Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer has issued formal letters of censure to the former commander and tactical action officer of USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) for their roles in the June 17, 2017, collision between a destroyer and a merchant ship.
In the letters dated April 9 to Cmdr. Bryce Benson and Lt. Natalie Combs, Spencer admonishes the pair for “incompetent leadership” and “willful failures” for their roles in the fatal collision with merchant ship ACX Crystal that killed seven sailors off the coast of Japan.
The content of the letters were largely assembled from the government’s arguments against the pair, which were laid out in charging documents and motions, and come ahead of the Navy’s planned dismissal of criminal negligence charges for the pair.
Benson, the ship’s commander, was asleep in his cabin during the collision at 1:30 a.m. In his letter, Spencer wrote he had inadequately prepared a navigation plan and picked a poor watch team, including the officer of the deck. Lt. j.g. Sarah Coppock, who pled guilty to a count of negligence for her role in the collision.
“You were entrusted with the lives of the men and women in Fitzgerald,” wrote Spencer in his letter to Benson. “When you accepted command-at-sea, you accepted this extraordinary responsibility with full knowledge and understanding of its consequences. Despite this great obligation, you failed to meet the most basic responsibilities of a Commanding Officer at sea: the safe navigation of your ship and the safety of your crew.”
Spencer wrote Combs, who was on duty as the tactical action officer during the collision, “demonstrated incompetent and ineffective leadership while supervising the Combat Information Center (CIC). Your willful failure to perform assigned duties combined with your ineffective communication and failure to make recommendations to the bridge watch team were significant contributing factors in the June 17, 2017, collision at sea between Fitzgerald and ACX Crystal resulting in the death of seven United States Navy sailors.”
Spencer said both contributed to the climate on the ship that allowed standards to drop to where the collision was possible.
“The lax culture you helped propagate contributed to the collisions and the deaths of our sailors,” he wrote in Combs’ letter.
For Benson he wrote, “for the entirety of the time you served as the Fitzgerald Commanding Officer, you abrogated your responsibility to prepare your ship and crew for their assigned mission. Instead, you fostered a command characterized by complacency, lack of procedural compliance, weak system knowledge, and a dangerous level of informality.”
Letters of Censure
The censures issued to Benson and Combs are a less common tool in military justice that gives wide latitude for a service secretary to punish individuals.
According to the Department of the Navy’s Judge Advocate General manual, a secretarial letter of censure, or SLOC, is an admonishment to active or retired sailors or Marines based on the Secretary of the Navy’s sole discretion that it is for the “good of the service.”
The fundamental idea is that the public rebuke would be used as a tool to instill good order and discipline in the Navy and the Marine Corps, but the letter carries no legal weight on its own.
The SLOCs are now part of Benson and Combs’ service record, will ultimately end their careers and – unlike a criminal conviction or an administrative board – can’t be argued or appealed, military lawyer Brian Bouffard told USNI News on Thursday.
“The best you can do, if you feel like it’s unjust, you can write a rebuttal, but you’re rebutting it to the same official who’s giving it to you in the first place,” he said. “There’s no appeal process, so it’s basically career-ending.”
The Navy could have also elected to take Benson and Combs to an administrative board of inquiry in which a panel of officers determine whether or not to separate a sailor based on a “preponderance of evidence.”
Last month, a board of inquiry found “no basis” to separate from service another Fitzgerald junior officer, Lt. Irian Woodley, the surface warfare coordinator in the combat information center during the collision.
In separate statements, attorneys for Benson and Combs both argued that their clients deserved to face trial or a board of inquiry to argue their cases on their own merits.
“Lt. Combs was fully prepared to defend and defeat the charges brought against her. Lt. Combs was not responsible for setting an operational tempo that undercut staffing and training, that allowed for the ship to move with ‘degraded’ radar and that put sailors at extreme risk aboard the USS Fitzgerald,” reads a Thursday statement from Combs’ lawyer, David Sheldon.
“That responsibility lies not with this junior officer, but on Navy leadership at the highest levels.”
Benson’s lawyer, Cmdr. Justin Henderson, said that Spencer’s letter misrepresented the conditions aboard the ship that would have been challenged during a trial.
“Cmdr. Benson’s letter was issued without any due process, which fits the Navy’s approach to accountability for the Fitzgerald collision,” he said in a Thursday statement to USNI News.
“The letter continues the Navy’s message that ship commanders bear all operational risk, regardless of which echelon generates it. In that sense, this outcome is not just, for anyone.”
The issue of the letters and the planned dismissals are likely the final accountability actions for the Fitzgerald and the Aug. 20, 2017, USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) collision.
As for the final result for Benson and Combs, “you can view it in a good way and a bad way,” Bouffard said.
“They’re not going to get convicted, but their careers are over without enough evidence to take them to an admin board. Why else would you proceed with a course of action that would destroy a career but that the person has no due process rights and no legal recourse to say, ‘Hey, I should continue serving?’”