WASHINGTON – One chief’s glaring leadership failures over the course of a year proved to be a major factor in the drowning deaths of 10 sailors after the destroyer John S. McCain’s Aug. 21 collision with a tanker off the coast of Singapore.
Chief Boatswain’s Mate Jeffery D. Butler pleaded guilty Thursday to a charge of dereliction of duty before a summary court-martial for his role in training and qualifying sailors who demonstrated that they were unable to perform basic ship-steering operations.
Butler, who reached his 20-year mark last November, was sentenced by Navy judge advocate Cmdr. William Weiland to a reduction in paygrade to E-6. The maximum sentence possible was a reduction in paygrade, 60 days restriction and a forfeiture of two-thirds of one month’s pay.
Just before sentencing, Butler stood to address the families of the fallen who were in attendance.
“I want to give my condolences and ask for your forgiveness,” he said, fighting back tears. “They were more than just my shipmates – they were family members.”
The plea came as part of a pretrial agreement, which also indicated that Butler is expected to transfer to Navy Fleet Reserve to finish out his career. An announcement on his exact fate will come soon, his attorneys said.
“Chief Boatswain’s Mate Jeffery D. Butler did what every Navy Chief Petty Officer does every day across the Fleet – he took responsibility,” Lt. Cmdr. Megan Jackler, Butler’s defense attorney, wrote in a press release. “He hopes that the families of his fellow Sailors that were lost in the collision may find some solace in his desire to take responsibility at court-martial today.“
Butler, the only chief boatswain’s mate onboard the McCain at the time of the collision, was tasked with certifying sailors on the new, all-digital Integrated Bridge Navigation System, or IBNS, which had been installed on the destroyer four months before his August 2016 arrival to the McCain, the first destroyer he ever served on.
Butler told the judge Thursday that he never took a single course on the new navigation system, and was given just 30 minutes of training on the new tech from a master helmsman before being thrust into using it.
And despite his requests for additional tech support and instruction, help never arrived.
Butler, however, felt his past experience, coupled with the brief run-through, was enough to be proficient in certifying junior sailors.
“As a chief, I thought I understood the system well enough to train my sailors,” he told the judge.
Three of those sailors under his charge were boatswain’s mates 3rd class sailors who came to McCain from the cruiser Antietam. Butler mistakenly assumed they were already certified on the IBNS from their time on their previous ship.
But it wasn't until after the destroyer collided with the tanker that Butler discovered the McCain was the only ship in all of 7th Fleet outfitted with the new IBNS technology.
As a repentant Butler sat alone at his courtroom desk, he went over all the things he should have done differently. He should have persisted in pushing for more tech support. He should have performed more steering-loss drills for his junior sailors than the two he ran in the course of a year. He should have tested his sailors on the IBNS.
“If you didn’t know how to run the system, how did you know the answers they were giving you were correct?” the judge asked.
Looking back, Butler told the judge, “I should have gotten knee deep in that tech manual…dissect it page by page.”
After his guilty plea, Butler called on his former executive officer and eventual commanding officer of the dock landing ship Germantown, Cmdr. Gary Harrington, to provide a character testimony on his behalf.
Harrington told the judge that during Butler’s three years on Germantown, he exemplified a well-trained sailor, and put that training to practice under duress when the ship lost steering during an underway replenishment and began drifting toward the refueling ship.
Butler was instrumental in correcting course and avoiding collision, Harrington said, and went on to win the 2014 Sailor of the Year award onboard Germantown.
“I can’t speak to the training on” the McCain, said Harrington, “but it was immaculate on Germantown.”
Cases in the McCain collision continue tomorrow with the special court-martial of Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, former skipper of the destroyer who was in charge at the time of the collision.
Sanchez originally faced a charge of negligent homicide, which the Navy retracted. Why that charge was dismissed remains a mystery.
J.D. Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.