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Former USS Fitzgerald CO Outlines Defense in Rebuttal to SECNAV
USNI News ^ | April 26, 2019 8:52 PM Updated: April 27, 2019 9:10 AM | Sam LaGrone

Posted on 04/30/2019 11:51:06 AM PDT by robowombat

Former USS Fitzgerald CO Outlines Defense in Rebuttal to SECNAV

By: Sam LaGrone

Cmdr. Bryce Benson, then-executive officer, assists in bringing down the battle ensign aboard USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) in 2016. US Navy Photo

The former commander of USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) is pushing back against a rebuke from the Secretary of the Navy, disputing major facts in the service’s argument he was criminally negligent leading up a June 17, 2017, fatal collision, according to a copy of the April 26 rebuttal obtained by USNI News.

Earlier this month, Richard V. Spencer wrote that former Fitzgerald commander Cmdr. Bryce Benson failure to prepare his crew and maintain his ship led to the collision with the merchant ACX Crystal off the coast of Japan, killing seven sailors. Benson sustained injuries himself when his stateroom was crushed by the flared bow of the ship, and he had to be rescued by his crew.

“For the entirety of the time you served as the Fitzgerald Commanding Officer, you abrogated your responsibility to prepare your ship and crew for their assigned mission. Instead, you fostered a command characterized by complacency, lack of procedural compliance, weak system knowledge, and a dangerous level of informality,” Spencer wrote in his two-page letter dated April 9. The Navy issued the censure to Benson and the tactical action officer on duty during the collision, Lt. Natalie Combs, in lieu of a court-martial over negligence charges.

In his 18-page Friday rebuttal, Benson lays out what would have been the spine of his case if it had made it to court-martial.

“I am rightly held to account for every action aboard my ship that night, from the performance of my watchstanders to my crew’s heroic efforts to save a sinking ship while I was incapacitated by injury,” wrote Benson. “I reflect on the tragedy, mourn for the lives of my sailors, and pray for the grieving family members and my crew every day. Yet the conclusions … that my leadership was ineffective, my judgment poor, and my responsibility for my sailors’ deaths unequivocal—derive from factual errors and allegations unsupported by evidence. They deserve a considered response, both for my record and for the Navy’s effort to become a true learning organization.”

Specifically, Spencer divided Benson’s failings into to broad categories informed by the prosecutions arguments and Navy criminal charging documents: decisions made immediately before the collision and longer-term decisions he made from when he took command about a month before the collision.

USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) sits in Dry Dock 4 at Fleet Activities Yokosuka to continue repairs and assess damage sustained from its June 17 collision with a merchant vessel. US Navy Photo

In the hours before, Benson had assigned an “inexperienced watch team,” was “disengaged and removed from the tactical control and supervision of the ship,” and “fail[ed] to implement any mitigation measures, such as ordering the Executive Officer or Navigator to supervise the team on the bridge,” Spencer wrote.

On the day before the collision, Spencer wrote, Benson had failed to approve an adequate watch bill, didn’t revise standing orders to account for degraded equipment and had laid out a navigation plan that had Fitzgerald travel too fast too close to shore.

In his rebuttal, Benson argued that his ship and crew were as ready as could be expected given the stresses his crew was under to meet the demands of a no-notice mission from the highest levels of the Pentagon after another destroyer in the squadron was unexpectedly sidelined.

In the letter to Spencer, Benson outlined a dense operational schedule that began shortly after the ship left a maintenance availability in January of 2017 with a crew that had seen 40-percent turnover and little time to train or conduct maintenance on the ship.

The mission came 10 days after Fitzgerald had suffered an engine fire as part of a group underway during an unexpected four-month deployment and had to return to Yokosuka, Japan, for emergent repairs.

Specifically, Fitzgerald had been scrambled by U.S. 7th Fleet to replace USS Stethem (DDG-63) at the last minute for a national tasking in the South China Sea.

