Seventeen sailors from the destroyers Fitzgerald and John S. McCain have received nonjudicial punishment for their roles in last summer’s West Pacific collisions that killed 17 sailors, officials confirmed Thursday.
The Navy also plans to reverse a guilty verdict it handed out to an officer from the warship Fitzgerald for involvement in the June 17 collision off Japan that killed seven shipmates.
The prior ruling against the officer in a nonjudicial punishment hearing was reversed by the head of the “consolidated disposition authority,” an entity established in October to review all prior punishments meted out for last summer’s disasters involving the Fitz and the destroyer John S. McCain, which collided with a tanker in August, killing another 10 sailors.
The Navy’s announcement Thursday does not specify the charge for which that officer was originally found guilty, nor when that guilty verdict was first rendered.
It also remains unclear how many more cases the consolidated disposition authority, or CDA, is reviewing.
Ten Fitz sailors and seven McCain sailors have been disciplined via nonjudicial punishment, or NJP, to date, according to Navy officials.
The Navy declined to specify the nature of the charges levied against those 17 sailors and generally cites privacy regulations when declining to disclose the identities of those facing NJP.
The Fitz’s captain at the time, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, was named as one of the sailors facing NJP this summer.
He and the McCain’s leader at the time, Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, now face court-martial for negligent homicide.
NJP is supposed to be reserved for less-severe violations of military law, but critics say it is overused, opaque to the public and offers the accused fewer rights.
The Navy won't say how many Fitzgerald and McCain sailors are facing NJP.
“Additional CDA actions are pending,” Thursday’s Navy release states. “As appropriate, information will be available when action is complete. This is required to ensure a fair, thorough and equitable process and that members are afforded their rights.”
This week, the CDA’s head, Adm. Frank Caldwell, held nonjudicial punishment proceedings for six sailors at the warships’ home port of Yokosuka, Japan.
They included the Fitzgerald’s second-in-command and command master chief, as well as another officer.
They were all found guilty of dereliction in the performance of duties and received a punitive letter of reprimand, according to the Navy.
Caldwell also held hearings for three McCain sailors.
He dismissed charges against one McCain officer and one enlisted sailor at NJP hearings this week.
Caldwell found another enlisted sailor guilty of dereliction in performance of duties. That sailor received a letter of reprimand, forfeiture of half a month’s pay for two months and a reduction in rank, according to the Navy release.
The pay forfeiture and rank reduction were suspended for six months, according to the Navy.
In addition to Benson and Sanchez, three other Fitz junior officers face negligent homicides charges as well, but the Navy has declined to identify them. All five officers are also facing dereliction of duty and hazarding a vessel charges.
Hearings on whether the Navy has enough evidence to try them at court-martial, known as an Article 32, will begin next month, according to the Navy release.
Benson was named in August as one of the Fitzgerald crew members who would face NJP.
Critics have called out the Navy for its lack of transparency in its handling of Fitz and McCain NJPs, and questions remain about why past disciplinary actions are being reviewed and reversed.
Sailors normally facing NJP charges can opt instead for a court-martial instead, where they can face their charges with the help of an attorney at a public trial.
It could spur fleet-level skippers and chiefs to push back against relentless demands from the Navy's senior leaders.
But sailors attached to ships face the so-called “vessel exception,” which prevents them from refusing NJP and insisting on the court-martial option.
Both ships were based under the command of 7th Fleet, which oversees the West Pacific and has come under scrutiny for the readiness of its crews and ships in busy waters where missions include countering China and North Korea.