He was the last man standing to shoulder the blame.
Five senior Navy divers were accused of failing to ensure that adequate safety procedures were in place when two sailors died in a training dive last year.
In the end, four accepted administrative punishment, and only Senior Chief Petty Officer James Burger – the master diver of the company – stood trial.
On Saturday, a day after a Navy jury convicted him of negligent dereliction of duty, Burger accepted the burden.
Turning to look across the courtroom, he spoke directly to the families of Petty Officer 1st Class James Reyher and Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Harris.
“Not a day goes by, not an hour, a second – that James and Ryan aren’t on my mind,” Burger said, as stoic in his delivery as he was throughout the trial. “They were great men, and I am truly sorry.”
Then he turned to the jury – four Navy peers: “I respect and honor your decision,” he told them. “You gentlemen found the truth, and I thank you for it.”
The jury could have sentenced him to a maximum of 90 days in confinement and a reduction in rank as low as seaman recruit. But after nearly two and a half hours of deliberation – longer than they took to determine Burger’s guilt – the jury chose to reduce him a single rank, to chief petty officer.
Burger was master diver of Company 2-3 in the Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek when the deaths occurred.
In its verdict Friday, the jury found that Burger had not done enough to mitigate risks ahead of the Feb. 26 dive at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, a 150-foot scuba dive in cold, dark water.
At sentencing, Burger’s lawyer, Lt. Cmdr. John Butler, presented evidence that he was not allowed to disclose during the trial. He told the jury that the regulators used in that dive have been removed from the Navy’s list of approved equipment for deep scuba dives in 40-degree freshwater, like in Aberdeen’s pond.
He also told them the Navy is introducing language in the dive manual to clarify criteria for sending divers below 130 feet with scuba gear.
The jury heard wrenching testimony Saturday from the families – who described the desperate voids left in their lives and how the Navy let their men down.
“When Ryan would talk about being a diver, he would just light up,” Harris’ father, Gordon, said tearfully. “He always said, ‘Dad, they have my back. You don’t have to worry about me.’ Somehow I think that failed him, and now I don’t have my son with me.”
Harris’ mother, Deborah, broke down as she described her son. He had many friends and was always the one to befriend the less fortunate, she said. He had two small daughters. His oldest, at 3, was a real “daddy’s girl” who wonders now why daddy’s not coming home.
As a state child welfare worker, Deborah said, she always follows the rules and regulations to protect Missouri’s children.
“To my dying day, I will not understand not putting safeguards in place,” she said.
But it was Reyher’s wife, Diana, who spoke most plainly about the company James belonged to, saying he adored his job at his first dive locker in Everett, Wash., but was distraught by the lack of unity and camaraderie in Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2 at Little Creek.
“They didn’t have his back,” she said. “I just wish these guys took care of him better.”
Diana Reyher said she was always the worrier, and James was her rock. When Burger testified, he turned to her.
“James spoke very highly of you,” Burger told her.
“He said you were the backbone,” he added. “He was a great man.”
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