Another Navy Officer Faces Court-Martial After Fitzgerald Collision

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald sits in Dry Dock 4 at Fleet Activities Yokosuka to continue repairs and assess damage sustained from its June 17, 2017 collision with a merchant vessel. (U.S. Navy photo/Christian Senyk)
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald sits in Dry Dock 4 at Fleet Activities Yokosuka to continue repairs and assess damage sustained from its June 17, 2017 collision with a merchant vessel. (U.S. Navy photo/Christian Senyk)

A second officer who served aboard a Navy destroyer during a fatal 2017 accident that left seven sailors dead is headed to a general court-martial.

Lt. Natalie Combs, the guided-missile destroyer Fitzgerald's former tactical action officer, has been charged with dereliction of duty through neglect resulting in death and improper hazarding of a vessel.

"She did not enter a plea during her arraignment Monday at Washington Navy Yard, but may opt to do so at a later time," said Patty Babb, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Judge Advocate General of the Navy.

Combs had a duty to communicate safe speed and maneuvering recommendations and enforce efficient watchstanding principles on the night of June 17, 2017, according to her charge sheet.

The lieutenant "negligently failed to comply" with her commanding officer's orders and regulation manuals, the charges allege. That dereliction of duty resulted in the deaths of seven sailors when the destroyer collided with a container ship off the coast of Japan, the charge sheet states.

Her court-martial is set for Feb. 25.

"Charges against the accused are only allegations; the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty," Lt. Christina Sears, a Navy spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said in a statement.

Combs is the second Fitz officer to be formally charged this month following the fatal collision. Cmdr. Bryce Benson, the ship's former commanding officer, has also been referred to a general court-martial after he was charged with violating the same two articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice as Combs: 92 and 110.

Benson pleaded not guilty to the charges during his July 10 arraignment.

Navy officials were previously pursuing negligent homicide charges against Combs, Benson and another officer. Adm. James Caldwell, appointed by the Navy to oversee any disciplinary actions for the collision, decided not to pursue those charges.

The Fitzgerald was off the coast of Japan when it collided with the other ship last year. The destroyer was ripped open below the waterline, and seven sailors were killed when their quarters were flooded: Gunner's Mate Seaman Dakota Kyle Rigsby, Yeoman 3rd Class Shingo Alexander Douglass, Sonar Technician 3rd Class Ngoc T. Truong Huynh, Gunner's Mate 1st Class Noe Hernandez, Fire Controlman 1st Class Carlos Victor Ganzon Sibayan, Personnel Specialist 1st Class Xavier Alec Martin and Chief Petty Officer Fire Controlman Gary Leo Rehm Jr.

The accident marked the first of two fatal Navy accidents in the region last summer. Ten more sailors were killed two months later when the destroyer John S. McCain collided with a merchant ship off the coast of Singapore.

Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, the McCain's former CO, was sent to court-martial in May following that collision. He pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ginaaharkins.

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