MIL-OSI Security: Defense News: Undefeated, This Flag Will Fly: Seaman tackled PTSD to make Master Chief

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Source: United States Navy

The terrorist attack that struck USS Cole (DDG 67) on the morning of Oct. 12, 2000 left a lasting impact on the crew. They experienced arduous conditions that many Sailors train for, but few will ever see.

Master Chief Information Systems Technician (IT) Amaury Ponciano, from Union City, N.J., was a Seaman at his first command, aboard Cole, during the sneak attack. The crew saved the ship, but lost 17 Sailors including a few who Ponciano considered good friends. The events of that day, left him with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); but his diagnosis did not prevent him from leading a successful career in the Navy. After 22 years of honorable service, Ponciano was promoted to the Navy’s most senior enlisted rank – master chief petty officer. Only one percent of the force holds the distinction.
He was pinned by his daughter Belen Ponciano, Master Chief Information Systems Technician Dave Berrien and Master Chief Fire Controlman Korey Jones during a ceremony on May 23, 2022.

“[Healing] was difficult because you have to understand yourself and that takes time,” explained Ponciano when talking about his PTSD. “The first years were a struggle. I broke a lot of relationships, with both partners and friends, because my anger would get the best of me. The littlest things would trigger me to no end. Unfortunately I didn’t know how to deal with that.”

In the days following the attack, in the midst of ongoing damage control efforts, maintaining the physical security of the ship and honoring the fallen; Ponciano found inspiration from the Chiefs Mess and the daily raising of the American flag.

“There were things that we young Sailors didn’t understand … like the Chiefs Mess making us hold colors. It was 120 degrees in Yemen and after all that had happened, it’s the last thing you are thinking about,” said Ponciano. “The way a chief broke it down to me stays with me ‘til this day. He said it was to show them that we haven’t been defeated. That this flag will fly.”

The leadership of USS Cole mandated mental health resources for the crew once the ship returned to the United States a month later. As a Seaman, the mandate provided relief from the stigma Ponciano felt in seeking help. His PTSD diagnosis allowed him to name his trauma and deal with it. Through counseling, he learned to manage his emotions and recognize when he needed to employ coping strategies. He credits the support of his leadership, friends, family and mental health coaching as contributors to his success.

“I was extremely head strong,” said Ponciano. “I didn’t connect my anger to the PTSD. I remember going to a counselor after being stationed in Bahrain and she would make me tell the story every single time I saw her. I had to learn to express it. To let whatever anger I felt about the story … to let it out.”

According to multiple military studies, stigma remains a barrier to seeking mental healthcare. Reasons range from concerns regarding how leadership and peers will react, to fear of losing their security clearance. ITs, like Ponciano, manage complex network computer systems to ensure communication across the Fleet to support mission completion. The career field requires Sailors to hold security clearances to access information and equipment to properly operate the network. Therefore, they undergo multiple background investigations throughout their careers.

“We get the question a lot about PTSD. ‘Is having a diagnosis of PTSD going to impact my clearance … or ruin my chances at getting a clearance?,’” said Dr. Elisabeth Jean-Jacques, staff Psychologist at the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA) – the Defense organization responsible for adjudicating security clearances. “There is no specific medical diagnosis that is automatically disqualifying.” She also said PTSD is not a mandatory condition to report during the security clearance process.

“If there is a myth out there that: ‘If I go to behavioral health [services] it will be a career killer,’ … it’s to the contrary; we at adjudications very much see participating in treatment as a favorable thing,” said Dr. Michael Priester, chief psychologist at DSCA. Instead, DSCA adjudicators look for behaviors of concern.

“That can be things like risk for violence, erratic behaviors, or a tendency to not be truthful in a characterological, rather than incident specific, way,” said Priester. “The kinds of things that alleviate concerns with psychological conditions is when someone has sought treatment … and certainly if they complied with treatment.”

“I am proof. Look at me now,” said Ponciano. “I am a master chief.”

The Terrorist Attack on USS Cole

Oct. 12, 2000 was just another day for the crew of the Cole. The ship had pulled into Aden, Yemen to refuel. Two al-Qaeda terrorists traveling in an inflatable speedboat, detonated a bomb alongside the ship, blowing a 40-foot wide hole in the hull. At the time, Ponciano was in line for chow.

“The XO [Executive Officer] came over the 1MC and said that we were refueling faster than expected so we were going to start early chow and then get underway,” said Ponciano. “They then called early chow and Seaman [Timothy] Gauna and Seaman [Craig] Wibberley were saying, ‘Hey, let’s go to the front of the line and say we have the next watch.’ I remember it was like yesterday … saying no one would believe ITs had the next watch so I stayed behind.”

Minutes later, there was a loud blast. The ship shuddered. The crew quickly moved throughout the ship to report to their battle stations, otherwise known as general quarters.

“From the recollections of other people, the ship actually came up out of the water and came back down,” said Ponciano. “As people were coming from the [direction of the] loud explosion and the impact, you could see the smoke. The XO was coming down the passageway telling everyone to go to their GQ [General Quarters] stations; that we’ve been hit. When I reached my repair locker, there was an officer there directing people to go to the aft repair locker. During all this running, everyone was setting Zebra. We set zebra in less than four minutes, much better compared to what we were doing during the drills, saving a ton of lives.”

As Ponciano made his way to the aft repair lockers, he wondered about the other ITs and Sailors he knew. Being on a destroyer with 330 people, he said he did not know every person on the ship, but he knew their names and faces. As he made his way through the mess decks, he came across a covered body.

