I’m just tired,” I would say. “Once I get through this tour/deployment/flight physical/stage of life, things will get better. I just need to buckle down and work through this.”
It is any time from 2012 through today, in Lemoore, or Oceana, or deployed, or at home, or at work. I am a 36-year-old lieutenant commander. I am exhausted and broken.
My wife told me I needed to talk to someone. I had not been myself for years. I only felt okay in the aircraft, when it was just me, my pilot, and the mission. Aside from those brief moments, I was a ball of stress, bouncing from one worry to the next: money, house, work, kids, hairline, waistline, you name it.
Things came to a head in the summer of 2018. My wife was right; I had to talk to someone. I was scared of what they might say: depression? PTSD? My flying career would be over. Contacting someone was as stressful as staying silent.
Base mental health was not an option. Even the name suggested there might be something unhealthy about me. Instead, I called the chaplain. I figured there was less risk of running into my shipmates at the chapel than at medical.
We talked for hours, and in that time I learned a lot about myself, mental self-care, and the strain of avoiding help.
I was at the top of my game as an aviator. I was a student at the Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN), an instructor at the West Coast Fleet Replacement Squadron, and I had a brand new baby and a happy life on shore duty.
Then my aircraft exploded. Or caught fire. Or was engulfed in flames. Whatever it was, there was a lot of fire, a moment of sheer “this is it” panic, and a frantic call from our wingman to eject. I looked at the aircraft’s displays, wondered what was wrong with the jet, wondered if I was going to survive the fireball working its way toward the cockpit, and decided not to risk it. I pulled the ejection handle and catapulted into the clear blue desert sky. Half a second later my pilot followed me.
We entered aviation purgatory: grounded, TOPGUN on pause, spinning our wheels while the Navy decided what to do with us. Thus began the most difficult time of my life.
People disagreed on how our mishap had occurred. Our aircraft had been dumping fuel. When my pilot lit the afterburners the fuel ignited, causing the explosion I had seen coming toward me.
How the fuel dumps activated became the controversy of the year. All around us people took sides. Some questioned our decision-making; some thought we were screwing around; some thought we were morons. Others stuck up for us, but the naysayers seemed louder than the defenders.
For eight months we sat while our buddies flew. We dreamed of returning to the sky and of completing TOPGUN.
Eventually our case rested with Commander, Naval Air Forces. He had almost made a decision once before, but the debate over our culpability had prompted him to put us on hold. Now, with his change of command a week away, the admiral decided not to pass down this bit of paperwork, and so we proceeded to North Island.
“You saw this fireball,” he said, his words and tone crystal clear in my mind all these years later, “but the jet wasn’t giving you any primary indications, like a fire warning light.”
Sir, I thought, trying to communicate telepathically with him, a fireball is literally the primary indication of fire. I clearly was not telepathic, because he followed with: “Maybe you should
not have acted so quickly. If you had given it a second, you would have picked up airspeed and left the cloud
of vapor behind and would have recovered safely.”
There it was.
This admiral, who, like every jet aviator, had buried friends who had waited a half-second too long, told us we should have delayed our decision to eject. A man who was not there, who had kept us grounded for eight months, who waited to summon us until cleaning out his in-box, told us his aircraft was more important than our lives.
I had thought I was going to die. When my pilot’s seat fired, he thought it was an explosion and that he was in his last moment. Our wingman, who said our aircraft looked “like it had been hit by a missile,” had made the same instantaneous decision I had.
Now, an admiral who had not flown fighters operationally in years, who had lost friends, who was responsible for my life as my boss’s boss’s boss, told me he wished he still had his jet.
It took every ounce of self-control not to let my jaw drop. I fumed through the rest of the meeting, taking almost no joy from the admiral’s announcement that we would return to flying status.
We left the headquarters in silence, climbed into the rental car, and drove a mile before we let loose—not with cries of relief but with curses and disbelief as we digested what the admiral said.
The chaplain asked if my stress was a result of some anger, or fear, or something I was holding on to, something that was preventing me from seeing the good in my life.
I shrugged. I thought of bad bosses, personality conflicts, regrets and disappointments, bad choices made by and for me. None of those things registered. I am not the grudge-holding type, and I have found at least coexistence with those I have clashed with through the years. Then, like a lightning bolt, there was the admiral, telling us we should have given it a second, that maybe we made the wrong choice when we put his aircraft in the dirt.
I was furious with him. His job was to make a decision, but he had let us sit until we became a turnover item. His opinion was that we should have done something different and saved the aircraft. We were, he seemed to say, less valuable than one Super Hornet.
I had internalized that, I realized. My normal doubts, fears, and feelings of inadequacy had magnified to a near-crippling level the moment my boss’s boss’s boss wished he still had “his” airplane. So, I made myself worth less than the aircraft, and in the ensuing years my self-worth plummeted. Everything about my job became miserable. I was angry, sad, overwhelmed, and hurt.
After talking with the chaplain, things started to improve. I still disagreed with the admiral and with those who had dragged our names through the mud, but my smoldering anger was gone. They could keep their opinions: I was useful, valuable, capable. I no longer blamed the admiral either; his comments were what they were, but I had internalized them and allowed them to sabotage my self-esteem.
I wondered how much productivity, expertise, and effort had drained away during those years of sadness. How much better could I have been at work, at home, in the aircraft?
The chaplain was just my first stop. I saw the base psychiatrist who told me: No, you are not crazy, or depressed, or suffering from PTSD. Like most aviators, I was a bit narcissistic, a bit overly invested in others’ opinions, and a bit of a control freak, but that was all normal enough.
I now meet regularly with the base psychologist, and we discuss stress, the pressures of life, and finding value in myself every day. I spend time with my church community group, civilians mostly, who do not know the Navy but understand being a father, husband, and working professional.
