By Kathi Ramo
Reprinted from the May 29, 1987 edition of The Mirror following the attack on USS Stark that took the lives of 37 Sailors.
Within the space of a split second, lives were changed. Tragedy struck half a world away and we, as a Navy community, were united as one. The loos and pain felt by the Navy as a whole seared through each one of us. But together, we gave time and energy in an effort to ease the suffering of those with loved ones about the USS Stark (FFG 31).
Just as we all remember where we were one year ago January when the shuttle Challenger exploded, killing seven astronauts, so will we always remember the news of the Stark's tragedy. Disbelief, and then grief; pain, and then tears. And ultimately, a need to reach out and attempt to lessen the grief felt by friends, neighbors and fellow Navy families.
The story at Mayport is the magnitude of giving; of the sharing and caring that was evidenced last week. Sunday
Sunday's events ripped a hole through the hearts of not only the naval community of Mayport, but of the surrounding military and civilian communities as well.
Within hours, offers of support and definitive offers of help flowed into Mayport. The tide of phone calls continued as the news became grimmer and the pain of those bereaved reached a threshold. Military families ached with the pain of their brothers and sisters; phone lines jammed with pleading voices begging, "Let me help." Family Service Center personnel logged pages of volunteers.
The Community Center on base became the gathering point as families awaited word on their loved ones aboard the Stark. Family Service Center personnel stood by, offering assistance and care. As day turned into evening, blankets and pillows arrived, donated for use y people throughout the base. Children, many unaware of the tragedy surrounding them, were kept from being idle by televisions, VCRs and videos, as well as toys.
Ombudsmen played with the children as Navy wives prepared food for other wives and families. Volunteers also manned the center - clearing tables and cleaning; providing a caring touch or a shoulder to lean on.
Away from the center, Mayport volunteers opened their homes to those needing a shower or a bed on which to lay. Childcare, transportation and administrative help were also given.
Mary White, ombudsmen assembly chairperson, said it best:
"People gave until they could give no more. Then they would go home, catch a few hours sleep, and be back at their job again, giving until exhaustion."
Chaplain Bill Perry coordinated volunteer services during the week. "There were so many offers of help that there were not enough jobs to match together," he said. "People were working out their own grief. They knew that baking cookies or a dish of food wasn't going to take away the pain of losing someone, but they hoped that the loving and caring shown by their giving would lessen it just a little bit."
Dee King, president of the USS Tattnall (DDG 19) Wives' Club, orchestrated a dinner Friday following the memorial service for the families of both the survivors and bereaved Stark Sailors.
"I was trying to think of what we could do to help," she said. "And I thought, 'What do Navy wives do well?' And it came to me - 'Of course - potluck dinners.'"
The potluck dinner Mrs. King organized and pulled off fed more than 500 men, women and children. Not only did it serve to provide food for the families, but, according to Perry, the dinner also acted as a time to talk among themselves, and to meet other family members at the conclusion of an emotionally-packed day.
Wives from the Tattnall, USS Charles F. Adams (DDG 2), USS W.S. Sims (FF 1049), USS Luce (DDG 38), USS Talbot (FFG 4), and USS Saratoga (CV 60), as well as Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadrons Light (HSL) 40 and 42, cooked and baked every type of food for the massive dinner.
Darcy's Meat Market, Publix, Winn Dixie and Flowers' Bakery donated meats and baked goods in a show of community concern. Pepsi and Walgreen's Drugs provided soft drinks, and McDonald's gave cups and orange drinks. According to Mrs. King, no commercial business refused when approached and asked for donations; they wanted to help, and they did.
Sharon Pratt, deputy equal opportunity officer at Mayport, coordinated travel arrangements for Stark family members.
"The majority of families flew into the Jacksonville airport," Ms. Pratt said. "We provided transportation from the airport to the hotel or residence; from the hotel or residence; from the hotel to the memorial service; back to the hotel after the dinner Friday; and then back to the airport for departure."
Ms. Pratt voiced the prevailing concern for family members.
"We used military men and their wives as escorts for transportation," she said. "And the volunteer escorts were terrific."
Momentous tasks were undertaken as if they were routine.
"We had a job to do, and we did it," Ms. Pratt said. "Everyone - civilian workers, military, Navy wives and community volunteers - worked together in teamwork toward the goal of helping the bereaved."
Telephones, manned 24 hours a day were answered by volunteers in shifts.
"There was a total lack of self-concern," said Ms. Pratt.
