On 29 December, while leaving Plymouth England, the USS Minneapolis-St. Paul (SSN-708) took a wave over her topside deck and 4 sailors were washed overboard. Two sustained minor injuries. Two, Senior Chief Thomas E. Higgins, and Petty Officer Second Class Michael J. Holtz, were killed in the accident.
A good friend of mine recently reported aboard as the Executive Officer (XO) of this ship. This was his first underway. XO's are either directing traffic in the control room of the sub, providing mentoring and oversight to ensure the ship safely pilots out of the harbor, or they are topside, supervising linehandling and ensuring that dangerous evolution is conducted safely. Naturally I was concerned that he might be one of the men who died. Thankfully he wasn't.
The sea is a harsh taskmaster. Those of us who work on or near the sea know you learn how to do things right the first time. Disregard the lessons you are taught at your own peril. Sometimes you can do everything right and still find yourself in a death struggle with the unforgiving ocean. In a battle against King Neptune, he usually wins. Only the very lucky (or truly foolish) survive and get a second chance.
The Navy is conducting an investigation into what happened. I will not speculate on what mistakes were made last Friday. I will not speculate on who is at fault. And I will not disparage the memory of the two men who died by implying they made a mistake.
I will say, however, that I am appalled at the virtual lack of interest this tragedy received in our open press. Both foxnews.com and cnn.com dutifully reported the accident, but neither bothered to follow up their initial stories with the names of these men once released. I went to the Chief of Naval Information website to find out - I wanted to know if my friend was alright, and I wanted to see if I knew either of the two men who died. You see, I too am a member of this fraternity, having earned my Dolphins aboard USS Puffer (SSN-652) in 1994.
They didn't die in Iraq, but they did die in the service of our country. And they deserve to be known to their countrymen, for they have made the ultimate sacrifice to keep our nation free. They were forward deployed on their ship, standing watch, mentoring young crewmembers, constantly striving to improve their knowledge of their ship so to better fight it when the need came (be it either battle or casualty). They were separated from their families and loved ones, sleeping in a 75" by 40" rack with a locker under their mattress and, if they were lucky, another locker in their berthing area somewhere they could store personal items. Prisoners in this country have better amenities than our servicemen on ships (this is the nature of the warship - its designed to fight, not for creature comfort, but warrants mentioning).
Darrent Williams died this morning, and we will hear/see numerous stories in the coming days on how good a man he was, and what a tragedy his death is. Senior Chief Higgins and PO2 Holtz died doing something infinitely more difficult than playing cornerback for the Denver Broncos, and nothing more will be said about them. They will be forgotten, unless you live in Paducah KY or Cleveland OH. Maybe.
But I won't forget.
Gentlemen: my thanks to you for your service. My heart goes out to your families. I pray my Navy learns enough from this event to prevent its recurrence in the future.