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USS John S. McCain chief pleads guilty in court-martial, loses rank

A chief charged with training and use of a navigational system on the USS John S. McCain at the time it collided with a commercial tanker in the Straits of Singapore, pleaded guilty Thursday to dereliction of duty and acknowledged his role in the deaths of 10 sailors last year.

Chief Petty Officer Jeffery D. Butler appeared somber and tearful during a summary court-martial at the Washington Navy Yard for the criminal charge under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The 20-plus year service member was sentenced to a loss of rank, forcing Butler, 40, to lose his anchors because he will be demoted to petty officer first class.

 “I could have done more,” he said ahead of sentencing. “I’ve learned my lesson the hard way.”

Butler had pleaded during Thursday’s hearing to keep his rank, since it would hurt his family and cost them $200,000 in lost pay over time.

Cmdr. William Weiland, the Navy judge presiding over Thursday’s court-martial, ordered the reduction in rank, but passed on other punishment that would have triggered a forfeiture of a portion of one month’s pay and limitation of duties for up to 60 days.

Thursday’s hearing, which was attended by several relatives of the sailors who died Aug. 21, is one of a series of courts-martial resulting from the McCain collision.

“I’m truly sorry for your loss,” a tearful Butler said while facing the families of the McCain fallen. Those lost on the McCain were more than shipmates, “they were family members,” he said.

Butler is among several Navy members facing punishment in the wake of separate collisions involving two Japan-based Navy destroyers in 2017.

Two months before the McCain collision, the USS Fitzgerald collided with a merchant container ship off the coast of Japan, killing seven sailors. Hearings earlier this month were tied to the June 17 fatal crash.

Butler was charged for “negligently trained and certified helm watch standers on the controls of the Integrated Bridge and Navigation System onboard the USS John S. McCain … as was his duty to do to obtain required qualifications, gain a proper understanding of the system, provide adequate training and properly qualify junior sailors” between August 2016 and August 2017.

Butler said Thursday that he was not properly trained on the Integrated Bridge and Navigation System and could have done more to seek training.

Weiland described Butler as facing a tough choice: It’s “hard to give training (on the system) when you don’t know how to work it.”


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