Editor’s note: My name is GM2 Jake Tyrrell, I want to share my experience and make sure others know they are not alone. If this reaches only one person, then I can be happy that I wrote it.
I was the independent duty gunner’s mate, and part of the commissioning crew, on a new Fast Response Cutter. The whole commissioning process went pretty normal for a GM who was coming from a Sector and had never been on independent duty. Due to my wife’s pregnancy, I missed the initial sail around from Key West to our homeport, but aside from that, the next six months went smoothly.
Then, during one of our patrols, I got sick and was flown home. Unfortunately, it took some time to figure out what was wrong, and even longer to treat. I got very behind on work and missed a couple of patrols. My work load doubled, electronic logs weighed heavy on my mind, as did my ever approaching first inspections. With the extra stress, I put a lot of focus on my work and stopped focusing on my family.
I’ve always been one to drop my problems at the brow every day when I go home. But, it got more difficult, and led me to lock up about my stress at home. I didn’t talk to my wife at all and kept her in the dark, and things kept getting worse. Missing patrols led to me being treated differently than everyone else aboard. Where before I was talked to, now I was ignored. And the feeling of being targeted by the command was ever present.
This all culminated to some pretty dark thoughts that I couldn’t control. I had what’s called fleeting thoughts of suicide with no intent. Basically, there was a little voice in the back of my head that told me to just get it over with and stop the stress and pain. It got to the point that the little voice even planned it out, outside my control. Thankfully, all my stress was from work. This meant that at home, even though those thoughts popped up there, I felt safer. If I didn’t have the support of my wife and kids I don’t think I would be writing this today.
I became more irritable and depressed. I couldn’t sleep, and ended up not finding joy in anything. Unfortunately, this became my new normal and I didn’t even bat an eye at it. I didn’t feel safe at work career wise. I felt like I was going to be the target of the next behind-closed-door mast. I bottled up all of the fear, anxiety, and anger for almost four months, just getting more and more worn down. My marriage suffered, my relationship with my kids suffered, and my work ethic disappeared.
But, here’s the part where it all starts to get better. During a cutter maintenance period, I vented all my frustrations to my friend GM2 Ryan Russell from the nearby Weapons Augment Team. I cracked the bottle and let a little of those feelings out. I felt slightly better, but thought nothing more of our conversation. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, Russell was working behind the scenes to find me the help I needed. He reached out to the local Force Readiness GMC, Mike Hall. They came over to my house after work together to chat with me. At that point, the bottle was fully opened and it all came out: my feelings, thoughts, and the dark side of my own head working against me.
As many Coasties would, I had assumed that if I opened up about it, I wouldn’t be a GM anymore. I would be removed permanently from guns, even possibly kicked out. But, I learned that was not the case. With some of the weight off of my shoulders, the next day, I went to see GMC and the base Chaplain. We talked for over three-and-a-half hours about how I felt and what was going on. From the moment I walked through the door, I got nothing but support, and all the fears of failing not only myself, but also my mentors, were addressed.
I told them I felt ashamed and like I was worthless because of how far I had fallen. They reminded me that my family and my health were more important than my career. But, in that moment I didn’t believe them.
After our talk, Chaps escorted me to the dreaded medical check in. Again, I was reminded that my health is important, and my family needs me. I opened up again to the doctor about everything, recounting all the things I had expressed earlier in the day. I got a referral for a psychologist, and we set that up before I left medical. The biggest part of the medical visit was to determine if I was a threat to myself. But, like I said before, I never had the intent to do anything, the thoughts just wouldn’t stop. I can honestly call myself lucky it never got to that point. I was deemed safe and the doctor called my command, and filled them in.
This is where the process really started. I went back to the boat and talked with my commanding officer. As you would guess, I was not able to go underway, yet again, and lost access to all ordnance. This really upset me. I was looking forward to the next patrol and was devastated I would miss it, but I needed help. And you can’t get help in the middle of the ocean on a patrol boat. I was also being pulled from the duty rotation and my security clearance was going to be put on hold, but I was told that I would get anything I needed. Honestly, after that I got even deeper in a depression. Everyone had to take my duty, I couldn’t get underway, and I couldn’t even do my job without supervision. I felt worthless and I was still worried that I would get kicked out, but everyone kept saying trust the process.
Then I did something I still don’t fully understand; I wrote an email to my old chief, GMC Jason Mozingo, now Chief Warrant Officer Mozingo. I wrote him and told him everything, what had happened, how I was feeling, and all the problems I had been going through. He immediately called me, and at this point I had three GMs and a Chaplain reaching out every day to check up on me. After isolation had become my normal, this all seemed so weird.
But, going to work wasn’t any easier than before. I felt like eyes were always on me, that people hated me for not doing my job, and that I was faking problems to get out of working. Pretty much the same feelings from before, but worse. Still, I kept being told to trust the process.
I had started seeing my psychiatrist and I was put on medications to help me sleep and to stave off my daily anxiety. My command initiated an administrative transfer, and for about two weeks I went through the motions. I worked on the ordnance work list and went over for talks with GMC Hall or the Chaplain every day, then called CWO Mozingo after work. I still felt like I had ruined my career and my chance in the Coast Guard, but I had a support system, and that was something.
I was sent TDY to the WAT with Russell when my cutter went underway. From the second I reported here I was supported and welcomed with open arms. I didn’t dread going to work, and truly enjoyed being there. That brings us to today. As I write this, I have officially reported to the WAT and will be here until next year. I can tell you that I feel immensely better without the additional stresses of being on the cutter.
I remind myself that the worklist will get done, and it is our responsibility to take care of ourselves first and foremost. Someone else will help get the job done, as others helped me, so don’t be afraid to focus on your own health. I am pure proof of that, as I listened and trusted the system. I had a great support group of people, and I am doing much better, but I am not out of the woods yet. Next week is my follow up with medical. I don’t know if I will be cleared to be a fire arms instructor again soon, but I hope that it will happen. My security clearance hold was also a necessary step. After my medical report, it can be cleared and my clearance will either be restored, put on hold a little while longer, or I could never get it back, but that is not the end of the world.
Please know that my problem was never with being on a boat or getting underway, it was my unique situation. I just got dealt a bad hand and got behind, and instead of reaching out I bottled it all up. Now, I know to trust the system and reach out for help no matter how I feel. The bottom line is that this service cares about us, and our careers are not worth our health or our lives. You will get help, you will find support, and you will be taken care of, all you have to do is ask.
If you are in this situation and don’t have anyone you can talk to, please reach out to me as I am always willing to help and I have been in your shoes. Not everyone’s situation may turn out the way mine did. Just remember, if you do end up getting out because the Coast Guard is just not right for you, it isn’t the end of the world. Just get better and it will all work out in the end.
Resources for Support:
The Coast Guard’s Suicide Prevention Program
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Veterans/Military Crisis Line
CG SUPRT: CG SUPRT offers a wide range of services including: counseling, health coaching, money coaching, legal services, education and career counseling, and online tools.
Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS): The mission of TAPS is to provide comfort and support to all who are grieving the loss of a loved one in military service.
Give an Hour: Free counseling for military, veterans, and their families.