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Op-Ed: The case of missing sailor Peter Mims highlights disconnect of Navy’s leadership

Sailor Peter Mims was initially thought to be missing and then lost overboard the USS Shiloh, but he was later found hiding in the ship's engine room. (U.S. Navy/Facebook)

The past year, 2017, was an unsettling year for the United States Navy: Two well documented collisions at sea that took the lives of 17 sailors, hypoxia affecting much of its operational and training aircraft; submarines tied to piers because they had lost their dive certifications, as Navy shipyards simply cannot keep pace with the maintenance requirements; and less than one-third of Super Hornet fleet is able to conduct full combat operations at any given time.

However, the most unusual story to come from the Navy ranks was the story of Peter Mims, a third-class petty officer who managed to stay hidden aboard the Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Shiloh for a week after he was reported missing.

The young sailor, according to Navy Times, which obtained information via a Freedom of Information Act request, wanted desperately out of the Navy. Mims was under financial pressure, had just gone through a divorce and was lagging behind on shipboard qualifications, which had put him in a perpetual hot seat of unwanted attention. Mims did not help his situation at all by constantly making outlandish claims about his special abilities and experiences, suggesting he could shoot fireballs from his hands, stop the ship’s engines by pulsing electricity with his body, had been to space and upon leaving the Navy, he would work for NASA because he had become as strong as a human could be. To his shipmates, it was not the bizarre statements that bothered them – it was the conviction Mims had while making them.

USS Shiloh is Japan-based and has been a vital element of the 7th Fleet’s Western Pacific mission of deterrence and defense, but has also been victimized by the 7th Fleet’s heavy workload and high operational tempo. In fact, earlier in 2017 it was revealed that the cruiser was very dysfunctional, with crew morale destroyed by a commanding officer who was grossly unpopular and handled disciplinary issues by putting sailors in the brig and allowing them only bread and water for what were deemed minor infractions. USS Shiloh was described as a “floating prison” during ship-wide crew survey, the command climate was described as toxic, and sailors described their hate for Shiloh. Mims went missing during the evening of June 8, shortly after taking his watch station in the ship’s engine room. Nearly an hour passed before the ship began to consider Mims as having possibly gone overboard, the captain convinced the sailor was hiding on the ship. A full-scale search and rescue operation was initiated with ships and aircraft spreading out over 5,500 square miles to search for what was though an overboard sailor. Aboard Shiloh, the crew conducted extensive searches of the ship’s spaces for many hours, not finding Mims, who was just beginning his week-long hideout. On June 11, with Mims still hiding, the search was called off and a casualty assistance officer notified the family that Mims was lost.

Yet, Mims’ trail would not go cold. Pre-staged food was found in the engineering room, and it would be discovered that Mims even used his cash card to buy soda from a vending machine near the engineering spaces before going back to hiding in the small catacombs beneath the engines. One sailor even had an early morning encounter with Mims, who was filling a bag with water, but chose not to report the incident immediately, fearful of a physical encounter with Mims. Over the next several days, search efforts led by the command master chief (CMC) moved back through the engine room and its tight, confined spaces. Only engine room one was completely cleared, as it was determined engine room two had a powerful stench that made the confined spaces too hard to clear and search through. It was originally thought to be the smell of fuel and oil, but was later determined to be the smell of urine and feces.

On June 15, one week after Mims went missing, and the signs pointing to a desperate individual on the run whose intentions could not fully be determined, an explosive ordnance platoon was flown to the Shiloh from the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. Armed with batons and flexicuffs, the EOD personnel commenced another search of the engine room. Mims was found sleeping behind a door in the room, and upon being found reportedly asked what all the noise was for. Mims told the sailor who found him that he had hid because the commanding officer and CMC would not permit him to leave the ship and the Navy, and that he was concerned for his own safety. Mims was found covered in his own urine and feces, had a camelback for water, a multi-tool, an empty container of peanut butter and some Peeps candies.

Peter Mims had a plan to hide, but not to get off the ship. He wanted out of the Navy, claiming he needed to care for his cancer-stricken mother despite the fact his mother did not have cancer. He made every attempt to get the command’s attention, but was unable to convince anyone of his serious mental problems. According to the report, the commanding officer, CMC and other senior leadership all had contact with Mims in the days prior to his disappearance, and had witnessed his obvious signs of being broken and representing a real risk to his shipmates. While Mims did not hurt himself or any other member of the cruiser’s crew, his actions directly impacted a significant portion of America’s forward-deployed Naval forces for several days.

Despite the obvious signs of a sailor in trouble, Mims’ last evaluation would list him as a “must promote” and a model sailor: A simple case of leadership not knowing their sailors very well.

Gary Wetzel is an experienced military aviation photographer and writer. He is the author of two books on A-10 combat operations in Afghanistan and a U.S. Navy veteran, having served aboard fast-attack submarines as a sonar technician.

All opinion articles are the opinion of the author and not necessarily of American Military News.