Do you remember the USS BONHOMME RICHARD fire from 2020? Today marks two years since the fire was finally extinguished, having raged for four days while the ship was moored in Naval Station San Diego. Thankfully, nobody was killed in the fire, although 63 people suffered minor injuries, but the ship was ultimately scrapped, being sold for just over 3 million dollars and towed to a scrapyard in Texas.
A multi-billion dollar warship being scrapped due to a fire that should have been put out relatively quickly? Perhaps the Navy will hold someone accountable? I mean, when LtCol Stu Scheller said
mean true things on social media, he was placed in jail for nine days and ultimately fined $5,000. Surely the incompetence that leads to the preventable loss of a warship in a US port would be punished more severely?
Well, the Navy unveiled its punishments on Friday:
“The disposition decisions included six Nonjudicial Punishments (NJP) with guilty findings, two NJPs with Matter of Interest Filings (MIF) and a Letter of Instruction (LOI), two NJP dismissals with a warning, one additional MIF, five other LOIs, three Non-Punitive Letters of Caution (NPLOC), two letters to former sailors documenting substandard performance, and six no-action determinations,” according to a statement from the service.”From navy.mil
The Navy also issued a letter of censure to retired VADM Brown and two LOIs for other admirals.
For most non-Navy people, the language used for the above punishments listed is confusing, so I’ll translate what it says into what it actually means.
First, the letter of censure. In this case, it was issued to VADM (ret) Brown, who is already retired. The letter can be viewed here. A letter of censure is a “strongly” worded letter from the Secretary of the Navy expressing their disgust for someone’s actions. It sits in a service member’s record, so if you were hoping to promote, its unlikely to happen. That…doesn’t matter much to someone who is already retired. Worse still, it appears that nobody interviewed VADM (ret) Brown, and he is contesting the results, so the letter may ultimately be rescinded.
In other words, letter of censure = no punishment if you’re retired.
Let’s look at the non-judicial punishment (NJP) results:
- 6 NJP with guilty findings
- 2 NJP with MIF and LOI
- 2 NJP dismissals
- 1 MIF
- 5 LOIs
- 3 NPLOCs
- 2 letters to former Sailors
- 6 no-actions
NJP is a legal proceeding where the Navy doesn’t have to prove something “beyond a reasonable doubt,” instead they can punish someone if there is a “preponderance of the evidence.” If that sounds a bit sketchy to you, it should. The “preponderance” level essentially means you can find someone guilty of a crime even when there is substantial evidence placing doubt as to whether the person was really responsible.
The Navy is supposed to use NJP to punish small offenses quickly so as to maintain good order and discipline. NJP punishments are limited in nature and aren’t considered an actual conviction, so they don’t translate to felonies or misdemeanors on a service member’s record when they leave service.
The fire on the BONHOMME RICHARD was not a small offense. Reading through the description of the poor response to the fire should make you angry as to how the Navy, charged with maintaining the premier maritime fighting force for the most important nation in the world, could let a critical warship burn in a major city when it has plenty of firefighting equipment nearby. This SHOULD have gone to court martial. The one Sailor accused of starting the fire, a Seaman Apprentice, is facing criminal charges at a court martial, and we don’t know yet those results. Yet for some reason the Navy elected to not pursue court martial charges for any other person involved in this case.
So NJP it is. Six members were found guilty at NJP. We don’t have the full results, but the SECNAV said that two members, the Commanding Officer and Executive Officer of the BONHOMME RICHARD, were assigned letters of reprimand and forfeiture of pay. NJP limits pay forfeitures for officers to 1/2 months pay for up to two months. With this in mind, we can calculate the lower limit for how much pay was taken by assuming they each lost 1/2 months pay for one month, and the upper limit as 1/2 months pay for two months.
CAPT Thoroman enlisted in the Navy in 1988 and thus has 34 years of service. His base pay is $12,980 a month, so he could have been fined $6,490 or $12,980. CAPT Ray joined via NROTC in 1996, and his base pay is $12,725, so he’s being fined either $6,362.50 or $12,725.
Adding these up, the lower limit of total fines is: $12,852.50
The upper limit of total fines is: $25,705
The estimated cost to fix the BONHOMME RICHARD was around $3 billion, so these fines represent 0.000857% of the repair cost for the ship.
I might be off a bit, check my math and let me know in the comments.
So that’s the financial cost, and as far as I can tell, the ONLY financial cost. Granted, its not likely the Navy could get $3 billion from all the people involved, but only punishing the CO and XO financially seems a bit light. The other guilty NJPs probably issued letters of reprimand, which like the letter of censure is a black mark on your record that otherwise has no bearing in the civilian world.
