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Divers face dereliction-of-duty charges in Aberdeen deaths

Oct. 9, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Navy Diver 1st Class (DSW) James Reyher of Caldwell, Ohio, and ND2 (DSW) Class Ryan Harris of Gladstone, Mo., drowned Feb. 26 while working at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. Four sailors have been charged in the deaths.
Navy Diver 1st Class (DSW) James Reyher of Caldwell, Ohio, and ND2 (DSW) Class Ryan Harris of Gladstone, Mo., drowned Feb. 26 while working at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. Four sailors have been charged in the deaths. (Army via the associated press)
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Four Navy divers from Little Creek, Va.-based Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2 were charged with dereliction of duty today in connection with the deaths of two Navy divers during Feb. 26 training in Aberdeen, Md.

Navy Diver 1st Class (DSW) James Reyher of Caldwell, Ohio, and ND2 (DSW) Ryan Harris of Gladstone, Mo., died together as the result of a dive Navy officials say shouldn’t have happened.

The four, all diving-qualified senior enlisted and warrant officers at MDSU 2, were arraigned today at Norfolk Naval Station. They are expected to be tried at separate courts-martial proceedings beginning in January, said Lt. Nathan Potter, spokesman for Explosive Ordnance Group 2. They are:

■ Senior Chief Navy Diver (MDV) David C. Jones, the command’s readiness and training master diver.

■ Senior Chief Navy Diver (MDV) James Burger, who was in charge of MDSU 2’s Company 2-3, to which Reyher and Harris were assigned.

■ Chief Navy Diver Gary G. Ladd, Jr., the unit’s readiness and training leading chief petty Officer.

■ Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jason M. Bennett, who is the only one of the quartet who was not present on diving stations in Aberdeen when the deaths took place.

Bennett is charged with two specifications of dereliction. The first is for allegedly not ensuring established diving and safety requirements were adhered to. The second is for allegedly failing to relay a request from the divers on station to MDSU 2’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Michael Runkle, asking to conduct a scuba dive to 150 feet, which exceeded normal working limits.

Runkle was fired May 8.

The other three divers are charged with a single count of allegedly being derelict in their duties to ensure “diving procedures and safety requirements were adhered to.”

The four were among five divers who were taken to captain’s mast in August; one decided to accept nonjudicial punishment while the others refused, as is their right under military law.

Not facing a court-martial is Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mark Smith, who was the officer in charge of Company 2-3. Navy officials wouldn’t confirm whether Smith was the one unnamed diver who accepted his NJP.

Burger and Smith faced an Article 32 hearing in June in front of Capt. Holiday Hanna, former force judge advocate for Naval Surface Forces Atlantic in Norfolk, Va. They stood accused of involuntary manslaughter.

Smith and Burger had taken their divers to Aberdeen’s “Super Pond” as part of pre-deployment training. Though autopsies concluded Reyher and Harris died of accidental drowning, the actual circumstances may never be known.

During the Article 32, it was put into question whether Smith and Burger were cleared to order a 150-foot dive — 20 feet deeper than normally authorized. It also was questioned whether Harris and Reyher should have been using surface-supplied oxygen instead of scuba equipment.

The decision by the four to plead their case to a courts-martial isn’t surprising, as the lawyers defending Burger and Smith at the Article 32 hearing said at the time that their clients were being made scapegoats, and that the deaths of Reyher and Harris were the result of a tragic accident.

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