Second USS Fitzgerald officer defers plea to negligence charges

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The following is text of a news report from the U.S. Naval Institute (USNI):

(WASHINGTON) — An officer charged with negligence for her role in the collision of USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) reserved her right not to enter a plea on Monday during an arraignment before a military judge.

Lt. Natalie D. Combs now faces a general court-martial for hazarding a vessel and negligence in performing her duties when she served as the tactical action officer aboard Fitzgerald on June 17, 2017 when it collided with the merchant vessel ACX Crystal off the coast of Japan. The collision resulted in the death of seven sailors.

The trial is now set for February.

Combs had also faced much more serious negligent homicide charges but those were dropped in June by Adm. James F. Caldwell, the consolidated decision authority (CDA) for the accountability actions from last year’s fatal Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) collisions.

Caldwell dropped the more serious homicide charge against Combs after the hearing officer who oversaw an Article 32 hearing for Combs and Fitzgerald officer Lt. Irian Woodley recommended all criminal charges be dropped for the pair. Following the recommendation, Navy dropped all charges against Woodley and he will likely face separation from the Navy via an administrative board.

Caldwell also dropped the negligent homicide charge against former ship commander Cmdr. Bryce Benson, who declined his Article 32 hearing. Benson pleaded not guilty to similar charges negligence charges on July 10.

All three were given non-judicial punishment for their roles in the incident shortly after the collision.

In the remaining charges, prosecutors allege Combs did not comply with Navy regulations and Fitzgerald’s commander’s standing orders to monitor contacts around the ship when she led the watch in the ship’s combat information center during the destroyer's transit to sea from its home port in Yokosuka, Japan. CIC is responsible for the ship in combat but while underway in peacetime the watch provides a backup to the watch standers on the bridge maneuvering the ship.

“The TAO has other areas of focus, but if they aren’t worried about the (air) or subsurface threat, they can truly focus on the surface picture,” retired Capt. Bud Weeks, an instructor at the service’s Surface Warfare Officer School, said during the Article 32 hearing of Combs and Woodley in May.

The officer of the deck at the time of the collision, Lt. j.g. Sarah B. Coppock, pleaded guilty to a single count of negligence in May.

Combs’ lawyers said the blame for the incident goes much higher than the sailors who were on watch on the destroyer.

“Fitzgerald had systemic problems with its equipment and training — to single this young woman, who has served honorably and with distinction, for prosecution is very troubling in the circumstance,” attorney David Sheldon said in a statement provided to USNI News last month.

McCain’s former commander, Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, pleaded guilty to a single count of negligence in a special court-martial. Former McCain chief boatswain’s mate Jeffery Butler, who was responsible for training enlisted watch standers, pleaded guilty to one count of negligence in a summary court-martial.

In addition to the courts-martial, Caldwell has overseen 18 non-judicial punishments related to both collisions.

By Professional Mariner Staff