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Sailor, alleged attacker were assigned to Portsmouth psychiatric unit

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — Nearly seven weeks ago, a stabbing at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center left one sailor critically injured and sent police scouring surrounding cities for the alleged stabber, a fellow sailor.

Captured in Virginia Beach after a massive manhunt that shut down the medical center for 9 hours, Petty Officer 3rd Class Wilbur Harwell was charged with attempted murder on Wednesday. The victim, Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin Powell, is recuperating at home with his family.

The Navy originally said, and personnel records show, that at the time of the stabbing, Harwell was assigned to the Transient Personnel Unit, a Norfolk-based command that processes sailors between assignments or out of the Navy all together.

Navy records show Powell was assigned to Assault Craft Unit 4's shore detachment in Norfolk.

In reality, though, both Harwell and Powell were temporarily assigned to a psychiatric unit at the medical center that treats sailors suffering from severe mental illness. Citing privacy reasons, Navy officials would not comment on the sailors' assignments to the unit.

The Portsmouth unit is called the Continuity of Psychiatric Care program. There are no others like it in the region, said Lt. Cmdr. Nakeya Pryor-Bazemore, a nurse who's the CPC program manager.

CPC serves military members — enlisted, officers and reservists from various military branches — with diagnoses that include bipolar disorder, personality disorders, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder while they are getting out of the service.

Its maximum capacity is 30, the same number currently in the program. Navy sailors make up the majority of the unit right now, Pryor-Bazemore said.

Its medical team — which includes two nurses and seven psychiatric technicians — manages the cases and oversees members' outpatient care.

In addition to medical appointments, each CPC member is assigned a nonstressful, therapeutic job: tending to an on-site garden, filing papers, answering phones.

Members who live off-base commute to the medical center each day; some, like Harwell, live in nearby barracks.

They spend an average of 126 days assigned to the unit, awaiting a medical discharge and a Veterans Affairs disability rating, Pryor-Bazemore said. That's less than half as long as it takes most sailors to complete the medical-review-board process to leave the Navy.

Still, it can be a long wait. Harwell was frustrated with how long it was taking to get out of the Navy, a sailor who knew him told The Pilot on the condition of anonymity.

"Getting out of the military is harder than getting in," said the former sailor, who also spent time in the CPC unit.

On weekdays, Pryor-Bazemore said CPC members muster, or check in, three times a day, in person. While they don't formally muster after 3 p.m. on weekdays — or at all on the weekends — staff members are available 24 hours a day if something goes wrong.

On June 6, something went awry for both sailors.

The morning of the stabbing, Harwell and Powell would have mustered at 7:30 a.m. before heading to their work assignments. But before Harwell reported to the transportation job where he worked, he and Powell apparently ended up in the barracks, where Harwell had a room.

There, in the barracks, Powell was stabbed eight times before stumbling outside and collapsing. The incident was reported around 8:30 a.m.

The medical center campus was shut down five minutes later, and a code white was issued across the base. Members of the CPC medical team huddled behind closed doors, turned off their phones and switched off the lights, Pryor-Bazemore said.

She and other CPC staff were unaware that just minutes before the alert, one of their own sailors was clutching his throat, gasping for help.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service has not yet released any information about what prompted the altercation, saying only that the sailors knew each other.

According to the Navy's service records, Harwell and Powell never served together. Harwell, an electronics technician, graduated from boot camp in 2010 and was assigned to the Norfolk-based frigate Elrod. Powell, who enlisted in 2007, was a master-at-arms who worked in a fighter squadron, a Seabee unit and a riverine squadron, all in Hampton Roads.

The men apparently got to know each other at the medical center, where Harwell lived and worked and Powell came to muster.

"They're together all the time," Pryor-Bazemore said of unit members, who often attend group therapy together. "Of course there are going to be friendships."

Powell, originally from Pennsylvania, has been described as a family man, asking about his wife and daughter after coming out of extensive surgery following the stabbing. According to Facebook posts from family and friends, he is now able to walk briefly without a walker and has recovered some of his voice, though he sounds hoarse, like he has a cold.

Harwell, who hails from Alabama, is being held at the Naval Consolidated Brig in Chesapeake, awaiting an Aug. 18 hearing on charges of attempted murder and aggravated assault. His civilian attorney, Greg McCormack, said the Navy has not yet turned over a copy of the investigation into the stabbing.

In the months leading up to the incident, Harwell was admitted for inpatient psychiatric treatment at least once. He was deeply affected by a fellow sailor and close friend's suicide in the medical center barracks in April, according to people close to him, and was hospitalized afterward.

Pryor-Bazemore said there have been no suicides among CPC patients in the four years she's worked with the unit.

The medical center was unable to provide statistics about incidents of violence at the medical center, and referred questions about suicides there to higher authorities.

Following the stabbing, the CPC staff used individual and group therapy to help the rest of the unit "process the event."

Capt. Dora Lockwood, a spokeswoman for the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, said there are always more opportunities for the Navy to support sailors already known to be struggling.

"Those sailors are probably more vulnerable, and we need to find, in our leadership, a way to look after them," she said.

 kara.driscoll@pilotonline.com
 

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