As all the opinions and speculation pile up regarding what factors caused the recent mishaps at sea I feel compelled to once again offer my thoughts. But not of the John S. Mc Cain or Fitzgerald specifically, because I still believe we may find that at least one, if not both, of these accidents were nearly unavoidable, but rather my thoughts on one aspect that needs to be acknowledged.
I hesitate here also because I can imagine the absolute sickness and torment these Captains are feeling, and my skin crawls with virtually each word I type. I was close enough to my own disaster to feel their pain. And let me say that pain they're feeling is for those they had a obligation and a duty to protect. It's not pain for their professional loss; that time is so far off it may never surface. I commend their courage to assume command of a warship, knowing full-well the risk of the job, and the inescapable fact they'll be standing alone in the darkest of times, all-the-while wanting no more than to safeguard their ship and crew.
If not for the skills of my Executive Officer, then LCDR John Dorey, and my helmsman, Seaman David Luckey, our Navy would still be shaking its figurative head over how I could have lost USS Arleigh Burke to a rusty, 285 foot oiler smuggler in the North Arabian Gulf. Even with that close call I felt I had let my crew down, and for a period of time it weighed on me like an anchor.
Sure I have my own opinion of things, but for now I spend my time thinking about the families of the lost sailors, and the families of the Captains. I just ask that everyone for at least a few minutes try to imagine those now suffering.
Like each one of us, I've lost family and friends instantly to tragedy. But I've been able to stand at those services thankful for the time I had with each of them. Memories of our friendships, although still sad, bring no anguish or guilt for what might have been. For them, I am free of those chains.
But for the one night I didn't designate drive for a roommate, I lost both him and his girlfriend. That was forty years ago and I still can picture him asking me to go along with him that night. The Captains of John S. McCain and Fitzgerald will struggle with "only if" for the rest of their lives. If they can never find a way to their own forgiveness it will cheat their families of a husband and father. It's a burden that they may never rise above.
I know that just as change passes through phases, so too does grief and forgiveness. For now I'm going to think about the loss of those involved and their grief, and allow Navy's leadership to figure out what's happening with our readiness.
My roommate, Mike Pohlkamp and me. Mike was lost in a mid-air collision. He was one-of-a-kind!
During my military career, one of the things I always resented was when someone from another command, or another world criticized or second-guessed either my actions or the actions of a shipmate without firsthand knowledge of either. I’d typically tolerate the uninformed opinions until the next morning when I could confront the person by saying I had spent the previous night pouring through my cruise books desperately looking for their name or photo, ultimately unable to find either. My point was that unless they had served with me on that ship at the time of the event, they couldn’t possibly know for sure all the details that led to the accident, and would be wise to just be quiet. At least until the facts were known and made public.
I will not pretend to have a clue regarding the circumstances that led to the collisions of USS John S. McCain or USS Fitzgerald so I won’t comment on what might or might not have happened. Nor am I the guy to critique the navy’s process for training and selecting officers for command-at-sea. But what I will say is that sometimes avoiding a collision is much more difficult than you’d think. In fact, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often.
In a career that included seven ships, six of them came mere feet away from catastrophes similar to what happened on McCain and Fitzgerald. While roughly half of those near misses were the direct result of ownship negligence or poor watch-standing, the others were caused by either severe weather, low visibility, shipping density, engineering casualties, inherently risky missions in restricted waters, or some combination of those factors. Ironically, it was my tour as Executive Officer aboard John S. McCain that was the only ship on which I had no close calls.
One of my former Commanding Officers, who had previously served as President George H. W. Bush’s naval aide, had an expression he’d say in the wake of an accident; and that was, “It’s a short walk from the White House to the Outhouse.” He said that not to ridicule those involved in the accident, rather it was meant to illuminate the line, the very small line, between success and failure.
Every (and I do mean “every”) post-accident investigation will identify mistakes, either in training and/or execution, that led to the incident. Something has to be identified because no one learns anything from saying that sometimes things just happen, especially when lives are lost. And I'll grant you that most times we did miss something that would have prevented the accident. But sometimes, where multiple and diverse factors beyond our control come in to play at the same time, during an already inherently risky endeavor - tragic accidents happen.
I have no idea what happened on John S. McCain or Fitzgerald. But what I do know, is that the need to know what caused the accident, although vital to moving forward, is not mine. And quite honestly, thinking about it makes me sick to my stomach for everyone involved, especially those families that do have a need to know what happened to their loved ones.