Fitzgerald Officer of the Deck Pleads Guilty at Court-Martial

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald sits in Dry Dock 4 at Fleet Activities Yokosuka to continue repairs and assess damage sustained from its June 17, 2017 collision with a merchant vessel. (U.S. Navy photo/Christian Senyk)
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald sits in Dry Dock 4 at Fleet Activities Yokosuka to continue repairs and assess damage sustained from its June 17, 2017 collision with a merchant vessel. (U.S. Navy photo/Christian Senyk)

WASHINGTON -- The officer of the deck for the USS Fitzgerald when it collided with a commercial vessel pleaded guilty Tuesday in a special court-martial proceeding.

Lt. j.g. Sarah Coppock's job was to ensure safe navigation of the USS Fitzgerald. On June 17, 2017, she was "derelict in the performance of those duties," resulting in the deaths of seven sailors, according to the single charge she faced Tuesday.

The Fitzgerald's commanding officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, was not on deck at the time of the collision. It fell to Coppock to navigate through the heavily trafficked waters off the coast of Japan. She 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."

As of press time, the court-martial at the Navy Yard in Washington had not ended. Sentencing details were not available.

Coppock was charged along with two unnamed junior officers on board the Fitzgerald.

Those sailors, a tactical action officer and a surface warfare coordinator whose jobs focused on overseeing the gathering and communicating of vital information to the bridge, each face three charges: dereliction in the performance of duties through neglect resulting in death, negligent hazarding of a vessel and negligent homicide. They face a joint Article 32 hearing Wednesday to see whether they will face court-martial.

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.

Both lieutenants are charged with negligent homicide for causing the deaths of the seven seamen in their flooded berthing section by "negligently failing to comply with the USS Fitzgerald commanding officer's standing orders" and to effectively ensure the sailors under their oversight carried out their jobs – watch-standing for the tactical information officer. For the surface warfare officer, the job was "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."

The Fitzgerald was navigating out to sea near Yokosuka Port in Japan when it failed to recognize the dangers of three ships heading across its path.

They were close enough to present risk of collision, according to a U.S. Navy report. Two of the ships maneuvered to avoid a collision -- one coming particularly close. The report said Coppock was responsible to alert the commanding officer after that close call. The third, called the ACX Crystal, did not.

Tuesday's court-martial proceeding is the first of several in the coming weeks that will put five officers on the stand for two Japan-based ship collisions in the summer of 2017.

Two months after the deadly Fitzgerald incident, the USS John S. McCain collided with a tanker near the Singapore Straits on Aug. 21. Ten McCain sailors were killed.

The collisions were separate, but both involved Japan-based Navy destroyers; the Navy found that both involved poor seamanship and were the result of compounded errors in which crews lost situational awareness.

Benson is slated for an Article 32 preliminary hearing May 21. He faces charges that include negligent homicide, hazarding a ship and dereliction of duty.

A date has not been finalized for an Article 32 for the relieved commanding officer of the McCain, Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, who is facing similar charges.

Navy reports found that both collisions were "avoidable," caused by poor seamanship and compounded errors. The Navy has acknowledged that its forward-deployed 7th Fleet in Japan was stretched too thin – undermanned, overworked and exhausted under an intense operational schedule. To meet the high operational demand, training and ship maintenance were deferred, according to a Navy review.

Eighteen sailors faced nonjudicial punishment -- 10 on the Fitzgerald and eight on the McCain. That includes the executive officers of both ships and the command master chief of the Fitzgerald, who were found guilty of dereliction in the performance of duties. Each received a letter of punitive reprimand.

Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, who commanded the 7th Fleet, and the two top leaders below him were fired, while the Pacific Fleet commander and the commander of Naval Surface Forces in San Diego retired early -- the most senior naval officers to step down in the wake of the tragedies.

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