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History and Heritage

Overcoming Tragedy:

Homeport leaders remember the aftermath of USS Stark attack

Sunday, May 17, 1987, was quiet and sleepy on Naval Station Mayport, Florida. Families probably went to church, to the beach or the playground. They caught up on their chores. They prepared for the week ahead.

Then, the base commander, Capt. John Mitchell, got a phone call from the commander of Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 8 that changed everything.

"He said, 'You might want to turn on your television: The local news is reporting that DESRON 8, USS Stark, has been attacked in the Persian Gulf by an Iraqi Mirage fighter jet and had fired two missiles. The news is also saying there's at least one fatality,'" recalled Mitchell.

Mitchell wouldn't know exactly what had happened for days, but an Iraqi pilot in a Dassault Falcon 50 modified business jet had fired two Exocet missiles at the frigate USS Stark (FFG 31), which had been patrolling the Saudi Arabian coast near the Iran-Iraq War exclusion boundary. In the initial attack, Stark sustained damage port side near her bridge, and then was hit on the port side a second time. Thirty-seven Sailors were killed and 21 were wounded.

Information was initially limited, but Mitchell remembers believing things were going to get much worse. He quickly gathered his staff at the base headquarters and called the chaplain, requesting the chapel keep its doors open for as long as necessary to serve family members traumatized by the news.

I remember thinking ... shore station command school sure didn't prepare me for anything like this. It was awful, but ... I had sort of a sense that it was going to get worse."
- Capt. John Mitchell

He was right.

Mitchell soon discovered local media outlets were releasing information that was not correct. They were also naming fallen Sailors' before their families could be notified. He still remembers the dread and helplessness he felt at being unable to protect families living off-base from intrusive reporters on the scent of an unexpected story.

"That was awful," he said.

Mitchell quickly arranged for off-base families to gather at the community center, to minimize the damaging interactions with the media. Thinking on his feet, he ensured chaplains, medical services, and Fleet and Family Service Center (FFSC) counselors would be available. On-base Navy families also rallied together to provide emotional support, as well as food, during this traumatic experience.
Three photo collage of damage to Stark: closeup of port side; full view of Stark listing; closeup looking down

"It was chaos; it was very difficult," said Rachel Marcus-Mitchell, former director of social services for the Mayport FFSC and now Mitchell's wife. "It was confusing; everybody was overwhelmed. They weren't certain what to think. They were worried about their loved ones. Children were crying. We were concerned."

Marcus-Mitchell's primary duty consisted of crisis intervention, and she provided counselors for the families waiting anxiously for news at the community center.

However, she and Mitchell quickly realized that the plan had a major flaw when the families began receiving the news that they had lost their loved ones: There was no privacy: Families were notified about the deaths in an open space and couldn't grieve away from prying eyes.

"It got really tough because as soon as they saw someone come through the door, it became silent," recalled Marcus-Mitchell.

It was dead silent, even the children. Silent, and everybody was waiting: 'Is it me? Am I next? Are they going to tell me about my husband?' That was difficult. That was very difficult." - Rachel Marcus-Mitchell

Mitchell and the chaplains quickly arranged for families to receive death notifications in a separate room to provide some privacy. "The chaplain would go to the family service center person in charge ... tell them who they were looking for, the family service center would find the family and they would go into a private room," said Mitchell. "Sometimes there was nothing, but other times ... the room was just ripped by a scream or a shriek, and you knew what was being done."

Then, families either grieved at home with their loved ones or sought comfort from those around them in the community center, from the chaplains, from the counselors, from each other. President Ronald Reagan later commended Senior Chief Quartermaster Gary Clinfelter for helping at the coordinating center. Clinefelter's son, Brian, had been killed on the Stark, but he put his own grief aside to help others, reportedly saying, "I need to keep working."

By Tuesday, 48 hours after the Stark attack, all next-of-kin notifications had been completed. However, there was still much work to be done in response to the crisis, including planning the memorial service for the fallen.

"If my staff and I had to pull all of that together by ourselves, we would have failed miserably," said Mitchell. "We couldn't have done it, but the community, the Navy community - I often say Stark tore the fences down around Mayport and let the community pour in, and that feeling stayed with us and built, and that feeling is still with us today."

The memorial service was held in a helicopter hangar on Mayport that Friday, with distinguished guests who included Reagan and the first lady. Many family members and many Americans as a whole still struggled to come to terms with the overwhelming losses, wondering why, as Reagan said, those who "embod[ied] the best of us" had to die.
Three photo collage: cover of Newsweek; President and Mrs. Reagan hugging Stark family members; cover of Time

Months later, in August, when USS Stark returned to Mayport after undergoing initial repairs in Bahrain, Clinefelter was aboard, symbolically finishing his son's deployment and trying to make peace with an inexplicable loss. Marcus-Mitchell too realized that there were more struggles yet to come.

"Sailors ... would come to see me, and some of the stories of all of the sudden being catapulted into the sea after the blast, and [it] was black, dark - you couldn't see a thing - and feeling stuff around them," she remembered, adding that one Sailor in particular stands out. "There are snakes all around him and realizing he can't freak out, but they're all around him. And he couldn't sleep at night because that's all he saw and felt for weeks."

She realized she was dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). At the time, PTSD had little public awareness, and was still a relatively new term. However, this did not stop her from conducting her own research and scouring every book to find ways to help Sailors returning home.

"I remember sitting down with books - lots of stacks of books all over my office, researching, reading, understanding, so we could best help," said Marcus-Mitchell.

Using her research and new understanding, she revamped the Mayport FFSC, creating programs not only for Sailors, but also for family members who struggled to understand the symptoms and treatment of PTSD.

She also continued to care for surviving families. Many wanted to see the ship from the inside. Although it was cleaned out and some repairs had been made, the acrid smell of burnt metal still hung about the ship during the tour. It was difficult, but Marcus-Mitchell believes it was also an important step toward closure for many.
Three photo collage: Stark crew before attack; Florida newspaper after Reagan's speech; Stark at sea before attack

"That was important to them," recalled Marcus-Mitchell. "Somehow it was like closure, even after the memorial. They needed that. That was very profound to me too."

Overall, both Mitchell and Marcus-Mitchell believe they did the best they could to provide support and care for the families and Sailors of Stark. Although they admit that much of it was on-the-job training, both agree that unity and community support helped lead them toward hope and recovery.

"We don't ever want it to happen, but unfortunately, [tragedy is] going to happen," said Mitchell. "Sailors should know that the Navy in general is prepared and willing and committed to caring for their families, to making sure their families suffer as little as possible, and are as well cared for and comforted and provided for as possible."