closing on the Fitz. This collision should never have happened to this ship, in my opinion. There must have been some grave failings both human and equipment related.

    • waveshaper1

      “should have alerted the bridge and CIC watch standers to the ship closing on the Fitz”.
      IMHO, the Fitz was the ship closing on the Crystal. The ACX Crystal was in the designated “one-way” inbound shipping channel, headed in the right direction/course, at the required speed, and openly transmitting AIS info containing all the important/critical collision avoidance data.

    • proudrino

      Prosecutors argued that the Surface Coordinator and Combs did not know the ship was at risk from the MV Crystal, did not see
      other nearby contacts, and were not in contact with the bridge crew. A massive merchant ship just “popped up” at a dangerously close range.

      I want to know what the shift of sailors in CIC was doing because it certainly wasn’t standing the watch.

      • notaluvvie

        Exactly. Try doing the same stretch of water on the bridge of a submarine (on the roof) without radar and only your eyes and good seamanship to take your through. Have done it numerous times. On the bridge of a modern warship with many eyes looking and radars burning and turning there is no excuse other than the obvious.

  • Duane

    The officer wants a courts martial, that is her right, so she will get an opportunity to defend herself, as will the CO. She admits at least some fault, apparently, so her defense will focus on relative culpability.

    None of us will be there in the courts martial to hear and consider the evidence and testimony. I expect she will get a fair hearing and the chips will fall where they may.

    • notaluvvie

      She will have a “court martial”. Singular. Courts martial is plural.

  • publius_maximus_III

    E-7 is the rank of the person (name redacted) listed on the Charge Sheet as “Accuser.” Is that simply a clerk in the JAG office, or someone who was actually on board at the time of the collision, with first hand knowledge to support the charges? If the latter, is the testimony of a CPO (E-7) given equal weight to that of a commissioned officer (O-3)?

    • publius_maximus_III

      Never mind, I see the organization of the “Accuser” is Naval Legal Service Command. Highly unlikely to have been someone on that destroyer in the Pacific that night.