I have learned a lot about myself and about mental health care in the Navy, and there are some things we all need to know.
Seeking Help Is Not Weakness
I was terrified my cry for help would get out. Everyone would know I was seeing a “shrink” and decide maybe I was not up to flying fighters anymore.
As a department head, I had encouraged sailors to seek treatment. My commanding officers routinely directed chiefs and lead petty officers to get our sailors the help they needed. It was easy to nod along with the skipper’s advice to others. It was a million times harder to do it for myself.
If you think you would benefit from talking to someone, do it. If you are unsure, do it. If you encounter resistance from peers or the chain of command, the problem is with those people, not you. Someone in your chain of command will support you. Do not stop asking until you find that person, whether it is your lead petty officer, division officer, or your boss’s boss’s boss.
Stress Can Halt Anyone
I had my mishap at the peak of my professional ability. I was part of the highest-functioning apex predator community in the Navy. Over the course of eight months, though, my mental health collapsed. As naval aviation debated my fitness for continued flying, my mind made its decision: the accolades, awards, and qualifications I had earned were mistakes. I really was the clown people thought I was. The lack of a clear determination on my mishap did not point to my innocence, but instead planted doubt in my mind about whether I was wrong for saving my own life.
If these doubts can assail someone selected for duty as “the best of the best,” no one is immune.
Stress and mental health are not only about “big things” like mishaps and combat. My stress grew from a change in how I viewed myself, but it mushroomed in everyday things: money, work, family. This profession is replete with stressors, and they will build up and stop you in your tracks.
You Are Worth It
You, Seaman Smith, are worth more than any aircraft, ship, or weapon system. You make that system function, whether you fly it, repair it, clean it, or serve its chow. Even the hardest of hardcore chiefs knows that if sailors cannot function, the mission will fail. From the newest recruit to the Chief of Naval Operations, you are worth taking time to care for yourself.
As an officer with more time and fewer bosses than most sailors, this is easy for me to say. My interactions with mental health professionals benefited from privileges of rank and position. My meeting with the chaplain was easy because I was not afraid to text another officer and take time away from the office. As a Christian, I was comfortable seeking out someone whose faith aligned with mine. It is not so easy for everyone.
There will be good times to get help, and there will be times when you will have to wait, but the spaces will be there, and you are worth it. Work with your chain of command to care for yourself; then validate their faith in you by coming to work ready to work.
Navy, Heal Thyself
Improve periodic mental health screening. Imagine if mental health screening were treated like dental screening. Everyone has seen the frantic emails from command master chiefs demanding 100 percent dental readiness. “Dental Readiness Is Combat Readiness” declare the posters. So is mental readiness.
Currently, the periodic health assessment (PHA) relies on self-reporting via an online form, which is later confirmed with a corpsman. If you are confident this method is effective, please refer to the opening lines of this article.
Including an annual face-to-face mental health screening with a doctor as part of the PHA will make mental health part of the annual medical readiness cycle. Unfortunately, this will be impossible without increasing the mental health options available to service members.
Staff the clinics. Clinics have to be manned to support the population of the base. My home station has approximately 20,000 service members, one psychologist, and four psychiatrists. The lead psychiatrist splits his time between a naval hospital and three branch clinics. The Fleet and Family Support Center (FFSC) adds 12 more non-medical counselors. That is one counselor for every 1,200 sailors.
Navy medicine must staff according to patient population. Only a small portion of personnel even bother trying to get an appointment at base medical. When I finally called, the first available appointment was six weeks out.
FFSCs and the Military OneSource website have resources for service members beyond Navy medicine. But without effective screening and comfortable options on and off base, these resources will go underused by those who need them. Every sailor has to see medical once a year; it is the only way to ensure every sailor who needs care can get care.
Send sailors off base. The default location for mental health care is base medical. I avoided the clinic for several reasons:
- My stress was work related, and I wanted to get out of the environment that stressed me out.
- The psychiatrist was a senior officer, and I did not want to talk about my mental health in between “sirs.” He was approachable and kind, but separating people from their rank is difficult. Mental health care needs an informal touch.
- Mental health should be private unless the patient chooses to talk about it. It is impossible to avoid seeing someone you know at the base clinic, and I would have been mortified to be seen in the mental health waiting area. Maybe that is stigmatizing mental health, but it is my decision whether to keep my health care private.
If all sailors received an honest assessment of their mental health, base medical likely would be overwhelmed, but using regular screenings to generate referrals to off-base care would lighten the workload on base medical personnel and assuage service member fears.1
Promote mental health awareness and care. Commands must bang the drum on mental health and encourage their people to seek help. Leaders must allow time for sailors to get treatment. This will manifest differently for sea commands and shore commands, for ships and squadrons, for enlisted and officer, but an engaged chain of command can make it work.
Losing a sailor for a day is inconvenient; losing one forever to a mental health condition is far, far worse.
I wish I had sought help years ago. I wish I had had the courage to reach out. I wish I had not told myself that if I worked a little harder, got through the next milestone, or got selected for the next promotion, things would be okay.
Things did not approach “okay” until I sat down with someone and learned what was holding me back. My self-perception had been shattered. It still is not entirely pieced back together, but I am not alone, I am not afraid to seek help, and I know I am worth it.
Months after our meeting with the admiral, I asked my pilot why he seemed so at ease while I was still so upset. “I guess I just decided that my career is not going to be ruined by one guy,” he explained
He obviously meant the admiral, but in the following years the person ruining my career was me. It was only through seeking help that I began to heal.
1. Many personnel I spoke with did not know (a) there are mental health care providers on base, and/or (b) active-duty personnel can get a referral to off-base care, if approved by medical. My flight surgeon fell into category b and said I had to seek treatment on base.