USS Fitzgerald XO, CMC Reprimanded for Dereliction; Hearings Announced

FILE - In this June 18, 2017 photo, the damaged USS Fitzgerald is docked at the U.S. Naval base in Yokosuka after colliding with the container ship ACX Crystal off Japan. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, File)
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Four sailors, including the former executive officer and command master chief of the destroyer USS Fitzgerald, have been found guilty at non-judicial punishment for dereliction of duty in the case of two deadly ship collisions last summer, and the Navy has set dates for preliminary hearings on more serious charges, the service announced Thursday night.

Cmdr. Sean Babbitt and Master Chief Petty Officer Brice Baldwin, who were relieved of their posts in August following the June collision of the Fitzgerald and a commercial container ship off the coast of Tokyo, were given punitive letters of reprimand at NJP Jan. 25, officials said in a statement. One additional Fitzgerald officer was also found guilty of dereliction and reprimanded, while another officer had a finding of guilt set aside based on review.

For the destroyer John S. McCain, which collided with a tanker in August outside the Straits of Malacca, one enlisted sailor was found guilty of dereliction of duty at NJP and received a punitive letter of reprimand, forfeiture of half pay for two months, and demotion by one pay grade, according to the announcement, although the pay forfeiture and demotion were suspended for six months. NJP charges against another McCain officer and enlisted sailors were dismissed.

Article 32 preliminary hearings for former commanding officers of both ships and three additional officers from the Fitzgerald have been set for early March, the statement said.

McCain's former commanding officer, Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, faces charges of dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel, and negligent homicide. Sanchez and McCain executive officer Cmdr. Jessie Sanchez were relieved from their leadership positions in October after the Navy determined the McCain collision, which left 10 sailors dead, was "preventable."

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A command investigation would determine confusion over who had control of steering and throttle functions on the bridge, and some sailors' lack of knowledge as to how to drive the destroyer, had contributed to the crash.

Sanchez, the former McCain commander, will have his Article 32 March 6 at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., officials said.

Cmdr. Bryce Benson, former commanding officer of the Fitzgerald, also faces charges of dereliction, hazarding a vessel, and negligent homicide. An investigation showed the Fitzgerald collision, which killed seven sailors, resulted in part from ineffective watchstanding and failure to react in a timely manner after the bridge discovered it was on a collision course with another ship.

Benson's hearing is set for March 7 at the Navy Yard; a joint hearing for three additional Fitzgerald officers, including two lieutenants and a lieutenant junior grade, has been scheduled for the following day.

Navy officials said additional disciplinary actions by Adm. Frank Caldwell, the consolidated disposition authority in the collision cases, were still pending.

"As appropriate, information will be available when action is complete," officials said in a statement. "This is required to ensure a fair, thorough and equitable process and that members are afforded their rights."

Leveling criminal charges against service members after a deadly accident is extremely rare. The last time the Navy sent a ship's commanding officer to court-martial was 1989, when Cmdr. John Cochrane was charged with dereliction and negligence after a destroyer, the Kinkaid, collided with a freighter in the Straits of Malacca, killing one sailor and leaving 17 more injured. Cochrane was ultimately acquitted.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.