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Harsh legal charges for U.S. Navy ship collisions send tough message

Last year, two naval destroyers were involved in two separate deadly collisions in the Pacific. Now the former commanders of both vessels face a battery of offenses, including negligent homicide. John Yang talks to retired Lt. Col. Gary Solis of Georgetown University about the unusual nature of the charges and the larger message they send.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two deadly accidents involving U.S. Navy ships last year could lead to severe consequences for the officers involved in the collisions at sea.

    John Yang has the details of the harsh charges against the commanders of the two vessels.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, last June, the USS Fitzgerald, a destroyer that's part of the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the Pacific, was broadsided off the coast of Japan by a massive container ship. The collision killed seven sailors aboard the Fitzgerald and crippled the vessel.

    Two months later, near Singapore, there was another incident involving a Seventh Fleet guided missile destroyer, the John S. McCain, named for the Arizona senator's father and grandfather, both admirals. It collided with a merchant vessel. Ten sailors died in that accident.

    Now the former commanders of both vessels, Bryce Benson of the Fitzgerald, and Alfredo J. Sanchez of the McCain, face a battery of offenses, including negligent homicide.

    Both men had previously been relieved of command, part of a wave of disciplinary actions across the Seventh Fleet.

    For more on the unusual nature of these charges, I'm joined by retired Lieutenant Colonel Gary Solis. A Marine Corps combat veteran of Vietnam, he is an expert in military law and teaches law at Georgetown University and George Washington University.

    Gary, thanks for joining us.

    You were a lawyer in the Marines, a judge in the Marines. How unusual is it to have charges like this, negligent homicide, filed against — pending against two officers?

  • Lt. Col. Gary Solis (Ret.):

    It's more than extremely rare. It's never happened before.

    I can find — I can think of no precedent for the court-martial of an officer for an incident like this.

  • John Yang:

    The top command or higher-up command, would the brass be involved in a decision like this?

  • Lt. Col. Gary Solis (Ret.):

    Yes, definitely so.

    This is not your ordinary court-martial, of course. And so the drafting of charges would be something that would be of interest to the higher command and something that they would and lawfully can take a hand in.

    They want to ensure that there is — there is a price to pay and that justice is done.

  • John Yang:

    What do you think's going on here?

  • Lt. Col. Gary Solis (Ret.):

    I think that a message is being sent to the Seventh Fleet and the rest of the United States Navy, and particularly commanding officers of ships everywhere, that they are going to have to take a closer hand in the training and the drilling and the oversight of their ships and their seamen.

  • John Yang:

    And has this been a problem?

    After the second collision of the McCain, there was a stand-down to review safety. There have been a number of top commanders relieved of command. What are they trying to address here? You said they're trying to tell them to pay more attention.

  • Lt. Col. Gary Solis (Ret.):

    Right.

    Clearly, there is something wrong when you have not only these two collisions, but you also have a grounding of the Antietam, and you have the Lake Champlain colliding with a fishing boat all in 2017.

    So, what this is addressing is a need to pay closer attention to the training of these crews, to the manning of the conn, to the watch officers who are overseeing the lookouts, and to the officer of the deck who is overseeing everyone when the captain isn't on the bridge.

  • John Yang:

    So, are these charges against the commanders of these ships not necessarily for things they may have done or not done, but maybe things that their crew didn't do?

  • Lt. Col. Gary Solis (Ret.):

    Well, that's true.

    But, as you know, in the military, commanding officers, particularly commanding officers of ships, are responsible for, as I say, everything that goes on during their watch and everything that fails to go on during their watch.

    So this is not all that unusual in the military. At My Lai, for example, there was — the commanding general of the division was also referred to trial, although he never went to trial.

    But commanding officers will always be taking the hits, legal hits, for the substandard performance of their units.

  • John Yang:

    These two commanders relieved of duty already, their careers probably over.

  • Lt. Col. Gary Solis (Ret.):

    Definitely.

  • John Yang:

    What could happen now? Could they go to military prison if they're convicted?

  • Lt. Col. Gary Solis (Ret.):

    Absolutely. Absolutely. These are serious charges. The maximum punishment for negligent homicide is three years. And they are also charged with dereliction of duty, which is three months is the maximum, and hazarding a vessel through negligence, two years.

    So, were they convicted of those three things, they could be looking at years' confinement, but I don't think that's going to happen.

  • John Yang:

    Why not?

  • Lt. Col. Gary Solis (Ret.):

    Because the message has been sent merely by preferral of charges.

    And when they go to trial, actually go to court-martial, which I assume will happen, I would anticipate a pretrial agreement and a guilty plea. But it's hard to envision the commanders of these ships actually going to prison.

    The purpose of these court-martials, in my estimation, is as much as to send a warning to other commanders, as we have already said, as it is to address the shortcomings, alleged shortcomings, of these officers.

  • John Yang:

    Gary Solis, thanks so much for joining us to help us understand this.

  • Lt. Col. Gary Solis (Ret.):

    My pleasure. Thank you.

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