JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR HICKAM, Hawaii - Years of constant training, separation from family, long deployments and work-ups or even misconceptions can lead even the best submariners down a terrifying and lonely state of mental illness in a submarine community historically known as the silent service.
Two hospital corpsmen, loaned from the Makalapa Clinic in Pearl Harbor, schedule daily visits and client hours to the boats and her crews, from Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet (COMSUBPAC), to identify and educate Sailors with various psychiatric illnesses in Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Seth Sweger and Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Michael D. Vance, behavioral health technicians (BHT), rotate their time between the Makalapa Clinic and COMSUBPAC to work closely with submariners to educate them about mental wellness.
"We assist Sailors with everything from depression, anxiety, anger, relationship issues, work stress, loss of a loved one and sleep hygiene," Sweger said. "A large portion of our job is education, but we're also there in case a Sailor wants to blow off steam."
The COMSUBPAC wellness program stemmed from a pilot program from the submarine community on the East Coast lead by Brian McCue, Ph.D., Center for Naval Analyses Representative, Commander, Submarine Force Atlantic.
"Historically, there has been a separation between operational commands and mental health providers," said McCue in a July 29, 2015 Mental Health Pilot Program Final Report to Submarine Squadron Six. "Decisions impacting fitness for duty were based only on the service member's subjective report, without the benefit of command input or appropriate collateral information such as behavioral observations."
Since January 4, 2016, Sweger and Vance have mirrored the pilot program and split their time on boats and client hours at their temporary office at the Naval Submarine Support Command office in Pearl Harbor.
"Submariners have a high level of resiliency, and it's finding those outliers," Sweger said. "The guys, if you're looking at the stress continuum, who are in the yellow or orange and seeing what we can do to stop them from hitting the red."
For Vance, serving the submarine community is more than a job. It's feeling that he's making a difference in improving the lives of Sailors.
"I joined this field because I wanted to help people," said Vance. "I get to make a difference whenever a person comes to see me. I can change their viewpoint on life, and make them feel a little bit better about their situation."
The wellness program offers confidential assistance in line with services offered by Navy chaplains. Disclosed information is restricted unless there are red flags concerning self-infliction and/or harm to others.
"They have a stigma that if you go see mental health, then you're going to be removed from the boat," Sweger said. "That if you do, it's going to hurt the rest of the crew. They keep struggling, they keep fighting on doing their work until they break and then they have to be removed."
Selected hospital corpsmen are pipelined into the Behavioral Health Technician "C" school for four months. Training includes three months of practicing in-take interviews, doctoral notes and diagnosis manuals for psychiatric diagnosis and a month of clinical apprenticeship at an in-patient psychiatry or hospital.
For Sweger and Vance, the goal of the wellness program is to continue their work at COMSUBPAC until permanent billets are created and filled by qualified BHTs, along with a permanent on-site provider, to continue the much appreciated work these BHTs are providing to the submarine community.
"If you have some things going and you're stressed out, please put me to work," Sweger said. "I love what I do, I love helping these guys, and I love talking to the submarine community."