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USS Fitzgerald junior officer enters no plea in arraignment for court-martial

PACIFIC OCEAN (Aug. 27, 2012) The guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) transits the Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Karen Blankenship/Released)

Lt. Natalie Combs did not enter a plea Monday at her arraignment for a general court-martial on charges stemming from the deadly collision involving the USS Fitzgerald Navy destroyer last year.

As the ship’s tactical action officer, she is charged with negligent dereliction of duty resulting in death and negligent hazarding of a vessel regarding the June 17, 2017, collision of the Fitzgerald and a merchant vessel off the coast of Japan. Seven sailors were killed.

Combs is one of four Fitzgerald officers charged with crimes. The ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Bryce Benson, is facing court-martial; the officer of the deck Lt. j.g. Sarah Coppock pleaded guilty; and Combs and another junior officer, the ship’s surface warfare officer Lt. Irian Woodley, presented their defense May 9 in a joint preliminary hearing known as an Article 32. Combs worked alongside Woodley in the combat information center several levels below deck, where most of the weapons and electronics are operated.

The Article 32 hearing officer recommended that rather than face criminal charges, both junior officers be sent before a board of inquiry to determine whether they should be discharged from the Navy, Combs’ lawyer David Sheldon told Stars and Stripes.

But Adm. Frank Caldwell, the consolidated disposition authority — who has ultimate discretion on who should face internal disciplinary action and who should face justice in a military courtroom — decided to send Combs to a general court-martial. Charges were dropped against Woodley, but he will appear before an administrative board to determine his future with the Navy.

Combs’ lawyer said Monday that the fact that she was sent to court-martial while Woodley was not raised questions about fairness that the defense team was investigating.

“It raises a lot of issues about selective prosecution and unlawful command influence,” Sheldon said.

Caldwell was appointed as consolidated disposition authority after a second Navy destroyer collision in the Pacific — this one involving the USS John S. McCain — killed 10 sailors in August 2017.

During the preliminary hearing for Combs and Woodley, testimony revealed severe problems with the ship’s systems, along with an undermanned and overworked crew. Navy investigations have also identified systemic problems in the manning, training and equipping of the Japan-based Navy fleet.

Prosecutors portrayed the two officers as failing in their jobs — not using the tools at their disposal properly, not trying to get faulty equipment fixed and failing to see close calls in busy waters over the course of the night.

The defense argued that the ship’s radars and electronic equipment never worked properly and the crew was exhausted from working 20-hour days with no time to train or do repairs.

The Navy singled out Combs for her failure to communicate adequately with the deck and failing in her job of supporting the bridge to ensure it received vital information about contact with other vessels. An expert witness testified that Combs had just 13 actions involving monitoring or tracking other ships on her console that night – none in the last hour and 13 minutes leading up to the collision — even though there were many ships in the vicinity. Her attorney argued the Fitzgerald had faulty equipment and the combat information center was unaware of any such contacts.

Combs’ court-martial is scheduled Feb. 25, 2019, the Navy said. Benson’s court-martial is set for January.


© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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