Some relatives of the seven sailors who drowned in 2017 after the guided-missile destroyer Fitzgerald collided with a merchant vessel expressed anger and frustration Thursday over news that the Navy is dropping criminal charges against two of the warship’s officers.
Dakota Rigsby, Xavier Martin, Tan Huynh, Shingo Douglass, Gary Rehm, Noe Hernandez and Carlos Sibayan all died in Berthing 2 after the ACX Crystal gouged a massive hole in the destroyer’s starboard side on June 17, 2017 off the coast of Japan.
Nikki Rigsby, the stepmother of Dakota Rigsby who helped raise him since he was 4, said her family was “deeply saddened, disappointed and hurt by the news.”
Rigsby said they were notified in an email Wednesday that charges would be dropped against Cmdr. Bryce Benson, the ship’s skipper, and Lt. Natalie Combs, a junior officer who led the combat information center that night.
Instead, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer issued administrative letters of censure reprimanding them for their alleged roles in the maritime disaster.
“The cases are being dismissed for legal reasons that impede the continued prosecution of either officer,” the Navy’s message to Rigsby’s family read. “The Navy remains committed to keeping faith with you through transparency and open communication.”
Rigsby said she wished the service would have consulted with the families before deciding to drop the charges.
“Since the beginning, our family has continuously asked for accountability,” she said in a message to Navy Times. “Accountability, to this day, has never happened.”
Concerns about unlawful command influence, or UCI, crept into both trials, with defense attorneys, outside analysts and even Benson’s judge finding that public statements by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson and Vice Chief Adm. Bill Moran’s imperiled chances for a fair trial.
A Navy official said Thursday night that the UCI motions in the cases did not affect leadership’s decision.
The convening authority for both prosecutions, Adm. Frank Caldwell, was disqualified from Benson’s case earlier this year after a military judge ruled he had failed to stay neutral.
Navy officials did not respond to questions Thursday regarding whether the UCI issue factored into the dismissals, but Rigsby believes it did.
“Unlawful command influence was a glaring factor in why these criminal proceedings could not move forward,” she said. “This has unfairly tainted our families’ ability to seek justice for our loved ones.”
Rigsby said her family wonders why those found responsible for contributing to the causes of the collision — from leaders on board the ship to commanders ashore — escaped severe penalties.
“Non-judicial punishment such as a letter of reprimand, docking of pay, termination and forced retirement, or the notification that a letter of censure is being issued, is not sufficient for the loss of 7 beautiful lives,” she said, adding that everyone in the chain of command should be held to account.
“All of the individuals who carry the responsibility in the death of our son, of his shipmates, get to continue on with their lives as if nothing has happened,” she said. “We have to live the rest of our lives with only memories of our loved ones and the grief that has come with the loss.”
“No more hugs, no more laughs, no more smiles, no future memories,” Rigsby said. “Only graveside visits and attempts at finding your loved one’s presence in daily experiences.”
For Xavier Martin’s father, this week’s announcement has been difficult to process.
After losing his only son, Darrold Martin said he felt like Benson and Combs should have had their day in court for their alleged roles in the disaster.
But most of his ire remains aimed at Navy leaders because of lingering concerns they let the Fitz degenerate into an abysmal condition on the eve of the maritime disaster.
Because of what he sees as institutional ineptitude, Martin said the dismissal of charges “doesn’t shock me at all.”
He said he has had dinner with Benson, and that the officer “took a shine” to his son.
“You can see the guilt,” Martin said. “They really don’t know how to talk to me, and I can understand it. They’ve got to live with it for the rest of their life.”
Martin said he doesn’t feel like the Navy as an organization was held accountable.
“I think (Benson and Combs) should’ve been charged, but I think Big Navy should’ve been charged more,” he said. “Big Navy wasn’t charged at all.”
Martin said he remains disgusted with the flag officers who kept their jobs after the collisions of the Fitzgerald and the John S. McCain two months later that killed another 10 sailors, as well as with those who were fired and allowed to retire.
“From the admirals on down, you slapped wrists. And you got seven people dead," he said.