More than a year after the fatal collision of the guided-missile destroyer Fitzgerald, the military arraigned Lt. Natalie Demitri Combs during a speedy but controversial Monday morning hearing at the Navy Yard in Washington.
Her prosecution sparks controversy because an Article 32 hearing officer, Cmdr. Anthony Johnson, recommended that the Navy skip court-martial proceedings against her and instead send her to a board of inquiry to determine if she should remain on duty.
An Article 32 investigation acts much like a civilian grand jury, but Johnson’s recommendations after weighing the evidence against Combs were overruled by Adm. James Caldwell, the director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program.
He charged Combs on June 20 with two violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice: dereliction of duty that negligently resulted in the death of fellow sailors and the negligent and improper hazarding of a vessel.
In the early morning of June 17, 2017, the MV ACX Crystal, a commercial container vessel flagged by the Philippines, speared into the Fitzgerald, causing severe damage above and below the starboard waterline of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. The collision and flooding of the Fitzgerald’s lower decks killed seven Navy sailors.
Military prosecutors allege that Combs, the tactical action officer in the destroyer’s combat information center, failed to follow both her commander’s standing orders and rules spelled out by the Surface Ship Navigation Department Organization and Regulations Manual.
They also contend that Combs failed to communicate with the bridge crucial information about radar contacts with nearby vessels and her recommendations about safe speeds and maneuvering through sea lanes often bustling with shipping traffic.
Her trial is slated to start on Feb. 25. She’s pleaded not guilty and her civilian attorney, David Sheldon, called her prosecution “very disturbing” and a possible case of “selective prosecution” tinged with “unlawful command influence.”
Sheldon said that several of her shipmates escaped with lighter charges. He predicted that Combs would be “100 percent exonerated” and said she looked forward to “fighting this injustice" despite being “saddened by the loss of life” of her fellow sailors aboard the Fitz.
“It’s one thing for the Navy to conduct a dog and pony show at an Article 32 hearing. It’s very difficult to do that in this courtroom," said Sheldon.
Monday’s proceedings lasted 17 minutes and were overseen by Navy Capt. Colleen Glaser-Allen, chief judge of the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals, but Cmdr. Arthur Gaston is expected to preside over the court-martial of Combs next year.
The Navy has assigned Lt. Cmdr. Kate Shovlin and Lt. Cmdr. Paul Hochmuth as prosecutors.
Sheldon will lead a defense team that includes Lt. Cmdr. Robert McElhose and Lt. Brenna Falzetta, who wasn’t present on Monday.
The officer of the deck during the collision, Lt., j.g. Sarah B. Coppock, already has pleaded guilty to a sole charge of dereliction of duty.
The Fitzgerald’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, has a trial scheduled to begin on Jan. 28.
Caldwell stripped out negligent homicide charges in his case.
He also dismissed charges against the warship’s surface warfare coordinator, Lt. Irian Woodley. She will appear before a Navy board of inquiry.
The Fitzgerald disaster was the third serious mishap involving Navy vessels in the Japan-based 7th Fleet’s area of operations last year.
On Jan. 31, the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser Antietam ran into rocks along the Japanese coast. Less than five months later, her sister cruiser Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing boat.
But those accidents weren’t fatal, unlike both the Fitzgerald collision and a similar predawn incident on Aug. 21 in the Singapore Strait involving the Navy destroyer John S. McCain and the Alnic MC, a Liberian-registered oil tanker.
That mishap killed 10 Navy sailors.
In the wake of the Fitzgerald and McCain calamities, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran named Caldwell the “Consolidated Disposition Authority" to mete out justice to the leadership teams aboard both warships.
Prosecutors have secured guilty pleas for dereliction of duty by both Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez, the McCain’s retired commander, and Chief Boatswain’s Mate Jeffery D. Butler, one of his senior enlisted leaders.
That’s why the spotlight is falling on the Fitzgerald’s Benson and Combs.
Originally from Texas and a product of Prairie View A&M College’s Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps program, Combs was commissioned in 2008 as a surface warfare officer and served aboard the destroyer McCampbell between 2011 and 2013.
She reported to the Fitzgerald on Dec. 29, 2016, less than three months after graduating from Surface Warfare Officer School in Newport, Rhode Island, according to military records released to the Navy Times.
Combs was removed from the Fitzgerald’s crew on Oct. 19, 2017 and attached to Destroyer Squadron 15 in Japan.
Her decorations include the Navy/Marine Corps Commendation Medal, the Navy/Marine Corps Achievement Medal and a Navy "E" Ribbon.