The officer on duty during last year’s tragic collision between the Arleigh Burke Class guided missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald and the merchant ship ACX Crystal entered a guilty plea to a single charge of violating Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice on Tuesday. A violation of Article 92 indicates a failure to obey an order or regulation.
Lt. junior grade Sarah B. Coppock stood before a military judge and a small crowd made up of family members of the sailors that died in the incident as she entered her plea.
“My entire career my guys have been my number one priority,” she said. “When it mattered, I failed them. I made a tremendously bad decision and they paid the price.”
As the officer on the deck during the collision, Coppock acknowledged to the judge, Capt. Charles Purnell, that her actions, at least in part, contributed to the turn of events that led to seven sailors drowning below deck following the collision. She accepted responsibility for violating the standing orders of ship commander Cmdr. Bryce Benson as well as Coast Guard navigation rules several times throughout the night in question, including failing to communicate effectively with the watch standers, failing to operate safely in high traffic conditions, and failing to alert the crew of the impending collision.
However, as a part of her testimony, Coppock and her attorney painted a picture of a more difficult operational environment than the situation had been presented in previous Naval correspondence. According to Coppock, her bridge crew were actively tracking more than 200 surface ships in the vicinity of the Fitzgerald, and because the standing orders were to cross a merchant shipping lane, Coppock was not provided with a set trajectory on navigation charts to adhere to, but rather was expected to conduct a somewhat reactionary path of travel through what her council indicated was a heavily trafficked waterway. Coppock also claimed the SPS-73 bridge radar was malfunctioning at the time of the transit.
An order from Cmdr. Benson to maintain a speed of between 20 and 22 knots further reduced the time Coppock and her watch standers had to react to the impending collision.
The Navy’s declassified report made no mention of malfunctioning radar on the bridge of the USS Fitzgerald, however, it did claim that “watch team members responsible for radar operations failed to properly tune and adjust radars to maintain an accurate picture of other ships in the area.” The issue then was not a malfunction, per the Navy’s findings, but rather the result of operator error, likely due to insufficient training. According to prosecutor Lt. Cmdr. Paul Hochmuth said during the sentencing portion of the trial,
Coppock failed in her duties, but she received very little support. Being complacent was the standard on USS Fitzgerald.”
The court martial proceedings will now supercede the non-judicial punishment handed down to Coppock in January, which included charges of negligent homicide and hazarding a vessel. Instead, Coppock will receive only three months of reduced pay and a punitive reprimand — which has left many with the assumption that Coppock will likely find her way into a courtroom again in the near future as a witness for the prosecution, per the conditions of a plea deal for this reduced sentence. No announcement has been made regarding the details of the deal, but it can be expected that she’ll likely testify against either the ship’s commander or one of the two other junior grade officers expected to stand trial in the coming months.
Based on the statements made by her council, it seems likely that she’ll be testifying against the ship’s senior officer, Cmdr. Benson. Lt. Coppock’s defense attorney, Lt. Ryan Mooney said,
Lt. Coppock was not put in a position to succeed she was set up to fail.”
Images courtesy of the U.S. Navy