This is a hard essay to write.
It is admittedly an awkward attempt to distill a lesson from a tragedy in order to apply it to a far larger problem facing our nation. In the navy, sailors are taught a simple dictum: ship, shipmate, self. Those are your priorities, in that order. Place your ship and your fellow sailors before your own individual needs. At 1:30 a.m. on June 17, 2017, this rule was tested as the container ship ACX Crystal impacted the destroyer USS Fitzgerald, opening a thirteen by seventeen-foot hole in the side of the ship, flooding a berthing space where thirty-five members of the Fitzgerald’s crew lay sleeping. The impact awakened some of the crew, others slept through the experience, only to be jarred from sleep by shouts of “Water on Deck!” and “Get out!” moments later. Cold sea water poured into the room in a torrent. The accident report stated that senior sailors assigned to the berthing space quickly checked for shipmates who still might be asleep in their beds. Later individual accounts stated that by the time the third sailor to exit the berthing area arrived at the ladder leading up out of the space, the water was already waist deep.
It is difficult to convey the mayhem that must have existed in the space. At the hour of the accident, the room was lit only by a red light in an attempt to preserve the night vision of people proceeding on watch, but the collision had knocked even that dim light out of service. Battle lanterns automatically came on, but their light was limited. Debris, mattresses, chairs, tables and personal effects began to float and block sailors in their efforts to reach safety. Additionally, the ship had begun to list immediately following the collision, a condition that increased as flooding spread into the hull and sailors found themselves struggling against the tilting deck. Still, the accident report reveals that the men lined up in an orderly fashion to exit the space through the port side hatch, which was a horizontal door at the top of a stair. The crew had to escape through a round hole no more than thirty inches in diameter . By this time surviving sailors reported that they were up to their necks in water, yet they remained calm. Two senior sailors positioned themselves at either side of the stair to assist people until they were forced out of the compartment themselves. Once outside the hatch, they continued to search with lights down into the dark gushing water, pulling two additional shipmates out even as the water began to surge through the hatch. The last sailor pulled from the space had bloodshot eyes and retched up water from his already partially filled lungs. Then the sailors had to make the hard decision.
The ship was already listing as water poured in through the crushed hull. If the flooding continued to spread, the list would increase, possibly resulting in the entire ship foundering and sinking, resulting in many more deaths. Yet, these sailors knew that there were other shipmates still in the compartment. They knew that Fire Controlman First Class Gary Rehm, who had already saved one sailor in the compartment from being trapped under debris, had gone to search for more of “his kids” and there were other great American sailors missing as well. It would have been easy to leave the hatch open a bit longer, to hope that others would come out of the now water filled space. Further delay risked the lives of the entire crew, so the sailors made the tough decision, and closed the hatch, attempting to lock it shut. In hindsight, every professional mariner knows they made the right call, but no one knows or can take away the nightmares will haunt them for taking that awful responsibility.
Why is this important? Beyond the sadness, pride and hope that someone gets both recognition and help in dealing with the aftermath of assuming such a burden, this example also points to a broader lesson that is illuminating within our civil-military relations. Ship, shipmate, self is well understood by the other military services. They each have their own high traditions of sacrifice and service and more broadly the dictum can be converted into nation, citizens, service members as soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are taught from basic training onward to place the nation and its citizens before their individual needs and to be prepared to take heavy responsibilities upon themselves. In short, the military understands how to make the hard calls, to accept some losses now in an attempt to avoid catastrophe later. So, when a senior military member tells you that war with North Korea is “ not unimaginable ,” counter to statements from so many prior administration officials , or the secretary of defense stating, “Any threat to the United States… will be met with a massive military response,” you can believe they are imagining it in all its gruesome detail.