If he was going to survive the Fitzgerald collision, the sailor knew he would have to swim for it.

It was 1:30 a.m. on June 17, 2017, and a massive merchant vessel had just ripped a cruel gouge into the right side of the destroyer as it steamed off the Japanese coast.

The sea poured through that massive hole and into his living quarters, hitting the ceiling in about a minute.

Amidst a curse of unwieldy, waterborne debris, the sailor took what might have been his last gulp of air and went under, swimming for about 10 seconds until he reached the safety of the hatch and higher ground.

banner for one year later

He took a moment to collect himself, then went to his station and did his part to save the ship.

Most of the sailors on the deck made it out, but seven friends and shipmates could not escape the flood.

Xavier Martin, Dakota Rigsby, Shingo Douglass, Tan Huynh, Noe Hernandez, Carlos Sibayan and Gary Rehm were lost.

Cmdr. Sean Babbitt was the ship’s second in command that day and was grabbing a few hours’ sleep at the time.

He had been on board for less than 100 days.

A year later, he remembers it all in “flashes and moments.”

The collision shook everything, and “I woke up with my television in my lap,” he said recently.

Other random memories come to mind. A barefooted sailor tending to the wounded and asking for boots. A group of midshipmen on their first underway, huddled on the deck in their life jackets.

“I remember the stark scene of looking over the starboard bridgewing for the first time, seeing the twisted metal and spraying water,” Babbitt said.

But he mostly recalls the quiet capability of the crew, men and women from the engineers to the bucket brigade who shook off the shock, remembered their training and got the ship back to land.

The Fighting Fitz’s most tragic hour also became one of its finest.

A year later, the disaster has shaken Big Navy to its institutional core and dropped family members in a fog of grief that will never fully lift.

It has also left lingering trauma among some of the crew who survived that day, hundreds of sailors who have since been scattered to other commands and left without the close-hold support of shipmates who had been there.

“The crew is still hurting,” Babbitt said.

‘The same as it’s always been’

The sailor who swam for it asked to remain anonymous because the Navy has not authorized him to discuss his experience.

He mourns his shipmates, yet still loves the sea, his job and the Fitz. But sleep is rare, and he feels “really high levels of anxiety” around his new ship on some days.

“It’s not helping much since June 17 is around the corner,” he told Navy Times recently.

Babbitt said the sailor is not alone in his post-traumatic stress and that the crew will need help for some time.

“Long-term mental health care is needed for everyone who was there that day, even if they are showing no signs of trauma,” he said. “I hope the Navy recognizes this and puts a system in place to track all of us and follow up years down the road.”

The Fitz fell under the Yokosuka, Japan-based 7th Fleet, a command that has come under fire for a bruising operational tempo that left little time for training and maintenance.

The sailor said shipmates started informal support groups after the collision.

“We try to maintain, and we tend to gravitate back to our Fitz crowd when we get together,” the sailor said. “The Fitz is still very much alive and well in Yokosuka, even if our ship isn’t here with us.”

Fitz sailors have since been scattered across the service.

About 85 percent of the ship’s 267 surviving crew members were reassigned after the collision, scattering them to other commands that had not shared the same harrowing experience.

The sailor said he wanted to stay with the Fitz and even volunteered.

“But that decision was made way above our heads and we got cross-decked and hull-swapped to different platforms in 7th Fleet,” he said.

Babbitt fears it could hurt their ability to recover.

In a piece this year for Proceedings magazine, he accused the Navy of reassigning the crew to help fix “a spiraling manning deficit” in 7th Fleet.

“Breaking them up to fill holes on the 7th Fleet waterfront was wrong,” he said in an interview. “We had a strong crew who became very tight in the aftermath and who relied on each other to pull them through daily.”

Navy officials said earlier this year that the reassignments were not limited to 7th Fleet waters and that the Fitz did not need as many sailors as it underwent repairs in Mississippi.

The Navy sent a team last fall to help crew members assess their needs and plot the next steps.

“Nothing is more important to us than the health and well-being of our people,” spokesman Cmdr. William Speaks said in March. “Providing the appropriate resources, including counseling for mental health needs, has been a top priority from the beginning.”

But in the sailor’s opinion, all that talk from on high didn’t always trickle down to the waterfront.

“Big Navy says they’re helping and they put on a face and say things will change or X and Y will happen,” he said. “But it doesn’t and then it falls back to the ships and the ships say, ‘We can’t support/doesn’t fit the op tempo’ ― the same as it’s always been in 7th Fleet.”

‘I’m a sailor’

Despite the traumatic memories and the anxiety, the sailor said he can’t wait to get out there again.

It was his first ship. A great crew and other good things outweighed the bad things, like BBQ beef cubes for dinner.

Life in berthing was crowded, but they horsed around when off duty and watched “Pitch Perfect 2” over and over.

He learned that a good berthing life requires certain things.

“Making sure everyone showers up and does their laundry,” he said. “Febreze is a lifesaver.”

This is what the sailor does.

“I’ll be a little nervous and might not sleep the same, but I’m a sailor,” he said. “I didn’t join the Navy to sit on my ass. I joined to get out on the ocean and do my job.”

Babbitt was reassigned to a 7th Fleet staff position after he and the rest of the command triad were fired.

He later received non-judicial punishment on a dereliction of duty charge and was transferred out of 7th Fleet in May.

The Fitz’s skipper, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, was sleeping when the ACX Crystal container ship plowed into his room.

Crew pried his door open and were greeted by the night sky as Benson hung off the ship’s side.

The Navy plans to court-martial him on charges that include negligent homicide.

Babbitt called the past year “the most difficult, agonizing, and rewarding in my life.”

“Being exposed to the aftermath of the collision every day in staff meetings and my job (I built a lot of briefs for the Admiral to give on post collision actions) was agonizing,” he said in an email.

Still, he was grateful to be in a position where he could try and aid his former crew.

Thirty-six Fitz shipmates received the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal in October after putting the ship before shipmate and self that day.

“I am immensely proud to have led them on that day and the weeks after, as we struggled to understand what happened,” Babbitt said. “I am also immensely proud of the crew for how they have handled the rough seas around them.”

Geoff is the editor of Navy Times, but he still loves writing stories. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at geoffz@militarytimes.com.

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