Many crew members of the destroyer Fitzgerald who survived the warship’s catastrophic collision with a merchant vessel last summer are experiencing post-traumatic stress after returning to sea, according to the ship’s former second-in-command.
Writing on the U.S. Naval Institute’s blog this week, former executive officer Cmdr. Sean Babbitt spoke of the lingering trauma the Fitz’s crew now face after fighting for survival and losing seven shipmates in June.
“While many of our sailors have returned to normal lives on board other ships, many have experienced relapses and manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought back by returning to sea,” Babbitt writes.
“I personally know of a number of sailors who served on board the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) who have held their hands up and said I need more help, and some of those sailors may never see a ship again.”
Babbitt also lauds the 267 surviving crew members who gave their all to save lives, and said the crew was later scattered.
“After the collision and the initial recovery period, the Navy decided it would be best to break up the crew to help the surface force recover from a spiraling manning deficit in Seventh Fleet,” Babbitt wrote.
Navy spokesman Cmdr. William Speaks said about 85 percent of the Fitz’s crew was reassigned when the ship went stateside for repairs and upgrades.
“These reassignments were not limited to units within the seventh fleet area of responsibility,” Speaks said. “This decision was based on a number of factors, including the reduced manning required for an extended maintenance availability.”
Sailors who endure such traumas must be allowed to seek help, the former XO wrote in the blog post, which will also appear in the Naval Institute’s “Proceedings” magazine.
“For many of our sailors, getting back on the horse will not be enough to pull them back where they were mentally when they went to sleep on 16 June 2017,” Babbitt wrote.
Speaks said the Navy sent a team last fall to help crew members assess crew needs and individual desires to plot the next step forward for them.
“Nothing is more important to us than the health and well-being of our people,” Speaks said. “This is why Fitzgerald sailors were also provided a post-deployment health assessment before reassignment. Providing the appropriate resources, including counseling, for mental health needs has been a top priority from the beginning.”
Babbitt expressed hope that the Navy will learn from such instances and “establish a formal program to follow these sailors as they learn to live with the aftermath of these catastrophes.”
Babbit took command of the ship and guided it back to land with the crew after the hulking MCX Crystal commercial vessel plowed into the Fitz’s starboard side, right into the quarters of the commanding officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, who was found hanging off the ship’s side.
Thirty-six Fitz shipmates received the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal in October for their efforts to save the ship.
Babbitt was relieved of his executive officer position along with commanding officer Cmdr. Bryce Benson and Command Master Chief Brice Baldwin after the June 17 collision with a merchant vessel off Japan.
Babbitt and Baldwin received nonjudicial punishment earlier this year for a dereliction in the performance of duty charge and received punitive letters of reprimand.
The Navy is seeking several charges, including negligent homicide, against Benson.
Personnel records show he is stationed with the Fitz’s parent command, 7th Fleet, in Yokosuka, Japan.
A report released last summer praised the work of the Fitz’s crew in saving lives and getting the ship back to port on its own power.
The seven sailors all drowned in their living space after the collision ripped a massive hole in the Fitz’s side.
The berthing area where the seven sailors drowned filled with water in less than 90 seconds, officials said last summer.
The Chief of Naval Operations’ comprehensive review on the incident cited basic failures in seamanship as contributing to the crash.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.