Navy Drops Charges Against Fitzgerald Commanding Officer, LT in Collision Case

Navy Commander Bryce Benson, the USS Fitzgerald's former commanding officer, is accused of two counts of dereliction of duty through neglect and improper hazarding of a vessel through negligence. A further charge of negligent homicide has been dropped. (US Navy photo)
Navy Commander Bryce Benson, the USS Fitzgerald's former commanding officer, is accused of two counts of dereliction of duty through neglect and improper hazarding of a vessel through negligence. A further charge of negligent homicide has been dropped. (US Navy photo)

Two naval officers facing courts-martial following a fatal ship collision that killed seven sailors will have their charges dropped, Navy officials announced late Wednesday.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson will withdraw and dismiss charges against Cmdr. Bryce Benson and Lt. Natalie Combs, ending a years-long legal battle following the 2017 collision between the guided-missile destroyer Fitzgerald and a container ship off the coast of Japan.

Benson was the Fitzgerald's commanding officer at the time and Combs the tactical action officer. Navy Times first reported that Richardson would drop the charges on Wednesday.

"This decision is in the best interest of the Navy, the families of the Fitzgerald Sailors, and the procedural rights of the accused officers," a Navy news release states. "Both officers were previously dismissed from their jobs and received non-judicial punishment."

Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer will issue letters of censure to Benson and Combs, the release adds. Those reprimands are likely to end the officers' Navy careers.

Benson and Combs faced charges of dereliction of duty through neglect, resulting in death and improper hazarding of a vessel. Navy officials had at one point considered negligent homicide charges against Benson and two junior officers, but the decision to pursue them was later dropped.

A series of in-depth reports on the collision and the lead-up to it by ProPublica, a nonprofit that produces investigative journalism, revealed years of warning signs about the surface fleet's readiness had been ignored by top Navy leaders.

The Fitzgerald was one of two destroyers to suffer deadly collisions in the Pacific that year. Ten more sailors were killed two months after the Fitzgerald accident when the destroyer John S. McCain collided with a merchant ship off the coast of Singapore.

The deadly accidents led to a host of overhauls to Navy training and processes that were designed to prevent future tragedies. On Wednesday, Spencer told members of Congress that of the 111 recommendations made following the collisions, 91 have been adjudicated and 83 implemented.

Navy leaders will continue to do everything possible to improve readiness and training to ensure those programs remains on track, according to the statement released Wednesday.

"The Navy continues to strive to achieve and maintain a climate of operational excellence," it says.

David Sheldon, Combs' attorney, told Navy Times that the service's failed policies and leadership ultimately led to the Fitzgerald tragedy.

"The responsibility for this tragedy lies not on the shoulders of this junior officer, but on the unrelenting deployment schedule demanded of Navy commanders and the operational tempo demanded by Navy leadership and this administration," he told the paper. "Until these shortcomings are addressed, the losses of those talented, young sailors will be in vain."

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

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