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Panel reduces senior chief's rank at emotional hearing in divers' deaths

Jan. 19, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
A military jury reduced Senior Chief Navy Diver (EXW/SW) James Burger's rank to E-7 on Saturday after finding him guilty of negligent dereliction in the drowning deaths of duty two Navy divers last year at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.'s 'Super Pond.'
A military jury reduced Senior Chief Navy Diver (EXW/SW) James Burger's rank to E-7 on Saturday after finding him guilty of negligent dereliction in the drowning deaths of duty two Navy divers last year at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.'s 'Super Pond.' (Army via The Associated Press)
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NORFOLK, VA. — Senior Chief Navy Diver (EXW/SW) James Burger was told by a panel of his peers Friday that he was guilty of negligent dereliction of duty for conducting a dive where two of his sailors perished.

As the same panel prepared to deliberate on his sentence the following day, Burger made a statement to the one officer and three master chiefs deciding that fate.

He did not point fingers, nor did he beg for mercy. Instead, Burger shouldered the blame.

The panel decided it would cost him one paygrade, giving him a reduction to E-7, a move that could cost Burger, 45, as much as $250,000 in retirement over the remainder of his life.

“I respect and honor your decision,” he said to the panel. “You gentlemen found the truth and I thank your for that.”

That admission came only as he addressed the families — in the presence of the panel — of the two lost sailors, Navy Diver 1st Class (DSW) James Reyher of Caldwell, Ohio, and ND2 (DSW) Ryan Harris of Gladstone, Mo., whose deaths, the panel’s verdict said, was at least in part the result of Burger’s negligence.

Burger, Reyher and Harris were all part of Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2’s Company 2/3, which was going through a final evaluation for deployment overseas Feb. 26 when the accident occurred at Aberdeen, Md.

“I’d like to say I am truly sorry for what happened,” Burger said softly, a rare tone for a Navy master diver.

“Not a day, not an hour, not a second goes by where James and Ryan are not on my mind — they were great men, and I am truly sorry.”

Present in the courtroom’s gallery were Gordon and Deborah Harris, Ryan’s parents, both of whom gave tearful testimony about the impact of their son’s loss on them and their extended family.

“Nobody should have to bury their child,” Gordon Harris said.

“This past year has been the hardest of my life — there’s hardly a day goes by when I don’t cry,” Gordon Harris testified.

Deborah Harris described her career as a social worker, where she was responsible for the safety and well being of children who were often victims of child abuse.

Too often, they had to investigate accidents and enforce rules and regulations, she said.

Safety of the child was her primary concern and if there was any doubt, she would err on the side of ensuring the safety of the child — lamenting her son didn’t get the same benefit from his leaders at Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit, 2.

“To my dying day, I will not understand not putting safeguards in place,” Deborah Harris said.

“I’d say my heart is broken, there’s a piece of my heart that’s gone,” Deborah Harris continued.

Reyher’s widow, Diana, also spoke, along with his father, Steven.

Steven Reyher used his time on the stand to tell the court the Navy had made his son a man and “did what I had been trying to do for 20 years. Thanks for that.”

He said what he missed the most in year since his son’s death was the gentle banter they had back and forth through phone calls and text messages.

“I don’t get any more phone calls giving me the business and I don’t get give him the business ... the teasing, the teasing,” he said, as his voice trailed off.

But Steven Reyher’s final words were more of lessons learned than a lament.

“Things aren’t perfect. Diving is a dangerous business — on your best day, bad things can happen,” he said. “It’s a lesson to all of us to step back one more time and double check — God bless the Navy, God bless this country and God bless our families.”

But Reyher’s widow wasn’t so magnanimous to the Navy.

“He was my best friend,” Diana Reyher said to the court. “We were a team, he had my back and I had his back.”

They married shortly after he graduated from boot camp and weren’t apart much since. She said they enjoyed Reyher’s initial tour, in what she described as a tight-knit dive locker in Keyport, Wash.

She described it as the best time of their lives. The sailors James served with became extended family members and remain close to her, even today, she testified.

But things changed when they got to MDSU-2, she said.

“There wasn’t any unity, any team, everybody was out for themselves — everything was about the chain of command,” she said, alluding to poor command climate and bad morale at MDSU-2.

The court didn’t hear anything about how bad things were at the Little Creek, Va.-based diving command during the trial, a situation that eventually cost the unit commander at the time of the accident, Cmdr. Michael Runkle, his job. The command climate problems were not examined at trial.

Diana Reyher said as James and Company 2/3 moved towards their final evaluation and deployment, her husband changed and wasn’t happy because “nobody was backing anybody,” unlike his previous dive locker.

His leadership, she said, didn’t listen to the rank and file.

“If he said anything, it wouldn’t matter,” she said. “You did what you were told and that was that.”

But despite his trepidations, Diana Reyher said her husband would have felt doing the dive was his duty.

“He knew the risk, but he would not back down from his responsibilities,” she said, wishing the “same respect and care” had been given by his leadership.

“My husband’s life wasn’t worth failing or passing anything.”

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