The officer in charge of assessing whether two lieutenants should face court-martial for their roles in last summer’s fatal Fitzgerald collision has recommended the cases not go to trial, one of the accused’s attorneys said this week.
An Article 32 hearing was held for Lt. Natalie Combs and Lt. Irian Woodley last month. Such hearings involve an officer hearing the prosecution’s evidence and then making a recommendation to higher-ups as to whether the case should proceed.
The officers each faced charges of negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and hazarding a vessel.
Combs’ civilian attorney, David Sheldon, said this week that the Article 32 officer recommended last week that the two go before an administrative separation board instead of a court-martial.
Adm. James Caldwell oversees all disciplinary action for cases pertaining to the Fitzgerald collision that killed seven sailors off Japan in June 2017 and the collision of the John S. McCain, which killed another 10 shipmates last August.
While Caldwell could overrule the Article 32 officer’s recommendation, Sheldon said he thinks that is “highly unlikely.”
“This allows for the Navy to say they went through the process,” he said. “But at the same time, who knows? Adm. Caldwell has his own lawyers advising him and has his own discretion, so maybe he thinks differently.”
Navy spokesman Cmdr. William Speaks declined to confirm the Article 32 officer’s recommendation, citing the ongoing nature of the process.
Combs was serving as the tactical action officer, or TAO, aboard the Fitz early on June 17, 2017, as the warship steamed off Japan and was struck on her starboard by the ACX Crystal, a hulking merchant vessel.
The collision ripped a hole in the ship’s side, flooding living quarters below the waterline and killing seven sailors.
The Navy alleged in charge sheets that Combs failed her duties as TAO, which involves overseeing weapons, propulsion and sensors when the captain isn’t there.
Sheldon said Combs is not guilty of the charges, and that problems with the ship’s radar and other issues systemic within the West Pacific 7th Fleet are to blame.
Navy leaders and reviews since the collisions have acknowledged that the Japan-based command suffers a higher operational tempo that ends up shorting vital training.
“They, from the beginning, obfuscated under the guise of litigation a full and fair accounting of the responsibility,” Sheldon said.
While Sheldon said he is encouraged by the recommendation against court-martialing Combs and Woodley, administrative separation board hearings present their own challenges because such proceedings offer less public accountability.
“There’s a tension here because if she goes to a board of inquiry, there are less rights available to her,” he said. “What that allows for the Navy to do is not have a fair vetting, in terms of the whole process.”
Sheldon joins other attorneys defending charged Fitz sailors who accuse the Navy of failing to be transparent when it comes to the collision and responsibility for it.
Cmdr. Bryce Benson, the Fitz’s CO at the time, was asleep when the collision occurred.
The Navy is slated to court-martial him in the future, and his attorney recently ripped service brass, alleging that leadership’s public statements about collision responsibility imperils Benson’s chances at a fair trial.
Last month, Lt. j.g. Sarah Coppock pleaded guilty to a dereliction of duty charge at a special court-martial for her role in the Fitz collision.
Coppock was the officer of the deck, or OOD, at the time of the collision and was responsible for safely navigating the ship in the captain’s stead.
She received a punitive letter of reprimand and will forfeit pay as part of her plea deal, while also waiving her right to an administrative discharge board, Navy officials said.
While the Navy has refused to make public any of its investigations into the disaster, a review released last fall found the OOD made no attempt to contact the Crystal via radio before the collision and did not attempt to maneuver and avoid the Crystal until a minute before the collision.
Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, the McCain’s skipper at the time of the August collision, also pleaded guilty in a special court-martial last month to a dereliction of duty charge.
As part of a pre-trial agreement, he received a letter of reprimand, will forfeit pay and will have to submit a retirement request.
Also last month, Chief Boatswain’s Mate Jeffrey Butler pleaded guilty to a dereliction of duty charge in connection to his role in training sailors tasked with the McCain’s basic ship-steering.
He received a reduction to E-6.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at email@example.com.