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“Trust Was a Central Theme”: We Talked to a Navy Commander About How He Helped Us Uncover Staggering Failures From Senior Navy Leadership

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Retired Navy Cmdr. Bryce Benson was wary when ProPublica reporter Megan Rose reached out to him for an investigation into the 2017 collision of the USS Fitzgerald. The accident was one of the deadliest in the Navy’s history, and Benson had been the captain of the warship.

ProPublica’s investigative series, “Disaster in the Pacific,” would go on to reveal that failures from senior Navy leaders — who had endangered the Fitzgerald by sending an overworked and undertrained crew to sea with outdated and poorly maintained equipment — were responsible. But at the time that Rose contacted Benson, senior officers blamed him for the collision and had even sought a criminal prosecution.

In a digital event on Wednesday with Rose and other journalists behind “Disaster in the Pacific,” which recently won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, Benson explained how the team eventually earned his trust.

“Trust was a central theme in how I interacted with those around me at that point,” Benson recalled during the event, which detailed numerous obstacles the reporters had to overcome in order to bring the truth to light. “On the night of the collision, I trusted very talented and competent people to keep us all safe. … As multiple inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the government’s case against me added up, I lost trust in [senior Navy leaders] too. I truly felt isolated.”

The reporting team of Rose, T. Christian Miller and Robert Faturechi had to practice great patience and persistence in order for Benson to let them in. “Your team saw the light of truth in the story and pursued it,” he said. “As we worked together, I found that you were genuine, hardworking, thorough and strictly adhered to your journalistic code. And, mind you, while I was in uniform, this is one of the principles that I swore to defend. I saw many other outlets publishing inaccurate accounts, and I really felt maligned with the skewed narrative that senior Navy leaders were trying to advance. So the decision of who to trust was clear.” After ProPublica’s story, the Navy dropped all criminal charges. Benson then allowed Rose to profile him to share the mental health toll of both the crash and the Navy’s prosecution of him.

In a creative writing class he attended last summer at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, hosted by the nonprofit Community Building Art Works, Benson realized another consequence of not telling his story. As part of the class, which he took to better explore his trauma in a safe space, he read a memoir by CBAW CEO Seema Reza.

“Reading through her narrative, she conveys that silence is dangerous. This resonated with me and has been one of the tools in how I manage the challenges with mental and behavioral health. So while senior Navy leaders were fumbling with how to handle my disposition, your team was willing to shine a light on how this matter personally affected me. I was expecting some level of retribution from other senior Navy leaders for my participation in this exclusive. But, really, instead I found an amazing, encouraging and supportive community of those coping with loss and grief and trauma.”

Watch the Full Discussion

Throughout the digital discussion, the reporters — along with ProPublica senior editor Tracy Weber, and social media and platforms editor Kengo Tsutsumi — shared more on the challenging, meticulous reporting behind the “Disaster in the Pacific” series.

“It wasn’t until all of these admirals, at great risk to their own careers and reputations and to their friendships, agreed to sit down and walk us through the specifics of the bad leadership decisions, and the willful blindness to what was happening on the ships, that we truly grasped how much bigger this was,” Rose said. “We couldn’t have written the angle of accountability without our sources being willing to take that great risk. And their willingness really drove home how important this public reckoning was for the Navy because it was just so systemic.”

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