“In the case of getting FTZ underway on 16 June 2017 to swap FTZ for STE, there were no other [courses of action]; FTZ was the only ship available,” former Destroyer Squadron 15 commander Capt. Jeffery Bennett told investigators, according to the rebuttal.

Several defense officials over the last several weeks confirmed to USNI News that the sidelined Stethem had suffered a malfunction to its vertical launch system that made the ship undeployable.

According to two defense officials familiar with the operation, the national-level tasking assigned at last minute to Fitzgerald was a South China Sea freedom of navigation operation that was aimed at contesting Chinese regional claims.

Benson argued against the declaration of his incompetence, saying the crew of Fitzgerald had performed well under the time crunch required for the last-minute mission, citing several successful training events after leaving Yokosuka.

Vice Adm. Phil Sawyer, commander of U.S. 7th Fleet, awards the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal to 36 crew members of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) who distinguished themselves for their bravery and contributions to damage control efforts after a collision with a merchant vessel on June 17, 2017. US Navy photo.

“I say without reservation: 16 June was the best day that I had at sea during my then-eighteen years of service. I had no basis—fatigue or otherwise—to request an amended schedule and postpone our training certifications or delay or forego our national tasking in the South China Sea,” he wrote. “Likewise, at the end of this day, I had no doubt that my watch team could safely navigate a straight-line transit through unrestricted waters.”

Benson also contested that his crew was satisfied with degraded equipment, citing several instances when the sailors aboard worked to fix dozens of material deficiencies in the periods they had to work on the ship. He also contested the assertion in the censure that his navigation track was poor and his watch team was inexperienced.

“Each had been qualified by at least one previous commanding officer. In January 2017, Destroyer Squadron 15 certified our crew, after assessing our watchbills and watchstanders’ level of knowledge; our navigation equipment certification followed shortly thereafter,” Benson wrote. “I too had assessed, based on direct observation and Fitzgerald successful operational schedule in 2017, that each of these watchstanders was capable of safely and effectively manning their watches in accordance with applicable Navy orders and my standing orders.”

The point-by-point refutation of the censure outlines the heart of Benson’s legal argument: though the watch team misjudged the risk posed by Crystal, the operational realities in 7th Fleet shaped the situation and the mistakes didn’t rise to the level of criminal negligence.

To that point, Benson quoted from the Comprehensive Review that was written after the collision of Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) by then-U.S. Fleet Forces commander Adm. Phil Davidson

“[T]he FDNF-J force generation model could not keep up with the rising operational demands for cruisers and destroyers in the Western Pacific. 2016 was the tipping point for the combined FDNF-J force generation, obligation and force employment demand. Rapidly rising operational demands and an increase in urgent[] or dynamic tasking led to an unpredictable schedule and inability to support training and certification,” wrote Davidson. “There was an inability of higher headquarters to establish prioritization of competing operational demands.”

Still, in his letter Benson doesn’t offer an explanation for what specifically went wrong when the collision occurred.

“I was responsible for evaluating Fitzgerald operational risks and mitigating them to the point of acceptability. Throughout this rebuttal, I have described the process by which I attempted to fulfill that responsibility. I did not accurately foresee the risk of my watch team’s breakdown in communications, teamwork, and situational awareness, and so manifestly I did not take sufficient action to manage that risk,” Benson wrote. “My responsibility for risk-management was unique, but it was not singular… All levels of the Navy are responsible for evaluating, communicating, and mitigating risk. And the Navy also demands that risk decisions be made ‘at the appropriate level,’ which ‘is the person who can make decisions to eliminate or minimize the hazard, implement controls to reduce the risk, or accept the risk’.”

A spokesman for Secretary of the Navy acknowledged a Friday USNI News request for comment on the rebuttal but did not immediately provide a response.


TOPICS: Foreign Affairs; Government; Japan; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: collision; usn; usnavy; ussfitzgerald
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Go to the URL for the texts of documents cited in this report.
1 posted on 04/30/2019 11:51:06 AM PDT by robowombat
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To: robowombat
my crew’s heroic efforts to save a sinking ship while I was incapacitated by injury,

He fails to note that he and they were in that situation because of his failure to command.

