Four senior leaders from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2 at Joint Base Little Creek-Fort Story are facing a special court-martial in connection with the deaths of two divers under their command.
Wednesday, they all faced a military judge for the first time for their arraignments.
Senior Chief Navy Diver James Burger, Senior Chief Navy Diver David Jones, Chief Navy Diver Gary Ladd Jr. and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jason Bennett are all charged with a violation of the UCMJ Article 92, Dereliction of Duty.
These four men all have at least a decade, some more than two decades of experience as Navy divers—but according to their official charge sheets, they all negligently failed to ensure that proper diving procedures and safety requirements were followed by sailors under their command back on February 26th of this year.
That's the day that Navy Diver First Class James Reyher and Navy Diver Second Class Ryan Harris died at the bottom of the Super Pond on Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, while their unit trained for a deployment.
A series of equipment failures led up to Reyher and Harris tangled at the bottom of the Super Pond, running out of air after 24 minutes underwater, when they only had 11 minutes in their tanks.
An investigation into their deaths found that senior leaders of the unit allowed them to SCUBA dive to 150 feet, deeper than normal training limits of 130 feet, without command approval.
If convicted of dereliction of duty, each of these senior sailors could face up to 3 months confinement and 3 months of a partial loss of pay.
That sentence could be doubled though, up to six months, for Chief Warrant Officer Bennett, since he is facing two counts of dereliction of duty.
As the training officer of MDSU 2, military prosecutors say he also failed to inform the commanding officer of a request "to deviate from the training scenario and conduct a scuba dive exceeding normal working limits."
Senior Chief Jones and Chief Ladd both worked under Bennett in the Training and Readiness division of MDSU 2.
Senior Chief Burger was the Master Diver for MDSU Team 2-3, the team that Reyher and Harris belonged to.
Senior Chief Burger was the subject of an Article 32 hearing in May of this year, alongside Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mark Smith, the officer in charge of MDSU Team 2-3. Both were under investigation for possible involuntary manslaughter and dereliction of duty charges.
They were not recommended for a general court-martial by the investigating officer, and were offered administrative punishment by the commander of Explosive Ordinance Disposal Group 2.
Chief Warrant Officer Smith accepted that punishment...he was not in court on Wednesday.
Navy officials, though, tell us that Senior Chief Burger chose to not accept administrative punishment, so the commander sent his case to this special court-martial.
This statement was released by Chief Burger's military lawyers...explaining why.
"These allegations were thoroughly investigated at an Article 32 hearing by an independent, senior military attorney who heard witnesses testify under oath, analyzed the evidence, and the law. After doing so, the attorney determined that no reasonable grounds existed for going forward to a court-martial. Despite the Article 32 hearing officer's recommendation, which is unfortunately non-binding, the Command has chosen to send the case to a court-martial. This is especially disappointing considering the Article 32 hearing exposed problems with faulty equipment. This was a tragic accident, but it was not a crime. Senior Chief Burger steadfastly maintains his innocence and looks forward to his day in court and to clearing his good name."
All four special court-martial trials will take place in January, back to back, right here at Naval Station Norfolk.