GICA Panel Focuses On Impacts Of Trauma On Maritime Personnel

Much of the focus of the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association’s seminar this year, held August 3–5 in New Orleans, was on waterway operations, issues that towboat crews face on a daily basis, and the partnership that exists between operators, federal agencies and the communities through which the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) passes—and rightfully so. The GIWW is the nation’s third busiest commercial waterway, with valuable petrochemicals, raw materials and fabricated goods passing through some of the oldest locks in the United States.

But it takes mariners and dockside workers to move those cargoes, and they operate in a dynamic environment often impacted by things like tropical storms and hazards organic to the job. With danger and injury comes mental and emotional trauma, which can then affect a mariner’s personal safety, the safety of coworkers and, ultimately, his or her ability to stay on the job.

In view of the most recent widespread traumatic event to impact mariners on the GIWW—Hurricane Ida in 2021—the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association (GICA) hosted a panel focused on trauma and mariner wellness, featuring representatives from the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) and Jim Fletcher, maritime industry veteran and founder of Baton Rouge, La.-based Team Services. Phil Schifflin, former captain of the port of New Orleans and currently director of SCI’s Center for Mariner Advocacy, moderated the panel, which also featured the Rev. Tom Rhoades, SCI’s senior river chaplain, and the Rev. Howard Whitaker, an SCI chaplain associate.

Whitaker began the discussion by describing the effect trauma has on the brain. In fact, Whitaker said, the physical impact of trauma looks a lot like the brain damage caused by dementia and stroke.

Sign up for Waterway Journal's weekly newsletter.Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest inland marine news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

“So what you’re left with on deck is not a bunch of well-trained, disciplined mariners,” Whitaker said. “You’re left with something that’s somewhere between a frightened horse, and angry dog and a Southern teenager. And you’ve got to figure out how to handle it. … But I will tell you this: yelling at them is not going to help.”

Instead, it’s important to respond quickly with the right kind of care, just like with a stroke or a heart attack.

“You want to get care as quickly as possible,” Whitaker said. “Maybe you’ve experienced a cardiac event, and they’ve told you ‘minutes is muscle.’ For the minds, when you have a trauma, time is tissue, and the longer you stay in that traumatized state, the more tissue you are destroying.”

SCI chaplains are trained in CISM, which stands for critical incident stress management and serves as psychological first aid. Chaplains are able to deploy en masse in response to a large incident like a hurricane or one-by-one when there’s an injury on a vessel or a death at home. Rhoades, speaking to the crowd gathered for the GICA seminar, said a CISM visit may look like a chaplain sitting down with an entire crew to talk over what happened and what the crew experienced and help mariners share ongoing hardships, like nightmares, withdrawing from family and crewmates, inability to sleep and difficulty focusing while on duty.

The impact of meeting with a chaplain and the follow-up pastoral care that chaplain can provide has a tangible impact on the individual mariner and the crew as a whole.

“When people are cared for soon after an event, they’re much more likely to keep working,” Rhoades said.

But to respond to an incident, SCI’s chaplains have to be invited, and unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen, Rhoades said. A key example was Hurricane Ida, which crossed both the GIWW and the Mississippi River and scattered towboats and barges in its wake.

“I expected our phones to ring off the wall, because I knew that people were going through terrifying events, but that did not happen,” Rhoades said.

Rhoades said he was there at the GICA seminar to help make sure that won’t happen again.

“It’s not going to do your crews any harm for us to show up, but it might do a lot of good,” he said.

Fletcher said he first met Rhoades when he reached out to offer ASIST training, which stands for Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training.

“I felt called to participate personally because I had lost a brother to suicide when I was a young adult,” Fletcher said.

It was around the time of the ASIST training that Fletcher had a tankerman trainee commit suicide.

“I called Tom, and it was about 7 o’clock in the morning,” Fletcher said. “And he launched out like a cannon and began his work. I’m so thankful I made that phone call. He went straight to the house of the surviving wife and children and worked with them all through that time.”

Rhoades also spent time with the trainee’s work family, Fletcher said.

“I know many of you have worked with Seamen’s Church through very difficult circumstances and know the value they bring to the table,” Fletcher said. “It was quite a learning experience to actually see it in action and know how it impacted so many different people and so many different families.”

Schifflin urged the operators and company executives in the crowd to call on SCI after traumatic events like suicide, natural disasters and other incidents because of the good it can do for the individual mariners, crews and, by extension, the maritime community as a whole.

“We want to be called so much that it’s hard for us to meet the response,” Schifflin said. “That was not the problem in Ida last year, and I’m quite certain that more folks would’ve benefitted from our chaplain visits.”

SCI maintains a crisis number, 800-708-1998, that is monitored around the clock. Additional SCI contacts are posted online at