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Pacific News Minute: USS Fitzgerald Leaves Dry Dock Almost 2 Years After Fatal Collision Off Japan

Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter Burghart
U.S. Navy

USS Fitzgerald has left dry dock at a shipyard in Mississippi, almost two years after the guided missile destroyer collided with a merchant ship off the coast of Japan. That was one of four accidents in the Pacific Fleet in 2017 that cost the lives of 17 sailors.

Earlier this month, the Navy dropped criminal charges against the Fitzgerald’s commander and a junior officer. Both received letters of censure that effectively end their careers, a move that concluded legal proceedings following the collisions that wrecked both the Fitzgerald and USS John McCain.

The most senior officer affected was Admiral Scott Swift, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet who took early retirement. Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin was removed as commander of the 7th Fleet; Rear Admiral Charles Williams, commander of Task Force 70 and Captain Jeffrey Bennet, commodore of Destroyer Squadron 15 were also removed from their positions.

But for the most part, responsibility was placed upon the officers of the two ships – though Lawrence Brennan, a retired naval judge advocate who now teaches at Fordham University Law School told Stars and Stripes that the most serious penalty was levied against the only enlisted man to face charges. Chief Petty Officer Jeffrey Butler pleaded guilty to one count of dereliction of duty and the subsequent demotion will cost him an estimated $200,000 in pay and retirement.

Brennan said that firing admirals or denying them a third star in retirement was not the same.

An investigation by ProPublica found systematic failures at the highest levels of the Navy, and also held Congress to blame.

The McCain left dry dock in Japan last November and is expected to rejoin the fleet this spring; it may be next year before repairs and upgrades are finished on the Fitzgerald.

Over 36 years with National Public Radio, Neal Conan worked as a correspondent based in New York, Washington, and London; covered wars in the Middle East and Northern Ireland; Olympic Games in Lake Placid and Sarajevo; and a presidential impeachment. He served, at various times, as editor, producer, and executive producer of All Things Considered and may be best known as the long-time host of Talk of the Nation. Now a macadamia nut farmer on Hawaiʻi Island, his "Pacific News Minute" can be heard on HPR Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.
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