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Fitzgerald officer of the deck pleads guilty at court-martial

USS Fitzgerald docked at Tien Sa port in Da Nang, Vietnam. (Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)

The junior lieutenant in charge of navigating the USS Fitzgerald when it collided with a commercial vessel pleaded guilty Tuesday to dereliction of duty and acknowledged her role in the deaths of seven sailors last year.

Lt. j.g. Sarah Coppock cried during her court-martial at the Washington Navy Yard. She was sentenced to forfeit half of her pay for three months – an additional month on top of the two she forfeited as her nonjudicial punishment. She also received a letter of reprimand.

“Not a day goes by where I haven’t thought about what I could have done differently,” she said. “There is nothing I can do now but take responsibility.”

Coppock said her success as an officer of the Navy was through the support of her squadrons. “And then, when it mattered, I failed them,” she said through tears. “I made some tremendously bad decisions and they had to pay the price for them.”

Coppock’s unsworn statement followed the testimony of family members of sailors who died when the Fitzgerald struck a civilian commercial vessel on June 17. The court heard about a wife who now fears water and a 3-year old who will never again share firsts with his dad, and parents who lost their faith and struggle to keep their marriage together.

“I am sad all the time,” said Terri Rigsby, whose son Dakota Rigsby was among the sailors killed. “I have persistent images in my mind of him drowning, and struggling to get out of his compartment. I am terrified he was scared and he suffered.”

Coppock was among 18 sailors who faced nonjudicial punishment in the wake of separate collisions involving two Japan-based Navy destroyers in 2017. Ten sailors died when the USS John S. McCain collided with a commercial tanker in August, just two months after the Fitzgerald collision.

Coppock was charged for failing to “communicate and coordinate with the Combat Information Center, report ship specified contacts to the commanding officer, operate safely in a high-density traffic condition and alert crew of imminent collision,” according to the charge sheet.

Capt. Charles Purnell, the Navy judge presiding over Tuesday’s court-martial, described the collision as having “dozens of failure points and dereliction of many participants – a legion, if you will, of failures.”

As officer of the deck on June 17, Coppock was responsible for the safe navigation of the ship after the commanding officer went to his quarters that evening. The ship had been conducting evolutions all day, and the crew was tired.

Coppock testified that she had been instructed by the commanding officer to maintain 20 knots, even as the ship traversed heavily trafficked waters and its main navigation radar stopped working fully about an hour before the collision.

Meanwhile, she said the “low confidence” she had in some of her fellow watch standers played into her decision not to be in closer communication with sailors in the Combat Information Center. Below deck, they are supposed to gather and communicate radar and other information to the bridge.

Coppock described an unspoken culture on the ship not to follow the standing orders to contact the commanding officer when the ship is within 6,000 yards of another ship “especially in that specific area.”

“We would have called him every five minutes,” she said.

She acknowledged losing situational awareness and not sounding the alarm to alert the crew ahead of the collision. Coppock said she was focused on something else and the rest of her crew froze.

Still, she said it was her responsibility to make sure watch standers were carrying out their duties, and she failed to do that.

Prosecutors laid blame at Coppock’s feet, saying she “chose to be blind,” never sought help from the information center, did not respond properly when she saw the Crystal on the radar 12 nautical miles from the ship and lost situational awareness. She failed to sound blasts alerting the Crystal or attempt to contact it, nor did she alert the commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Paul Hochmuth said.

When it became clear that impact was inevitable, she “failed to give the crew notice, a chance to get out of their racks, a chance to brace themselves.”

The prosecution did acknowledge that Coppock never tried to “skip out of accepting accountability for this horrible collision” or tried to blame anyone else. She cooperated with the investigations and “appears to be trying to make sure this never happens again.”

She is one of many who contributed to the deaths of these sailors and the tens of millions in damage, Hochmuth said.

“She took responsibility on herself,” he said. “That should not be lost on the court.”

In his closing statement, one of Coppock’s defense counsel, Lt. Ryan Mooney, said the Navy needs to make systemic changes to ensure this kind of tragedy does not get repeated.

Citing lengthy reports completed since the collisions, Mooney painted a picture of crew that was overtasked and exhausted. The Fitzgerald was one of several ships in the Japan-based 7th Fleet that was undermanned and missing important experienced crewmembers. Critical training and qualifications were pushed off because of operational tasking.

Radars were not the only equipment in disrepair, affecting reliability and confidence, he said.

After the collision, a test taken by a control group of officers on board showed that the average score on “rules of the road” at sea was 59 percent, with just three officers scoring over 80 percent, Mooney said.

One of the two officers that Coppock was working closely with that night told investigators she had never heard of the voluntary traffic separation scheme governing heavily trafficked shipping lanes, he said.

“What does that say about the state of training on the Fitzgerald?” he said.

The other officer was new, with little experience.

Mooney said given the state of the Fitzgerald, Coppock “was set up to fail.”

He presented two dozen pages with letters and photos showing Coppock to be a dedicated sailor who’d found her calling in the military and genuinely cared for her shipmates.

He described a tattoo Coppock got on her wrist after the collision. It contained the coordinates of the ship at that moment, framed by the phrase “Protect Your People” above it and seven clovers beneath it.

“Forever a reminder of her failures that night,” Mooney said.

Article 32 proceedings begin Wednesday against two more junior officers, both lieutenants whose names have not been released. They face three charges: dereliction in the performance of duties through neglect resulting in death, negligent hazarding of a vessel and negligent homicide.

The tactical information officer is accused of failing in her job to “communicate with the bridge vital contact information and safe speed and maneuvering recommendations, enforce watch-standing principles in the combat information center and support the officer of the deck.”

The surface warfare officer is charged with “effectively failing in his duties to supervise those on watch in the USS Fitzgerald Combat Information Center,” which monitors the operations of the ships and maintains contact with the bridge and the tactical action officer. He is faulted with failing “to maintain surface contact situational awareness; provide operational recommendations to the tactical action officer and the bridge, ensure proper watch-standing practices were carried out; and properly stand his assigned station.”

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© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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