I’m holding off finishing the last part of my series Statues with Limitations until tomorrow. Of the past day I have been consumed with the collision of the USS John S. McCain with a tanker near Singapore that quite likely has claimed the lives of ten U.S. Navy sailors. It was the second fatal collision in less than three weeks involving some of the most technologically advanced warships in the world with merchant ships. The other was that of the USS Fitzgerald which was at fault in a collision with a container ship near Tokyo bay.
Today I have been in contact with our regional casualty assistance coordinator and chaplains who are already or might be called to go to the home of a sailor’s next of kin to inform them that their sailor is dead. If you have never had to make such a notification you are lucky. They are not easy and they never get easier. Between the military and my time as hospital emergency and trauma department chaplain I have been involved in far too many of them, I lost count around the 350 point, I’ve probably been involved in close to 500 such notifications of all types.
Frankly there are no words that can adequately convey how hard that news is on the loved ones of those who died, especially when their deaths were most likely preventable. Last week I read the preliminary report on what happened aboard Fitzgerald. It was damning and showed some systemic cultural issues that need to be fixed. I am sure that the Navy will fully investigate the incident involving McCain too, and the report will likely be just as damning. It is bad enough that the Commander of the Navy’s Seventh Fleet, to which Fitzgerald, McCain, and the cruiser Antietam which had a grounding incident near Yokosuka Japan, and the cruiser Lake Champlain which collided with a Korean fishing boat, was relieved of his command just before his scheduled retirement.
But the problem is bigger than simply relieving and replacing officers proved to be at fault in these incidents, the Navy is very good at that. The problem is that about 15 years ago the Navy shut down its Surface Warfare Officer School in Newport, Rhode Island as a cost cutting measure. Instead of going to a school after being commissioned from the Naval Academy, ROTC, or Officer Candidate School, to learn the basics of navigation, seamanship, damage control, engineering, and combats systems operations, these tasks were pushed onto the commanding officers of the ships the new officers were assigned. That began in 2002 and I remember discussing the detrimental effect this would have with fellow officers about the USS Hue City. Some 15 years later these are the officers who are becoming the commanding officers and executive officers of our ships. Most of them don’t spend enough time at sea to be truly professional mariners, and many of them spend years between sea assignments. As such they really don’t know their ships that well, the don’t know the sea that well, and as a result they have become addicted to technology at the expense of doing the basics like looking out the window and taking action to avoid collision. It comes down to in the words of my former Commanding Officer, Captain Rick Hoffman said about these incidents:
“I am feeling a sense of increasing outrage. The more I write and get replies from so many great shipmates and long time friends, the more I feel a sense of urgency to see if we can’t take these tragedies to force a larger conversation about our SWO culture…or rather the demise of the culture. Help build a path forward that restores the professionalism and focus necessary to have a strong Surface Navy. Perhaps our ships are complex enough to look at the Royal Navy model. Professionals on the bridge, professionals manning the Combat Systems, professionals manning the engineering plant. Not this mongrel program that trains everyone up to the minimum level of competence just long enough to survive your tour and go ashore. Ten years later you go back to sea…in command. I guess I am just feeling frustrated.”
It is not a matter of technology being the answer, we have amazing technology, but as one former officer wrote “Technical solutions don’t solve cultural issues. We need to refocus on our capabilities as mariners.” Captain Hoffman noted:
“I am pondering the value of sparking a larger discussion about our systemic challenges with basic maritime skills. We are ship drivers, we have technical skills but we are not mariners as a community. We don’t cherish the necessary focus on knowing and feeling the ship, the sea and the larger maritime environment. Just look out the window!!!! The CNO just called for industry to provide more solutions. THAT IS INSANE. It is the people, stupid. We have enough tools, we have forgotten how to use them. Eyeballs and brains. Engage the eyeballs and brains.”
The fact is that for more than a decade the men and women that officer our ships have been pulled many different directions, by various factors, many of our own doing. Quite a few were pulled off of ships at critical points in their career to serve in the sands of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan. Our Navy has stopped doing the basics of being professional mariners first so that they can get their ships safely from place to black and be ready to sail into harm’s way at a moment’s notice.
Until we do that we are going to keep getting sailors killed, and causing great damage to ships that cost billions of dollars in avoidable incidents.
As for me, I hope that I don’t have to make another death notification, especially for a death that needn’t happen.