Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sailor, Rest Your Oar

My blog posts over the past couple of weeks have been devoted to documenting our trip across country, but I need to take a break from the travel log in order to pay my respects to two fellow submariners.

For those of my family and friends who may not have seen it in the news or read other submariner blogs, the submarine force has lost two shipmates recently.

First, CDR Scott Harrington lost his battle with cancer on Saturday, 13 Sept. I did not know him personally, but I have heard from multiple independent sources that he was an outstanding naval officer and a truly wonderful person to be around. You can read more about him at Checks with Chart or on TSSBP.

Then, MM3(SS) Michael Gentile tragically lost his life in an accident on board USS NEBRASKA (SSBN 739) on Saturday, 20 Sept. There are many posts about this on other blogs. TSSBP has details and a lot of discussion in the comments. Checks with Chart actually sheds some light on another aspect of the accident that has been going through my mind since I heard the news of the accident on Monday. I'd like to elaborate on that a little.

Before I talk about that though, I just want to offer my sincerest condolensces to both CDR Harrington's family and to MM3 Gentile's family. You are in my thoughts and prayers.

As CwC alluded to, the men on the NEBRASKA will now face a difficult experience that is almost as emotionally traumatic as the accident itself. Anytime there is an major accident in the Navy such as a collision or a grounding or a loss of life, there are normally two investigations that follow. (I've been through two such incidents myself).

The first investigation is the legal investigation called a "JAGMAN" (Judge Advocate General or JAG Manual). This investigation has a lot of legalities, reading people their rights, and strictly examines factual evidence (logs, plotted data, photographs, official statements of what people did) in order to determine if anyone had any sort of criminal culpability. The JAGMAN determines if anyone should be punished for their actions that contributed to the accident, and it's actually the easier of the two investigations.

After the JAGMAN is done, then comes the really hard part - the Safety Investigation. The goal of the safety investigation is to find out what policies, procedures, equipment, or training could have prevented the accident from occurring.

As a result, the interviewers from the Naval Safety Center come across as abbrasive, insensitive "arm-chair quarterbacks" asking a lot of "what if" statements. They ask a lot of really emotionally disturbing questions like, "Why didn't you do this? Why didn't you do that? Did you think of this? Were you trained on that? IF you had done it this way, would the accident have happened? IF you had done it that way, would the accident have happened?" They cause you to relive the accident over and over again and to second guess yourself backwards and forwards with 20/20 hindsight. Statements gathered for the safety investigation cannot be used for criminal prosecution because they want frank and honest opinions (that could not stand up to the rules of evidence) to really get thought processes out in the open. Then, the safety board guys actually have the power to make the Navy change policies, change procedures, buy new equipment, or create new training requirements in order to prevent accidents from recurring.

Now, when the investigation is for something like a grounding or a collision where nobody got hurt, the safety investigation is frustrating and annoying and stressful, especially for those people who lost their jobs or were otherwise officially punished for the accident.

When the investigation is for something that cost a shipmate's life, it is absolutely heart-wrenching and emotionally draining to have someone who wasn't there sit across the table from you and ask, "Why didn't you do X, Y, and Z differently, and in your opinion, if you had done X, Y, and Z differently, would your shipmate still be alive today?"

CwC superbly summarized this.
"What’s worse is trying to deal with the pain as the Navy conducts its necessary investigations to determine what went wrong and how to prevent it from ever occurring again. Lots of our procedures are written in blood because of, and thanks to, these very necessary proceedings.

It won’t be easy, but it must be done. My thoughts go out to the Sailor’s family and friends, and to the Crew of NEBRASKA for the trial they have endured, and for those to come."

You're absolutely right, FastNav, it must be done so that we can prevent more lives from being lost, and it's not going to be easy.

So in addition to the families of CDR Harrington and MM3 Gentile, please keep the officers and crew of the NEBRASKA in your thoughts and prayers as they both grieve for their fallen shipmate as well as face the ordeal of reliving the accident through the investigation.

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