Paying the last full measure of devotion on the USS Fitzgerald

When I recently wrote about the collision involving the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and some of the events which had most likely taken place out there on the ocean in the dark of night, it was a difficult piece for me to finish. Having spent my fair share of time at sea with the United States Navy I went through some similar experiences myself and worked with friends who had been through worse. Now some of the details of what went on that night off the coast of Japan are being released and one of them is particularly heartbreaking, while still inspirational in the most noble traditions of our military. And it’s a story worth everyone’s attention.

While I don’t normally engage in the practice of issuing “trigger warnings” in the way they are frequently employed on college campuses these days, I do want to caution readers in advance. This story is real and it deals with some very harsh facts of life… and death… on a warship at sea. It may be a bit much for those with more delicate sensibilities.

Business Insider has the recently revealed details provided by survivors of the collision, dealing in particular with the case of Fire Controlman 1st Class Gary Leo Rehm Jr. who was among the seven sailors who were lost. But his was not a story of someone who was caught unawares while sleeping in the berthing compartment at the time of the crash. Petty Officer Rehm was put to the ultimate test on that night and he passed it in a way that few of us could ever envision.

When the Fitzgerald collided with the merchant ship, 37-year-old Fire Controlman 1st Class Gary Leo Rehm Jr., “leapt into action,” according to The Daily Beast.

The Fitzgerald was struck below the waterline, and Rehm Jr.’s family was told by the Navy that he went under and saved at least 20 sailors, according to WBNS-10TV in Columbus, Ohio.

But when he went back down to get the other six sailors, the ship began to take on too much water, and the hatch was closed, WBNS-10TV said.

“That was Gary to a T,” Rehm Jr.’s friend Christopher Garguilo, told NBC4i in Columbus, Ohio. β€œHe never thought about himself.”

That’s a somewhat antiseptic description, particularly for those without experience on naval vessels. As I described in my previous article, a warship at sea experiencing either fire or flooding conditions results in an environment below decks which is as close as you’ll likely come to hell on Earth. It’s cramped, frequently dark and the sounds, smells and sights can be overpowering. When there is flooding taking place, the immediate, imperative goal is to stop the water from entering the ship before she goes down taking all onboard with her.

Petty Officer Rehm was someone who was up topside at one point as the emergency unfolded. He had “made it” to where there was fresh air and the chance to escape if the ship wound up foundering. He could have chosen to stay there. He could have bailed out. But he didn’t. He went back down below decks into that hellscape of flooding and blaring alarms to rescue his crewmates. He did so repeatedly, saving twenty of them. But his last trip to get the remaining men was one too many.

During a flooding emergency as I described above there are a number of actions which the Damage Control (DC) team will attempt, depending on the conditions. There are patches which can be applied to the rupture in the hull, jammed into place even as the ocean is rushing in and stiffened with jacks. There are portable pumps which are rushed into the flooding compartments to try to evacuate the water as seals are established. But if all that fails there eventually comes a time when the order is given to “Set Zebra.” That’s your final line of defense. There are watertight bulkheads throughout the ship with hatches allowing the crew to cross from one area to the next. If you can’t stop the flooding at the hull, you locate the nearest watertight bulkheads and you close and dog down those hatches. You allow the spaces on the other side to flood in the interest of keeping the rest of the ship afloat. And yes, sometimes you have to follow that order even when there are living souls on the other side. It’s a question of saving the ship and the rest of the crew. You just do it.

Petty Officer Rehm went repeatedly into that flooding zone to rescue his shipmates, obviously being aware that they could set Zebra at any time. They did, and he was on the wrong side of the bulkhead. A truly horrifying way to go, but he fought to save his crewmates to the very last. Few of us can contemplate what those final moments would have been like and we might all be left wondering if we ourselves could have found the inner strength to make that last trip as he did.

Even though this was not an event which took place during battle, Petty Officer First Class Gary Leo Rehm Jr. sacrificed his life and died the death of a hero. His name should be added to the list of sailors who will have ships of the line named after them in the future. And a posthumous award for his unbelievable bravery, devotion and sacrifice would not be out of order. God Bless and rest in peace, Petty Officer Rehm. Few of us will ever match your mettle.