Collisions Raise PTSD Danger Flags

By Captain John P. Cordle, U.S. Navy (Retired)

In the early 2000s, I am convinced that the Navy did not view ships as operating on our "battlefield." I submit that it was and is the case, and the lessons of the attack on the Cole should not be forgotten. I recall the decision that any medals associated with this assault would not carry a combat V. Based on later developments, it has become clear that we were deeply engaged in combat as a nation but did not recognize it as such. With the Navy’s ballistic-missile defense (BMD) ships deployed in the Pacific and North Korea launching missiles over Japan, I would submit that for all practical purposes, based on the required level of readiness on these ships, these waters are a battlefield.

Nearly 20 years ago, many of my former shipmates felt pushed aside as the Cole returned to sea, being told to "move on" and look forward. To some this seems understandable, but it is unrealistic to sailors who have lost shipmates and friends to a catastrophic event. Such emotional scars run deep. Have we learned any lessons to better support our people? I am not convinced we have.

Not all that long ago, serving on a type commander’s staff, I recall an officer came to us on temporary duty having found his department head tour overwhelming and being diagnosed with PTSD after a year in Afghanistan. The first paperwork he received from the Navy was not anything about “what do you need, what can we do for you?” but a request to remit his surface-warfare-officer bonus of $10,000, due immediately, for “failing to complete his tour.” I also recall two former commanding officers, having been relieved for cause, literally collapsing at my feet from stress while reporting to the staff—these were frightening and moving experiences.

We who serve in the Navy have hard shells that resist asking for help, and for those still serving there is a constant fear (despite some recent mitigations) that reporting a need for psychiatric or psychological help will result in loss of a security clearance or the confidence of our immediate seniors. Nothing cuts against the grain of a sailor more than the thought of failing to provide for his or her family, and the loss of the clearance for many means the loss of a job. In addition to the trauma of PTSD for some, events such as these can carry a stigma. Semantics aside, anyone who dons the uniform of our service is a hero, and especially those who sail in harm’s way. Today, the Sea of Japan is a Navy battlefield, and those deployed in these waters to defend us and our allies deserve our support, especially the sailors and families of these two warships.

I was not prepared for my own reaction to my recent visit to the Cole . . . seeing the names of sailors with whom I had joked, conducted maintenance spot checks, held inspections, and on whom I had pinned medals, all caught up with me when I reached the car. It took 15 minutes to regain my composure, hoping nobody noticed the middle-age guy bawling for no explicable reason. A Cole crewmate who has spoken to a friend on one of the aforementioned ships mentioned "eerily similar" stories of how these sailors are affected, and mentioned that for this individual, these incidents have caused a relapse of past challenges. PTSD is a lifelong injury that, according to the experts, can be healed with the right care. Those same experts tell us that PTSD leaves scars that can be re-opened.

Seventeen years have passed since 17 sailors died on the Cole . Since then, the Navy has taken great steps, even standing up an operational stress control program as a preemptive step to help build resilience in crews over the long term so that they can better deal with such catastrophic events as well as the long-term stress of deployments. Unfortunately, many of the forward-deployed ships that most need this process are “too busy” to stand down for the one-day training event, or the remoteness of some ports and operational schedules make the support team’s travel too challenging. Perhaps these conditions will now change.  As the lessons from the Cole and other ship catastrophes show, the Navy community must actively attend to the mental health and wellness—immediately and for the long term—of the entire crews, and of the families of shipmates who have given their all on the front lines. 

Captain Cordle retired in 2013 after 30 years of service. He commanded the USS  Oscar Austin  (DDG-79) and USS  San Jacinto  (CG-56). He is the 2010 recipient of the U.S. Navy League’s Captain John Paul Jones Award for Inspirational Leadership.

Note: Tomorrow, 12 October, will be the 17th anniversary of the attack on the USS Cole . Click here for more information and first-hand accounts.  



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