C.I.S.M: Helping the Heroes

By Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Evanson

Imagine a being young man or woman in high school mowing lawns in the community, and while mowing a neighbor’s lawn you encounter a dead body. Visualize being a waiter at an upscale restaurant when a car accident occurs and victims need help escaping flames with gasoline leaking on the asphalt. These hyperboles paint a scary picture of something you may see in a movie, but not in real life. Young people traditionally are not expected to witness such things. However, young men and women barely out of high school do join the Coast Guard, and as their job description changes, so does the graphic nature of their lives.

The Coast Guard is and will always be a service that responds to tragedy. Notorious plane crashes like TWA Flight 800 and Alaska Airlines Flight 261, natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, represent the horrific extremes handled by the Coast Guard. Yet the majority of cases involving devastation, injury and death are the kind that Coast Guardsmen deal with everyday. Many cases often go unnoticed in the public eye because they are routine and do not carry a major headline presence of the more noteworthy responses in Coast Guard history. To deal with psychological response of Coast Guard operations, the service has in place an important program designed to address potential mental health issues of Coast Guard men and women performing missions in traumatic situations.

The program is the Critical Incident Stress Management, otherwise known as CISM. It is a comprehensive system of services and programs designed to achieve several objectives such as preventing and alleviating the symptoms of traumatic stress disorder. Critical Incident Stress Management exists for Coast Guard crews that encounter a line of duty death or serious injury, multi-casualty incident or disaster, significant events involving children, suicide, acts of terrorism, search and rescue cases involving serious injury or loss of life, and victims of violent crimes.

“CISM is a great field of study and very important to the Coast Guard’s men and women and their ability to cope,” said Capt. Robert Marshall, Chaplain for the Coast Guard Atlantic Area. “The Coast Guard carries out every day what it trains to do, and Coast Guardsmen deal daily with real life and death issues,” he added.

As is often the case, Coast Guard men and women leap when the SAR alarm goes off thinking solely of the mission.

Boat crews and flight crews alike launch and do what they do best, saving lives without considering personal feelings or state of mind. When a case is over and Coasties have time to decompress and reflect on what they just participated in, what goes on in the mind of the individual?

“CISM was established so Coast Guardsmen could process the horrible stuff they are exposed to in the course of their jobs,” said John Reibling, Employee Assistance Program Manager at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

For example, the sight of a deceased person can have traumatic effects on people. Imagine finding not just a body, but, several bodies; young, old, and possibly distorted. It is troublesome to think of, but it is reality. There is no sugarcoating the work of the Coast Guard. The job description deals with personal tragedy everyday, and Coast Guard crews must do it. CISM helps them deal with it.

“My experience with CISM has been pretty positive over the years,” said Chief Petty Officer Jeffery Ryan, Executive Petty Officer of Coast Guard Station Little Creek in Norfolk, Va.

Ryan’s first experience with CISM came in 1996 as a petty officer 2nd class, during a patrol in the Mona Passage, the body of water between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. “We had been patrolling for a couple of days looking for migrant yola [fishing boat] going from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico. On about our third day of patrol we intercepted the boat with 75 people onboard,” said Ryan.

After refusing to stop, the small fishing boat tried to evade the Coast Guard with drastic results. The boat capsized  altering the cutter’s law enforcement case to a recovery mission.  “The crew began recovering people from the water and in the process one woman who was very weak and dehydrated drowned and a number of the crew observed it,” said Ryan. After the woman was recovered, the emergency medical technician (EMT) onboard spent more than 45 minutes trying to revive her with negative results.  “This event had a traumatic effect on the crew and their morale,” said Ryan. After this event a CISM team from San Juan, Puerto Rico, met with the crew.

“The CISM Team consisted of a psychiatrist, a couple of nurses and a chaplain, and they explained their purpose and how people deal with issues like ours differently,” said Ryan. “I personally did not want to talk to anyone; my response was to go bury myself in work and try to forget what I had seen.”

So why does the Coast Guard need CISM? Statistics clearly justify the value of the program. In FY-2006, not counting the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which by itself involved one of the largest CISM responses in Coast Guard history,
Coast Guardsmen responded to several other critical incidents involving injury or death. In 2006, 21 operational mishaps were reported that resulted in injury. Coast Guard crews responded to 95 incidents that included injury or death of civilians during search and rescue or recovery cases. There were 11 reported incidents of injuries or death sustained by Coast Guardsmen unrelated to their operational duties, and 12 reported incidents of injuries or death were sustained by dependents or other family members of Coast Guardsmen.

“You can see that recovery operations are by far the largest category involving CISM assistance,” said Reibling.

The members who proudly wear the uniform are no different from the teenager working at Dairy Queen or a stockbroker selling futures at the stock exchange. We bleed the same blood, cry the same tears, and laugh the same laughs. The uniform does not provide a cloak of invincibility. Coast Guardsmen are affected the same from the tragic elements of life just like civilians are.

“CISM is a natural extension of the Coat Guard’s humanitarian mission,” said Reibling, “Leaders want to take care of their people and this is a tool to help them do that.”

Reibling knows first hand the power of CISM. In the late 1960’s, he was serving as an enlisted Marine deployed to Vietnam witnessing the carnage of war first hand. “For about 8 months of my tour in Vietnam as a Marine in 1966-67, I was attached to a Medical company in Dong Ha, often carrying the wounded and dead,” he said. “If we had something like CISM or if a Chaplain or a senior member gave us an opportunity to talk about what we were experiencing, things would have been far different”.

The CISM program was officially instituted as Coast Guard policy in 1999. Today the program consists of 700 available CISM-trained volunteers at any time ready to respond if called.  The Coast Guard has 33 Navy Chaplains assigned throughout the country who have the ability to respond at a moment’s notice. “75 percent of all critical incidents in the Coast Guard involve rescue and body recovery missions,” said Reibling. It is important for Coast Guardsmen to know about this program, and know that help is available, he added. “When stuff happens it is okay to talk about it and it is normal to have a reaction.  CISM can help you get over it,” he said.

“As a future officer in charge my early exposure to CISM has made me aware of the benefits of using it,” said Ryan. “Many of our younger members have never been exposed to some of the unfortunate and often unexpected situations we are expected to react to.  Myself I was raised in a small farm town in Ohio where there was very little exposure to the dramatic,” he added.

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