Lt. Art Catullo, officer-in-charge of Personnel Activity Support Detachment Mayport, requested duplicate copies of personnel and pay records for all those aboard the Stark. Requests were made by 8 a.m. Monday morning to ensure that pay to family members could be speedily processed.
Lee Nixon, chairman of the Armed Forces Military Affairs Committee for the Beaches branch of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, coordinated efforts to provide bereaved family members with hotel rooms during their stay in Jacksonville.
"All it took was a phone call," she said. "Howard Johnson's on the Ocean, Holiday Inn, Ramada Resort and Ramada Inn East, Sea Turtle Inn, Marriott at I-95 and the Park Suite were asked to provide 10 rooms. When that number increased to 11 and then 12, no one said a word."
In addition to orchestrating the provision of lodging, the chamber, via Southern Bell, provided Stark family member with breakfast at the Chief Petty Officers' Club the day of the memorial service.
Mrs. Nixon praised the management, saying "It wasn't until Thursday night that we informed them that there would be almost 500 people. They cooked and served the food; the waitresses were calm, quiet, and incredibly polite. Everyone just worked together beautifully."
Jacksonville has long held the positive image of being a "Navy town." The Jacksonville civilian community joined together in support of the Navy in jubilant times, such as the Saratoga's homecoming. Last week, the civilian community in Jacksonville united in sorrow and support for the families and crew members of the Stark. Civilian businesses offered to help. Transportation was offered, and civilians gave food, flowers and financial support to the Navy families. Ms. Nixon echoed accolades for her civilian coworkers, neighbors and friends saying, "We, as a community were all special people last week."
Ombudsmen from Mayport-based ships and commands gathered together to help. As the word was received of the tragedy, spontaneous gatherings of those affected and those wanting to help sprang up throughout the base and community.
While some ombudsmen provided support at the Community Center, others called the primary next of kin of survivors, assuring them that their loved ones were indeed alive and well. The effort worked, and it worked well, according to Mrs. White.
"No one had to ask twice for anything. The ombudsmen and Navy wives from other ships were there for anything needed."
One of the pivotal sources for care and professional support for Stark families was Mayport's Family Service Center. Manned around the clock to provide for families' needs, the center fielded literally hundreds of calls from prospective volunteers. Pages and pages of lists of volunteers were noted and kept. By early Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours after tragedy struck, more than 150 names had already been compiled of those begging to assist in any way possible.
"What impressed me more than anything else," said Rachel Marcus-Hendry, director of social services for Mayport's FSC, "was the selfless dedication these volunteers had for Stark families. All they ever asked was, 'When do you want this? What else can I do?'"
Ms. Marcus-Hendry spent 18 hours at the Community Center with families while awaiting word of the Stark's fate.
"There's a group of people I want recognized," she said. "The Stark wives themselves. Although each was hurt and frightened for their loved ones, they had the strength to support each other. They became one family."
She continued, "Just as they did, so did the naval station community. People were really working from their hearts."
Claudia Lovern, ombudsman for the Stark, expressed her feelings, saying, "I want to thank everyone from the bottom of my heart. Both the military and civilian communities did everything they could. They eased some of the heavy burden."
Perry summed up his feelings eloquently: "We've al been changed by the past week. How much we've been changed only time will tell. God made us to need each other, and last week we did. The outpouring of compassion and sympathy made you bow your head and thank God for the people who helped."
So the story is told. The hundreds of volunteers who gave thousands of hours. Mayport personnel who worked, without complaint, until they could stay awake no longer. The touches of caring, the questioning and concern not only for Stark families, but for our Navy family as a whole. Together we became strong, united in working to help ease another's grief.
Yes, we all cared. Yes, in our own way, we all shared. As Perry voiced, we were changed.
The moment of unity is now over and our personal lives must be begun again. As Christmas carries the message of peace and hope that fades as the season ends, so did our unity show that in a time of crisis we can become as one, working toward a common goal.
The pain of those who have lost loved ones aboard the Stark will dim only with time. The tragedy that shattered Mayport's calm Sunday afternoon will affect us all. As the massive volunteer effort dwindled, Mayport continues to remember those who gave for us. The week will act as a constant reminder in our hearts that as the Navy serves, so does the possibility of tragedy and lost exist.
Mayport workers and volunteers should seek comfort in the fact that they did, indeed, make a difference.
Although flags are now raised to their full height, Mayport will remember - not only Sunday, May 17, but also the week following- and the efforts by all that made our community one.