Think before you drink
On the Thursday before Memorial Day, Cmdr. Mike Polito sat in the front pew of All Saints Chapel at Naval Air Station Jacksonville.
Sunlight shone down from the windows along the eastern wall, illuminating 400 Sailors of Fleet Readiness Center Southeast Detachment Jacksonville who were there for a safety briefing on the beginning of what the Navy calls the 101 Critical Days of Summer.
Polito leaned slightly forward in the pew, with his elbows on his knees and his hands folded.
He's tired. The previous night, he didn't sleep at all. In mere moments, a video would begin that would lay bare to his whole detachment the tragedies of which, up till now, they were still unaware.
"This last week has been tough," he said.
In an effort to help his Sailors understand the disastrous effects of driving under the influence and alcohol-related incidents, Polito had agreed to take part in a public service announcement created by the FRCSE public affairs office.
In the video, Polito recounts the deaths of his brother, Anthony, in 1985, and his son - also named Anthony after his brother - in 2011. Both life-changing tragedies were due, in part, to drinking and driving.
The decision to take part in the PSA was not an easy one. He'd only taken over as officer in charge of the detachment in late April, and revealing such personal blows is never a river crossed easily.
"I actually thought about telling the Sailors about it, you know, like saying this is what happened," he told the public affairs staff in April. "But then I thought I'd keep my personal things to myself. I don't know, maybe you guys could help."
What ultimately took shape was a stark look into the life of a family member left behind by a loved one's choice to drive under the influence of alcohol. But his story is more than that.
"I'm not looking for anyone to feel sorry for me," he said. "Every day, I strive to be the best officer I can be - the best person I can be - to live my life in a way that honors them."
The tearing open of old wounds, as painful as it was, was done for his Sailors, Polito said.
"If doing this can save one life or keep one Sailor out of trouble, it'll be worth it," he said.
As the video began playing at All Saints Chapel that Thursday, a palpable silence fell over the Sailors gathered there. Gasps were audible during certain points of the film.
When it ended, Polito stood up from the pew and stood in front of his Sailors.
"So the message there is, don't drink and drive," he said. Then he began again, curtly, "OK, moving on ... "
He began to speak about how risks increase during the 101 Critical Days of Summer, about traveling and water sports and the dangers inherent in some of these activities - the Navy and Marine Corps lost 26 service members to off-duty incidents during the same period in 2017.
Then he stopped.
"I have to get my thoughts together," he said. "That film did something to me. This week has been a hard week."
After he finished his portion of the brief, he returned to his seat among a chapel-full of his shipmates.