Fitzgerald Commander Will Head to Court-Martial in Navy Collision Case

U.S. Navy Commander Bryce Benson (Navy Photo)
U.S. Navy Commander Bryce Benson (Navy Photo)

WASHINGTON NAVY YARD -- The former commanding officer of one of two Navy ships to suffer catastrophic accidents last year pleaded not guilty to dereliction of duty through neglect resulting in death and improper hazarding of a vessel during a Tuesday arraignment.

Cmdr. Bryce Benson will face a general court-martial on Jan. 28, said Cmdr. Jonathan Stephens, the military judge. Benson was commanding officer of the guided-missile destroyer Fitzgerald when it collided with a container ship off the coast of Japan in June 2017. Seven sailors were killed.

Benson was charged with violating two articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice: 92 and 110. As the ship's CO, it was his duty "to provide adequate oversight of the ship's watch considering the navigational and traffic conditions; approve an adequate watchbill; [and] revise standing orders to account for degraded equipment," his charge sheet states.

Such dereliction of duty, it continues, allegedly resulted in the deaths of seven sailors: Gunner's Mate Seaman Dakota Kyle Rigsby, Yeoman 3rd Class Shingo Alexander Douglass, Sonar Technician 3rd Class Ngoc T. Truong Huynh, Gunner's Mate 1st Class Noe Hernandez, Fire Controlman 1st Class Carlos Victor Ganzon Sibayan, Personnel Specialist 1st Class Xavier Alec Martin and Chief Petty Officer Fire Controlman Gary Leo Rehm Jr.

Additionally, Benson allegedly failed to adequately train and inspect the conduct of those in his command, the charge sheet states.

He's also accused of failing to ensure the Fitzgerald's safe navigation, according to the charge sheet, by not following proper watchstanding measures. That led to damage of both vessels, the charges state.

The Fitzgerald's accident was the first of two deadly Navy mishaps in the Asia-Pacific region last year. The destroyer John S. McCain collided with a merchant ship off the coast of Singapore just two months later, killing another 10 sailors.

A Navy investigation into the Fitzgerald's late-night accident faulted its leaders and watchstanders for a series of failures that ultimately contributed to the deadly collision. Both ships maintained a high rate of speed despite being on a collision course, the investigation stated.

Navy officials had previously been pursuing negligent homicide charges against Benson and two junior officers from the Fitz.

The decision not to pursue those charges further came from Adm. James Caldwell, who Navy officials appointed to oversee any disciplinary for the two collisions.

Benson, who was in his stateroom at the time of the accident, suffered a traumatic brain injury. He was medically evacuated after he was found dangling from the side of the ship when his stateroom was destroyed in the accident.

The commander is not the only Fitzgerald leader to face punishment after the collision.

In February, former Fitzgerald executive officer Cmdr. Sean Babbitt and former command master chief Brice Baldwin were found guilty at non-judicial punishment proceedings of dereliction of duty, and were given punitive letters of reprimand. One other officer also received a reprimand, and another had a finding of guilt set aside. Another officer and an enlisted sailor from the Fitzgerald had charges dismissed.

Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, the former CO of the McCain, also faced a court-martial in May following his ship's collision. Sanchez pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty.

Benson has until Nov. 23 to decide whether he'd prefer a group of peers or judge alone to determine whether he's guilty or not guilty during next year's court-martial.

-- Hope Hodge Seck contributed to this report.

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

Show Full Article