Conversations with a Cruiser CO

Conversations with a Cruiser CO:  Operational Stress Control at Sea, Part 1

As Commanding Officer of a Cruiser, I was briefed on Operational Stress Control at PCO training in Newport. It was presented mostly in the context of ground forces and IA returnees and not on sea going Sailors. As a veteran of several six-month deployments, I did not consider implementing a program on board my ship to be necessary.

Looking back at our most recent seven month cruise however, I am now more of the opinion that this program has a place at sea. During our deployment, several crewmembers were medevac’d with serious psychological issues, ranging from one Sailor who was catatonic to another who discussed suicide plans in detail.  Immediate care and treatment of these individuals was difficult due to our distance from port or any large deck ships.  It also posed a serious issue for the crew with operational implications because we were pulled off station to conduct medevac.

There were also other non-medical cases that came up during the deployment, all of which were handled by our Independent Duty Corpsman. His advice proved to be very sound even though the issues were outside his normal duties. There were three cases of sexual assault, and two of alcohol related incidents that resulted in program failure and separation, and related to anger and stress.

As we passed the six month point, it became apparent that several Officers and CPO’s were experiencing marriage difficulties. Looking back, I can now see that issues related to this deployment were different than the deployments I’ve known in the past and may have been aggravated, in part, due to the following:

– Deployment Length. Clearly the six month “cap” on deployments has been removed due to force constraints and operational commitments. A seven month deployment may not seem to be much more than a six month one, but emotionally seemed to present a barrier that was difficult for many to face as we neared the final months. It was surprising to me during the final 30 days or so how many crew members expressed the sentiment “All I want to do is survive the rest of the cruise and just get home” when asked “How is it going?”

– Manning. We experienced several manning gaps during the deployment. Four divisions were missing Chief Petty Officers, and there were 9 Individual Augmentees. Seaman manning was as low as 25% (5 for 20) and many key divisions were below 80%. I have attended many meetings where such shortages were described as “minor” but I think a huge issue is ignored in these discussions. If a work center has 4 people and 1 is sent on an IA, the impact is not spread among the 350 man crew. It is shared by the other 3 Sailors in that work center, and results in increasing their workload by 25%. This increases the Navy standard 70 hour workweek by 17 hours to 87 for all three Sailors. The same effect can be calculated in some technical work centers, where the PMS man-hours alone (which normally drive the work center manning) are spread among fewer personnel.  In some work centers (small arms, CIWS), this number exceeded 100 hrs/week per man. In the case of the ship’s Barber, 1 of 2 was sent on an IA, leaving only one person to cut hair for a 350 man crew. If everyone gets a haircut every two weeks, and a haircut takes 20 minutes, this equates to essentially continuous haircuts for 8 hours a day every day of the week, with no accounting for other duties like damage control training, drills, evolutions, or cleaning. For that barber, his workload was increased by precisely 50 percent. I believe that the actual effects of manning shortages on individual work centers and the resulting stresses have been hidden when calculations are made using the size of the entire crew as the denominator.

Sometimes these issues are viewed as minor, but they can significantly increase stress within the crew and affect overall mission effectiveness.  So what is the answer?  The truth is there may not be just one answer, but we did implement several programs to help mitigate these issues which I’ll talk about in a future blog post.  Stay tuned!

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