The Navy is expected Thursday to drop criminal charges against the commanding officer of the warship Fitzgerald and another officer who were facing court-martial trials tied to the fatal 2017 collision with a merchant vessel, according to Navy officials and the family of one of the fallen sailors.
Navy Times obtained a letter to the family of one of the sailors drowned in the disaster and it indicated that Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson was dropping charges against the Fitz’s skipper at the time of the collision, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, and the tactical action officer, Lt. Natalie Combs.
“The cases are being dismissed for legal reasons that impede the continued prosecution of either officer,” the message states.
Instead, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer will issue letters of censure to both officers, the message stated.
Defense attorneys for Benson and Combs said they had not been officially notified about their clients’ legal fates but the messages were confirmed to Navy Times by officials at the highest levels of the sea service.
Late Wednesday evening, a prepared statement from the Pentagon emailed to Navy Times revealed that Spencer made his decision following a recommendation from the CNO.
“This decision is in the best interest of the Navy, the families of the Fitzgerald sailors, and the procedural rights of the accused officers. Both officers were previously dismissed from their jobs and received non-judicial punishment,” the statement said.
“The comprehensive program to improve Navy readiness and training, to do everything possible to ensure that accidents like this will not recur, remains on track. The Navy continues to strive to achieve and maintain a climate of operational excellence.”
Richardson himself will withdraw and dismiss charges in the general courts-martial cases against the two officers.
“The Navy will always keep the lost sailors and their families in its thoughts and prayers,” the statement concluded.
On the night of June 17, 2017, the Fitzgerald collided with the Philippine-flagged Philippine-flagged container vessel ACX Crystal in a bustling maritime corridor off the coast of Japan.
Seven American sailors drowned and the Navy began building criminal cases against several members of the Fitz’s crew.
The Navy initially sought a charge of negligent homicide against Benson but dropped the charge with little explanation last year.
While others pleaded to charges or took their chances at non-judicial punishment proceedings, Benson and Combs insisted on their innocence and held out.
As of this week, Benson and Combs were awaiting court-martial trials, charged with dereliction in the performance of duties through negligence resulting in death and improper hazarding of a vessel.
Throughout their cases, however, their legal teams hammered CNO Richardson, his Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran and other top leaders for public comments and actions that they contended imperiled the defendants’ right to obtain fair trials.
In a prepared statement emailed to Navy Times shortly after midnight on Thursday, David Sheldon, the attorney for Combs, said charges never should’ve been brought against the lieutenant and accused the Navy of abdicating “its own clear responsibility for the deaths of the seven honorable sailors whose only wish was to serve their country.”
He blamed the collision on “a profound and tragic consequence of failed policy and leadership” and said Combs continues to pray for both her fellow sailors killed in the collision and their mourning families.
“This much is true: the responsibility for this tragedy lies not on the shoulders of this junior officer, but on the unrelenting deployment schedule demanded of Navy commanders and the operational tempo demanded by Navy leadership and this administration,” Sheldon concluded.
“Until these shortcomings are addressed, the losses of those talented, young sailors will be in vain.”
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.