2 posted on 04/30/2019 11:55:53 AM PDT by doorgunner69
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To: robowombat

Too bad the laws of mechanics didn’t have access to the ex-Captain’s manifesto before the collision.


3 posted on 04/30/2019 11:59:19 AM PDT by Steely Tom ([Seth Rich] == [the Democrat's John Dean])
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To: robowombat
I'm an old Army guy who was never been rebuked by a commander or court martialed...and I know absolutely nothing about the Navy.But one would think that in peacetime the main responsibilities of the senior command aboard any Naval vessel are 1) make sure your crew,and your vessel,don't come to any harm and 2) make sure your crew is well trained in their duties.
4 posted on 04/30/2019 11:59:48 AM PDT by Gay State Conservative (Bill Barr:The Bill Belichick of Attorneys General)
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To: robowombat
I read the (very) extensive USNI original report in its entirety. Benson had only had command of that ship for a month, and by all accounts, was an improvement over his predecessor in terms of tighter training, discipline, etc.. One month was not nearly enough time to remedy long-standing training deficiencies, and the short-staffing made that even more of a problem. The crew was so undermanned that there weren't enough watchstanders to have eyes on each side of the bridge wing.

The Navy has had a real problem with undermanned surface ships for years, and given the tempo at which they have been operating, it makes proper training almost impossible.

5 posted on 04/30/2019 12:08:48 PM PDT by Bruce Campbells Chin
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To: robowombat
Re: “...a straight-line transit through unrestricted waters.”

As far as the criminal charges, seems like that fact should carry a lot of weight.

6 posted on 04/30/2019 12:12:32 PM PDT by zeestephen
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To: robowombat

Should probably add that the three officers on duty that night in the critical ship-driving positions were all female.


7 posted on 04/30/2019 12:12:37 PM PDT by Bruce Campbells Chin
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To: Gay State Conservative

I doubt that any naval officer could summarize the problem better.

This rebuttal by the former Captain is a new phenomenon: in all previous times, a Captain would own up to his culpability when his ship was involved in a disaster. This is a prime example of the weakness of this generation of leaders - and the navy’s command selection process.

It’s exactly as you said - if the equipment, or the training, or the competence of the ship’s personnel failed, it is the Captain’s fault.

Period.


8 posted on 04/30/2019 12:14:17 PM PDT by Chainmail (A simple rule of life: if you can be blamed, you're responsible.)
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To: zeestephen
Re: “...a straight-line transit through unrestricted waters.”

My post #6 might be confusing....

I meant it carries a lot of weight for “Not Guilty.”

9 posted on 04/30/2019 12:16:51 PM PDT by zeestephen
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To: Bruce Campbells Chin

Barry Soetoro.


10 posted on 04/30/2019 12:28:15 PM PDT by KC Burke (If all the world is a stage, I would like to request my lighting be adjusted.)
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To: Chainmail

There is a difference between ‘fault’ and ‘responsibility’. What ‘responsibility’ did the General who ordered him to take his ship out on a mission while the ship was still UNDER REPAIR ?


11 posted on 04/30/2019 12:31:41 PM PDT by UCANSEE2 (Lost my tagline on Flight MH370. Sorry for the inconvenience.)
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To: Bruce Campbells Chin

All female, but I understand two of the three were in private snit with other and were refusing to talk to other.


12 posted on 04/30/2019 12:33:35 PM PDT by Robert A Cook PE (The democrats' national goal: One world social-communism under one world religion: Atheistic Islam.)
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To: robowombat

Overcharging? The Captain has a point but what he should say is “criminally negligent? Take my command; beach me if you must; but the one who is criminally negligent is the one who gave me no choice but to fill the watch bill with vagitarians.”


