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Few Navy commanders face court-martial for operational failures

The Navy’s decision to pursue charges of negligent homicide against the former commanders of the USS Fitzgerald and USS John McCain has little precedent, according to a Navy scholar who has extensively scrutinized cases of command failure.

“Operationally, we don’t take commanding officers to court-martial,” said Capt. Michael Junge, a military professor at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. “We do nonjudicial punishment, and we administratively remove them from the ship. We dust our hands off and we move on.”

On Tuesday, the Navy said it would convene Article 32 hearings to consider court-martialing Cmdr. Bryce Benson, who commanded the USS Fitzgerald, and Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, former commander of the USS John S. McCain, for their roles in two deadly collisions last year.

On June 17, seven sailors died after the Fitzgerald crashed into a civilian merchant ship about 60 miles southwest of Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. The McCain collided with an oil tanker near Singapore on Aug. 21, leaving 10 sailors dead.

Benson and Sanchez, along with several junior officers, are also facing charges of dereliction of duty and endangering a ship.

In the past 40 years, only two commanders have been court-martialed and convicted for operational decisions they made, Junge said.

No commanding officer has been convicted in the past 30 years at court-martial for an operational failing, he said.

Take, for example, a deadly crash involving a U.S. submarine on Feb. 9, 2001. The Los Angeles-class USS Greeneville surfaced in waters a few miles off the southern coast of Oahu, Hawaii, smashing into the Ehime Maru, a Japanese ship used to train high-schoolers to fish. Nine people on the ship were killed, including four students.

In a public court of inquiry, the Navy found Cmdr. Scott Waddle and several other Greeneville crew members at fault for the collision. The court recommended no court-martial for the officers involved because the inquiry had found no “criminal intent or deliberate misconduct.” Waddle was given nonjudicial punishment, and then retired with an honorable discharge.

Numbers provided by Junge underscore how infrequently commanding officers are court-martialed.

“Every year, there are fewer than 200 officers across the Navy who go to court-martial,” he said. “There are 56,000 officers in the Navy. There are roughly, I’d say, 1,200 commanding officers at all ranks.”

The most recent courts-martial of commanding officers were in 2015 and 2011 for charges related to sexual assault and rape, Junge said. Before those you’d have to go back to 1990 to find the case of a court-martialed commanding officer – one that has much in common with the Fitzgerald and McCain collisions.

In November 1989, the destroyer USS Kinkaid collided with a Panamanian merchant ship in the Strait of Malacca, which ripped a wide hole into the side of the American vessel and crushed the ship’s navigator who was asleep in his bunk, Junge said. More than a dozen other sailors were injured.

Although the ship’s commander, John Cochrane, was asleep in his cabin throughout the chain of decisions made by other officers that led to the collision, he was court-martialed for negligence but was acquitted.

The Article 32 hearings are the military world’s version of a civilian grand jury, a body that determines whether enough evidence exists to warrant holding a trial.

A brief Navy statement, however, “did not provide a good, coherent explanation of the rationale” underpinning the decision to pursue a court-martial of the Fitzgerald and McCain commanders, Junge said.

The Navy did not respond to a request by Stars and Stripes for such an explanation.

The Navy has been under pressure by lawmakers and the public to provide a full reckoning of the collisions and to mete out punishment for those responsible. Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee grilled Navy officials during a September hearing, with family members of the deceased sailors sitting in the audience.

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, are scheduled to testify Thursday at a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing.


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