Former USS Fitzgerald CO Benson to Retire as Commander Next Month

November 20, 2019 5:37 PM
Cmdr. Bryce Benson, then-executive officer, assists in bringing down the battle ensign aboard USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) in 2016. US Navy Photo

The former commander of a guided-missile destroyer that was involved in a fatal collision in 2017 will retire at his current rank and will be eligible for retirement and medical benefits, his lawyer confirmed to USNI News on Wednesday.

Cmdr. Bryce Benson will retire from the Navy on Dec. 29 after a two-year legal battle with the Navy over his role in the June 17, 2017, collision of USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and container ship ACX Crystal off the coast of Japan that resulted in the death of seven sailors.

Benson’s retirement was first reported by ProPublica.

The Navy had scheduled a Board of Inquiry for Benson following the dismissal of criminal charges earlier this year, USNI News had learned. The ruling of the board could have threatened his medical care for treatment for traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder Benson suffered during the collision. The stateroom where Benson was sleeping during the time of the collision was crushed by the bow of Crystal, and Benson was flown off the ship for medical treatment as soon as help arrived on the scene. The Navy reversed course last month and allowed Benson to leave the service without a board of inquiry.

“While Cmdr. Benson has never stopped grieving for his fallen and injured crew, we are gratified that the Navy made the right decision and that he can finally begin his recovery, unabated,” Benson’s attorney, Cmdr. Justin Henderson, told USNI News in a statement on Wednesday.

Benson’s December retirement marks the conclusion of a two-year-long legal battle in which Navy leadership pushed hard for accountability actions following the collisions of Fitzgerald and then USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) off the coast of Singapore on Aug. 20, 2017. In total, the Navy lost 17 sailors as a result of the two collisions. Since the summer of 2017, the Navy has attempted to implement a wide-ranging series of surface reforms that focus on basic mariner skills.

Then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson appointed the director of Naval Reactors Adm. Frank Caldwell to oversee accountability actions for both cases as the Consolidated Decision Authority in late 2017.

Based on Caldwell’s recommendation, the Navy criminally charged Benson and McCain commander Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez with a variety of charges, including negligent homicide.

USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) stands by before it is loaded onto the heavy lift transport vessel MV Transshelf in 2017. US Navy Photo

As part of a plea deal, Sanchez pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor charge of negligence in May of 2018 and continued to serve in the Navy as an Aegis Combat System instructor at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia, several sources confirmed to USNI News.

In September, Sanchez’s own board of inquiry recommended he retire honorably at the rank of commander, Navy Times reported at the time. As of Wednesday, Sanchez had not been informed of his retirement determination, his attorney, Cmdr. Stuart Kirkby, told USNI News.

Benson elected to fight the case and pleaded not guilty to the charges that were slowly whittled from more serious homicide charges to a single negligence charge. In parallel, Benson’s lawyers successfully argued that Richardson and Caldwell had exercised unlawful command influence that tainted the outcome of the case.

In January, Caldwell was disqualified by a military judge to oversee the case. In April, the Navy elected to drop charges against Benson and Fitzgerald‘s tactical action officer, Lt. Natalie Combs.

Both Combs and Benson were instead given a letter of censure from Secretary of Navy Richard V. Spencer. As outlined in 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.”

Combs’ own separation from the service is still yet to be determined, her lawyer David Sheldon told USNI News on Wednesday.

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone is the editor of USNI News. He has covered legislation, acquisition and operations for the Sea Services since 2009 and spent time underway with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Navy.
Follow @samlagrone

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