While the Navy has yet to provide answers for how a hulking merchant vessel struck the destroyer Fitzgerald in June, killing seven sailors, command climate surveys from a few months before the disaster depict a crew proud of their ship and its mission.
Navy Times obtained the surveys, a mandated annual gauge of crew morale, via a Freedom of Information request.
The last survey was dated in March, before Cmdr. Bryce Benson took command of the Fitz two weeks before the June 17 collision off Japan.
Benson was injured when his quarters were crushed by the MCX Crystal, and he was found dangling off the side of the ship by his crew after they pried their way into his berthing.
Benson was relieved of command this summer.
The Navy plans to discipline up to 12 Fitzgerald sailors, including the commanding officer, in connection to the destroyer’s fatal June collision with a commercial ship that led to the drownings of seven sailors in their berthing.
The Fitz incident — and another involving the destroyer John S. McCain in August that killed 10 sailors — have spawned questions about readiness and operational tempo in the Navy’s 7th Fleet.
The most recent survey was completed by only about 122 crew members of the ship’s roughly 320 sailors. But among those ranks, and despite the fast pace of 7th Fleet life, 90 percent of responding Fitz sailors reported being proud of their ship.
Under Benson’s predecessor, Cmdr. Robert Shu, about 83 percent of sailors were motivated to do their best, and 90 percent rated their ship’s performance highly compared to other ships, according to the survey.
Survey sections where sailors can share thoughts in their own words were entirely redacted from the documents the Navy provided.
Navy Times is appealing those redactions on the basis they were improperly applied.
March’s survey shows the opinions of responding sailors hewed with Navy averages on things like organizational commitment, trust in leadership and job satisfaction, among others.
Roughly 86 percent of responding Fitz sailors said they trusted their fellow crew members to get the job done, while 88 percent affirmed that the destroyer’s shipmates look out for each other.
In a February 2016 survey of the crew, 75 percent of sailors said they liked their job. That number grew to 83 percent by March.
Shu received high marks for his leadership in the most recent survey.
About 87 percent said they were comfortable approaching the CO with any issue, and 94 percent characterized Shu as accessible.
Sailors had less than a minute to escape as seawater blasted through a massive hole in the destroyer Fitzgerald after a container ship struck its starboard side on June 19.
All but one of 119 responding sailors characterized him as a competent leader, while 93 percent said he took steps to ensure sailors were treated with respect.
While the March survey suggests things were relatively stable aboard the Fitz earlier this year, they offer little insight into life under Benson, the skipper who took command only 18 days before the deadly collision.
The lone record reflecting Benson’s command tenure is his response to a comment left in the CO suggestion box by an anonymous sailor.
It came after Benson hosted a “Waffle House Wednesday” meal for his crew on May 31, the day after he took command.
“Command Master Chief and I really enjoyed sponsoring the event as it is one small token we can give back to the crew for the hard work and dedication you put into our great warship everyday,” Benson wrote in response.
After a sailor asked for the special meal to be a regular occurrence, Benson noted such special meals fall outside Navy regs.
“Realizing that we love ‘WHW’ for the good food aka ‘CMC Special’ and the boost in morale, CMC and I paid for the food,” Benson wrote. “Unfortunately, we can not afford to pay for it every Wednesday, but other groups, associations, and/or clubs may sponsor a future WHW.”