“I lifted the blanket and I couldn’t recognize the body because it had metal throughout but you could still see the name tag. It was Signalman [Cherone] Gunn. He was one of the guys I used to hang out with when we went on liberty. That’s when it hit me. Seeing that, I just got on my knees and started crying. I just kept crying. I don’t remember who it was, but somebody tapped me on the back and grabbed me and said, ‘He’s gone. We need to save the ship.’ I snapped back to reality. If I wanted to get back … I needed to make sure that we didn’t sink and stayed alive.”

The following hours were a blur to him.

Becoming a Chief Petty Officer

When Ponciano was being recruited into the Navy, he wanted to be a chief because he thought the uniform looked good. His admiration swelled after he witnessed the actions and leadership of the chiefs onboard Cole.

“I saw the empowerment they had, and put into other people. Most of what happened at the time was directed by the chiefs. I always looked up to that.”

He witnessed the ability of chief petty officers to achieve results under any circumstance.

“Talking to the chiefs now, they said they cried too, that they were nervous, but I never saw that,” said Ponciano. “You only saw them giving direction and being part of the team. The BMC [chief boatswain mate] – with a broken leg – donned firefighting equipment and was rescuing people and saving lives. I couldn’t even tell he was hurt.”

The leadership and commitment of chiefs encouraged Ponciano to always strive to be a better person. As Ponciano moved through the ranks and served at different commands, ashore and afloat, he realized there was a piece of him he wanted to be better. As a 1st Class Petty Officer, Ponciano volunteered to serve onboard a destroyer, the same class of ship as USS Cole, to face his fear and ensure he could lead through remnants of the trauma.

“Every year, we had an anniversary for the Cole and I literally would not go aboard. I would stay on the pier. Even when she came back after the very first deployment after being repaired, I waited on the pier. I just couldn’t go onboard. One of the things a counselor said over the years is that I had to face my fears. She didn’t think that I would take actual orders to do it, but she said I had to face my fears and I dove right in.”

The PTSD diagnosis did not define Ponciano. He leaned on his professional skills and experiences, family, and mental health coaching to seize success. After 11 years, he was promoted to chief petty officer and served another two years onboard his second destroyer, USS Forrest Sherman (DDG 98).

“I had the tools I needed to deal with anything that came my way,” said Ponciano.

Mi madre es mi inspiración; mis hijos son mi motivación

Ponciano says that his mother, Ursula Colon, is his inspiration and his children are his motivation to be the best version of himself, and to expect the same from others.

“As a leader, I’m tough, I’m very demanding, but I will give you the same. I won’t ask you to do anything that I’m not willing to do myself or haven’t done,” said Ponciano. “I get that from her. She didn’t graduate from college and barely finished high school but she wouldn’t allow me to just do that. She wanted more for me. That’s what I try to do for my Sailors. We all have a different 100 percent, and I will try to get them to their 100 percent.”

“She’s my inspiration. From being a single parent for a period of time, to coming to the United States without being able to speak any English … she gave me and my brother everything we needed and then some. I have it easy compared to the things that she’s gone through. To this day, anything and everything I do, I do it for her and my children.”

Inspiration from his mother, the Chiefs Mess and mental health counselors enabled Master Chief Ponciano to serve in the United States Navy for 22 years with PTSD, climbing to the highest ranks. His advice to Sailors: “Know yourself, and trust those who know you and care about you.” Today, at U.S. Fleet Cyber Command, Ponciano leads Sailors who work on the leading edge of cyberspace – defending the nation against foreign adversaries, unaffiliated hackers and terrorists.

PTSD Awareness Month

June is PTSD Awareness Month, an observance intended to raise public awareness about issues related to the disorder, reduce its stigma, and ensure access to proper care.

PTSD can occur after an individual has been through a traumatic experience. According to the National Center for PTSD, six out of every 10 men and five out of every 10 women will experience at least one trauma in their life; and seven or eight out of every 100 people will have PTSD at some point in their life. About 8 million adults experience PTSD during a given year.

Resources Available to Sailors and Civilian Employees Struggling with PTSD:

National Center for PTSD: The National Center for PTSD is the world’s leading research and educational center on PTSD and traumatic stress. Learn more by visiting https://www.ptsd.va.gov/index.asp.

Military Crisis Line: The Military Crisis Line connects a person in need to a trained counselor with a single phone call or click of a mouse. It is confidential and immediate help is available 24/7 at no cost to active duty, National Guard, and reserve members along with their families and friends. In the United States, call 1-800-273-8255 then press 1 or access the online chat by texting 838255.
Department of the Navy Civilian Employee Assistance Program: Confidential free services including counseling, online programs, work-life services, and more can be found on the DONCEAP website magellanascend.com or by calling 1-844-DONCEAP (366-2327). DONCEAP can also refer employees to local therapists.

Department of Defense (DoD) Safe Helpline: All Safe Helpline services are anonymous, confidential, 24/7 and tailored to support members of the DoD community and their loved ones affected by sexual assault. To reach the Safe Helpline, call 1-877-995-5247 or visit safehelpline.org. Resources include online confidential helpline and chat rooms, a free self-care app, information, resources and referrals to local programs.

Fleet and Family Service Center (FFSC): Available for active duty Sailors, Reservists, and dependents. The local FFSC has a Counseling and Advocacy Program, which provides confidential, short-term individual, marital, couples, and child counseling, group counseling and workshops.

For news and information from Commander, U.S. Fleet Cyber Command / U.S. 10th Fleet, visit www.FCC.navy.mil/ or follow us on Twitter @USFLEETCYBERCOM and on Facebook @USFLTCYBERCOM.

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