What about the Matter of Interest Findings, or MIF? A MIF is a negative letter that also sits on a service member’s record that essentially says this person wasn’t necessarily guilty, buuuuut we think we should be concerned about this individual. Translating that to reality, it means that person will likely never get promoted, but the MIF doesn’t become a felony or misdemeanor in the civilian world.
Letters of Instruction (LOIs) are letters that say “You did something wrong, and I’m instructing you on how to do better.” Then, once you complete all those items, the LOI is considered complete. I have an LOI from my first command where I screwed up a tagout and my CO made me provide tagout training to my division. LOIs don’t go on your record and don’t affect promotion. They correct bad behavior and are one step above yelling at someone for doing something stupid. Again, not much of a lasting punishment.
A NPLOC is a non-punitive letter of caution. It has even less teeth than a punitive letter, because it doesn’t sit on your record at all. A NPLOCs whole purpose is to give you more evidence on someone that is likely committing crimes but staying just below the threshold to get caught. Do you remember the “I’m not touching you game,” where you irritated your sibling by putting your finger just bareeely in front of their nose or cheek and said “I’m not touching you,” like somehow not touching you meant you couldn’t be punished? Remember when your
birthing person mom or dad said “That’s strike one, do it again and you’ll get a whooping.” That’s a NPLOC. Not a punishment at the time, but could be used later.
Did any Admirals besides VADM (ret) Brown get punished? Well, Rear Admiral Scott Brown (not related to the VADM (ret) Brown) and Rear Admiral Eric Ver Hage both got LOIs.
And that’s it. So, just to review:
- USS BONHOMME RICHARD catches fire on 12 July 2020, burns for four days and is a total loss of somewhere around 3 billion dollars.
- Two years later, the Navy issues approximately 30 pieces of administrative paper that say they are really, really mad with how a Sailor acted.
- The Navy also issues somewhere between $12K and $25K in fines.
- The Navy has an ongoing criminal trial into one Sailor they think started the fire that we don’t have resolution on yet two years after the initial event.
- No other Court Martials were convened.
- No Sailor above the paygrade of O-6 was held responsible in any meaningful way.
- No person was sent to jail (at least not yet).
And that’s it. That’s the extent of how the Navy holds people responsible for losing a warship inside our own port.
We often talk about the “Deep State” and how it protects bureaucrats from punishment while holding all the “little people” responsible. While its been obvious for some time now, the failure of the investigation into the fires on the BONHOMME RICHARD confirm that the military should be included into this “Deep State” calculus. It goes far beyond COVID vaccines and extremist “training.” The people wearing stars in our military will gleefuly destroy the lives of the hard working men and women in our service while continuing to provide poor leadership, poor guidance and force an ever increasing focus on non-warfighting skills. They are responsible for the poorly structured command and control diagrams, the shortened damage control training pipelines, and the increasing focus on non-warfighting skills, yet they demand all the pomp and circumstance for their office from every service member below them, and demand that we ASSUME (always a dangerous word) that they are really ready to conduct warfighting on behalf of this great nation.
Contrast the response to the BONHOMME RICHARD fire to that of the USS COLE, which had a massive hole blown in the side at the waterline from a suicide bomber, yet stayed afloat long enough to be brought home in one piece on the MV Blue Marlin, and eventually returned to service. Think about that when you read the descriptions in the BONHOMME RICHARD report on how Sailors didn’t know basics about their fire fighting gear:
On the morning of the fire 87% of the ship’s fire stations “remained in inactive equipment maintenance status,” according to the investigation. None of the crew members tried to use the ship’s foam sprinkling system because it had not been properly maintained and “in part because the crew lacked familiarity with capability and availability.” The crew made several other mistakes that day, including waiting far too long to report the fire, the investigation found. Several sailors decided not to put their firefighting gear on because they thought they were not wearing the proper uniform to take part in firefighting efforts. Sailors were also not properly trained on how to use emergency breathing devices, leading to cases of smoke inhalation.Task and Purpose Article
What happened in the 20 years since the COLE bombing? How did we get worse at damage control as a Navy? Most importantly, who should be held responsible for that?
One final piece of history. The original BOMHOMME RICHARD was a converted merchant ship used by Captain John Paul Jones to raid the coast of Britain. In the Battle of Flamborough Head, Jones fought the HMS Serapis, which heavily damaged and eventually sank the RICHARD, but not before Jones had lashed the ships together, stormed the Serapis and ultimately captured her in a massive win for the fledgling United States Navy.
One has to ask how Captain John Paul Jones, currently interred at the Naval Academy, would react to his old ship’s namesake suffering such a tragedy, and how he would have conducted the follow-on investigation.
This post represents the views of the author and does not represents views of the United States Navy, Department of Defense, or any other government agency. You’re welcome to read their views in their official posts on navy.mil. If you learned something from this article, please consider donating to Da Tech Guy, or purchasing one of the author’s books for you or someone you care about.