13 posted on 04/30/2019 12:47:26 PM PDT by NonValueAdded (#Dregs #DeplorableMe #BitterClinger #HillNO! #cishet #MyPresident #MAGA #Winning #covfefe #BuildIt)
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To: robowombat

The first thing a ship must do is keep a proper lookout. Failure to keep a proper lookout is unacceptable.

Apparently, this ship was sent to sea without sufficient manning to keep a proper lookout. I’m not sure if that was a legal order.

I guess the captain could have resigned his commission in protest, but he decided to play the game, and obeyed his orders. That was his only chance at keeping his career on track.

I’m sure there’s a lot I don’t know about this, but I don’t think I could have left the bridge and gone to sleep knowing I didn’t have lookouts on the port and starboard bridge wings.

As for the captain’s “long-term” failures, he had only been in the job for a month. Accusing him of long-term failures is transparently malicious.


14 posted on 04/30/2019 12:50:08 PM PDT by dsc (Our system of government cannot survive one-party control of communications.)
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To: UCANSEE2

If I may, “Generals” don’t order ships out to sea...

But I would suppose you have little or no experience in military matters.

1. The ship’s Commanding Officer is responsible for all readiness for deployment, which includes equipment, supplies, crew training, the inspecting everything before things go wrong.

2. If the ship or its complement aren’t ready, he/she is responsible for reporting these problems while getting them rectified.

3. All ship’s Captains are fully aware of these responsibilities before they even take command.

You didn’t read the investigation did you? The three key watchstanders - all female were feuding with each other and apparently wouldn’t work with each other. There were no sailors posted to watch for traffic and the CIC was littered with trash and smelled of piss. The Officer of the Deck panicked and had the ship turn the wrong way, directly into the path of the Chrystal.

Now, even to your civilian non military perspective, does it sound like the Captain was doing his job?


15 posted on 04/30/2019 12:50:14 PM PDT by Chainmail (A simple rule of life: if you can be blamed, you're responsible.)
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To: Robert A Cook PE

Yeah, apparently the OOD and CIC watch officer weren’t speaking to each other....


16 posted on 04/30/2019 12:51:18 PM PDT by Bruce Campbells Chin
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To: UCANSEE2

Think you mean Admiral instead General.

However you make a very valid point. The fleet commander that deployed a ship still under repair assumed the risk to complete the mission, they need to be held accountable as it appears they did nothing (e.g., add experienced crew) to mitigate that risk.


17 posted on 04/30/2019 12:52:17 PM PDT by where's_the_Outrage? (Drain the Swamp. Build the Wall.)
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To: dsc

His gamble to maybe preserve his career instead of telling his superiors his ship and crew were not ready killed a bunch of young people for nothing.

How would you feel if one of those sailors who drowned in their compartment was your son?


18 posted on 04/30/2019 12:55:55 PM PDT by Chainmail (A simple rule of life: if you can be blamed, you're responsible.)
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To: Chainmail
It was considered an important national security mission, and the only other ship capable of doing it had a critical equipment problem that made it nondeployable. The Fitz was assigned to that mission late because the other ship couldn't do it.

I'm not in favor of commanders refusing to execute missions because they don't believe their people are as ready as they should be. It's not a risk-free profession.

19 posted on 04/30/2019 1:02:55 PM PDT by Bruce Campbells Chin
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To: Gay State Conservative
1) make sure your crew,and your vessel,don't come to any harm and 2) make sure your crew is well trained in their duties.

Initially, I defended Captain Bryson. I thought sure, no commander could've ever committed such willful negligence.

Having read the subsequent reports, he was negligent in personnel training, and in the readiness of his ship. Therefore, by failing in #2 above, he placed his crew in harm.

I would also add that what I read of the OOD's actions (and inactions) leading up to this accident, she is also at fault, along with the Combat TAO and Surface Watch officers.

20 posted on 04/30/2019 1:28:37 PM PDT by Lou L (Health "insurance" is NOT the same as health "care")
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