When Rich Oberg recalls his years in the Navy, and speaks of his work since he was medically discharged in 1987, especially the work that he has done in recent years, he gets a bit choked up. Understandably.
Oberg joined the Navy in 1982, a period characterized by the tension of the Cold War. He reported for his first tour of duty aboard the USS Atlanta, a nuclear submarine, in December 1983, and spent four of the next six years at sea. Although Oberg can’t elaborate with respect to any details, there were events during those years at sea which “required us to be at battle stations for up to 36 hours.”
When Oberg enlisted, it did not take long for all of his preconceived notions regarding the military to be dispelled. His shipmates on the USS Atlanta were extremely intelligent and capable people. “The military is not a job, it’s a way of life,” he said. The men with whom Oberg served worked long and physically demanding hours under stressful conditions with precious little downtime, no holidays, and no holiday pay. “We worked 12 out of every 18 hours and, if necessary, we would work 24-hours a day, 7-days a week. We were not allowed to fail.”
The USS Atlanta took Oberg all around the globe. From Puerto Rico, Bermuda, and the Bahamas to the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap, he’s been there, although primarily underneath the surface of the sea. “The limiting factor to how long we could stay under was food,” he explained, “and 90 days was the maximum.”
One of the most difficult aspects of these long undersea deployments was the absence of daylight. The other was the lack of contact with home. “About every two weeks, if we were lucky, we could send and receive a ‘family gram,’ a communication that could be no longer than 40 words."
During this period of time, Oberg had a young son and a wife back home, and during his son’s first year, he was home less than four months. “When I wasn’t on deployment I was still away for eight months at a time,” he said. Even when he was at home, and off the boat, he was still required to be in port every third day, spending nights on the boat every third weekend doing fire safety and security checks.
Oberg was often gone for a year at a time and when he was home “could be called at any time, night or day, and have to be there in a couple of hours, packed and ready to go to sea.”
Although most of the work that Oberg did during the years that he spent in the Navy is “classified,” and therefore confidential, he speaks of his many hours “in the sonar shack” where he collected intelligence data from other ships and submarines. He was also the “educational petty officer” on the boat and was responsible for making sure that “the educational commitments [of the men on the ship] were met.”
The most harrowing experience of Oberg’s naval career happened at 400-feet below the surface. In 1986, they were on a mission to go to the Mediterranean Sea to pick up two Admirals in Gibraltar where they would be briefed on an upcoming mission. It was right after the bombing of Libya, so tensions were high. “We were going very fast [and] we collided with the bottom of the ocean. We did an emergency blow and came to the surface,” he said. On arrival in Gibraltar’s port, divers were sent under to look at the damage, which included “a hole in the fiberglass sonar dome and a bent frame 1. Shortly thereafter, the boat limped back home to Norfolk for repairs, which ultimately cost around a million dollars."
Oberg is proud of the work that he did in the Navy and said, “Doing what we did was extraordinarily difficult and I was very good at it.” However, in 1987, during his second deployment, he sustained an injury to his back and was ultimately given a medical discharge.
Presently, Oberg works as an outreach specialist for disabled veterans. His primary focus is helping disabled and homeless veterans find work. “Anyone who has gotten out and survived is a veteran,” he explained, and “many are coming back with injuries. It’s brutal when you are serving in combat situation. You have to stay hypervigilant [and] there is no safe place.” Consequently, many returning veterans suffer from mental illnesses, post-traumatic stress disorder in particular, and “many don’t get the benefits that they are entitled to because their mental illnesses cause then not to seek benefits.” Oberg comes into contact with them because they are not thriving and does his best to help them put the pieces of their lives back together.
Oberg shared information regarding upcoming events that are of particular interest to Lewiston and Auburn area veterans. On Saturday, November 17, the Maine Military and Community Network will host a resource fair at Lewiston High School. All area veterans and active-duty military are invited to attend and to take advantage of opportunities to meet and learn from 47 agencies which can assist them in getting the benefits and services that they need, including but not limited to Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, the Wounded Heroes Program of Maine, Pine Tree Legal Assistance and the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council, as well as a variety of health clinics and schools. Then, on January 30, 2013, Oberg will participate in a “Point in Time Survey,” a task dedicated to counting the area’s homeless veterans. Veterans and other volunteers are invited to participate in both of these events.
Oberg said around 45 exhibitors are planning on attending the fair, from VA representatives and NGOs who help struggling veterans to civilian groups like Good Sheperd Food Bank, Goodwill and the Salvation Army, as well as representatives of the VFW and American Legion, and the Lewiston Vet Center.
The MaineMCN resource fair will be held November 17, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the cafeteria of Lewiston High School.
For more information, contact Rich Oberg at 753-9092 or Jerry DeWitt at 783-9141 ext. 228.