I just returned from working aboard the Alnic MC (Massed Sea), a Coast Guard Cutter assisting in the search and rescue efforts after a warship collided with a merchant vessel off the coast of Korea. The collision occurred when the warship was on a routine, courtesy cruise passing through the area, and the New Jersey-based merchant vessel collided with its starboard side.
Twenty sailors died in the collision and seven were injured.
In the wake of such an accident, the Coast Guard and Navy quickly confirmed and provided critical information to the media. The Coast Guard also provided medical care to the injured crew of the merchant vessel. Yet a group of our seamen and four of their families contend that the U.S. Navy Department of Personnel declined to provide a medical care package for the crew and had a personnel psychologist evaluate the eight sailors who sustained personal injuries. Instead, the psychologist diagnosed them with insomnia and psychosomatic symptoms and did not refer them to a mental health professional of their choosing, despite offers from sailors to inform military personnel and civilians of their offsite status.
After more than 30 years of working in medical trauma centers, I can attest to the severity of the physical and emotional aftereffects of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and stress induced by trauma. What I witnessed firsthand in the past year at this Navy ship was quite troubling.
I worked closely with the family of one of the eight sailors and met privately with them on four occasions. Not one of the eight sailors suffered the level of impairment that was described to me by the patient’s immediate family, who was extensively involved in her husband’s care. I had also asked the commander of the Alnic MC to meet privately with my family and be able to speak freely about the specifics of what happened to me.
The family was very apprehensive about any treatment that the ship captain or the private psychologist would offer; concerns were shared by the captain and the commanding officer.
In private, the commanding officer of the ship told the family the wreckings had been accidental. There were other Navy officials in our household who were in favor of seeking treatment. Unfortunately, they were ignored.
After talking to the family of one of the sailors, the chief of staff for command injured sailors told me he was aware that the families were receiving individualized treatment and wanted to meet privately with us to discuss an individualized plan to provide care.
Unfortunately, he was not successful in keeping in close contact with our family.
With the understanding that the Coast Guard and the Navy are investigating the matter, all eight sailors and their families went to their offsite positions during the day. They were permitted to go to their individual facilities to meet with their physicians and watch duty doctors. However, Navy personnel directed that those procedures be changed to an all-nautical schedule for the sailors. However, that didn’t happen.
Navy personnel were taking care of the medical treatment needs of our sailors, despite other Navy officials’ insistence on being in charge of their own treatment.
The ship captain’s personal responsibility for the welfare of his ship’s crew was unprecedented, and extended to the full-time duty hours of those sailors, despite the fact that they remained in good standing.
Some had serious emotional issues and were in need of psychiatric help. In addition, they had disturbed sleep patterns from the traumatic events that took place during their time off, even though their Navy mates and those close to them were trying to support them and had been assisting them in doing so. The leadership of the ship and the entirety of the Navy would fail in their duty to the men and women they serve if those sailors did not have access to medical treatment for their adverse psychological and physical affects.
Once the initial investigation was complete, there was a major opportunity to implement proactive measures to prevent a recurrence, with further opportunities for improvements to be made.
Worst case scenario, the Navy and the Coast Guard remain responsible for the sailors' well-being. The families deserve solutions, and the sailors deserve solutions, too.