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Navy identifies two Marylanders among missing sailors

The 7th Fleet said it had identified the remains of Electronics Technician 3rd Class Kenneth Aaron Smith, 22, from New Jersey. (Aug. 24, 2017)

Two Marylanders are among nine U.S. sailors missing after a collision Monday between the USS John S. McCain and an oil tanker near Singapore, the Navy said Thursday.

The announcement came as the Navy suspended search-and-rescue efforts in a 2,100-square-mile area of the Pacific Ocean.

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The Navy identified the two missing Maryland sailors as Electronics Technician 2nd Class Kevin Sayer Bushell, 26, of Gaithersburg and Information Systems Technician 2nd Class Timothy Thomas Eckels Jr., 23, of Manchester.

The incident involving the McCain, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, happened early Monday morning. Ten sailors were reported missing soon after and five others were injured.

Divers have found remains in flooded compartments of the McCain, which is docked at a naval base in Singapore, but the Navy has not disclosed specifics.

Eckels graduated in 2012 from Manchester Valley High School in Carroll County, a school system spokeswoman said. He attended North Carroll High School his freshman year.

He was an athlete in school, but most of all, his mother said, he was a passionate and talented cook who spent time with her in the kitchen from the time he was 6 months old.

Rachel Eckels said her son settled on a military career during high school and initially wanted to join the Army.

"Absolutely not," she recalled telling him. "They're the first to go to war, the first on the line."

Rachel Eckels was doing contract work with the Navy at the time and suggested that would be a safer choice.

Eckels enlisted in the Navy during high school but was delayed entering the service because of medical issues, his mother said. She said he was frustrated during the early years of his naval career, which, after computer training, began with an assignment to the National Security Agency at Fort Meade. Again, his mother said, she stepped in with counsel.

"I remember him saying, 'I didn't join the Navy to fricking come back to Maryland,' " Rachel Eckels said. "I said, 'Just give it time. The field you're in is very important, so they're going to give you the best training at the NSA.'

"Many times he doubted going into the Navy, but when he finally found his niche, he said, 'I think I'm going to make a career out of this.' " she said.

Eckels soon received an assignment to San Diego, but that was canceled — another disappointment, she said. Finally, in October, Eckels flew to Japan to join the McCain. As he left BWI Marshall Airport heading to Japan for his assignment, Eckels posted on Facebook that it was his first time abroad.

"Another tour and another country," he wrote. "First time out of the states, we'll see how this goes."

A month later, Eckels changed his profile picture to an image of himself in uniform, smiling on the deck of a ship with the ocean behind him.

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Because he worked in computers, Eckels was able to stay in close contact with his family, calling his mother a couple of times a week.

Rachel Eckels said he described lively times during port calls in Japan, Vietnam, Australia and Singapore — and the beauty of the sea. "At night, the sea is so still that it looks like ice or a sheet of water," she said he told her.

The last call to his mother came about 8:55 a.m. Sunday. Rachel Eckels missed it, but she said she knew he would call back.

That evening, she received a text message from her ex-husband about the collision involving the McCain. At first, she said, she thought he was confused and had seen an article about a similar recent fatal incident involving the USS Fitzgerald. Eckels quickly got up to speed on the news but didn't think the situation would be too serious.

On Monday morning, the Navy sent officers to Eckels' home to let her know her son was among the missing.

"I would never in a million years have thought that this would happen," Eckels said Thursday. "Missing. I thought maybe he was in an air pocket holding on, holding out for someone to rescue him."

The days since have been agonizing for the family and Eckels said her frustration with the information provided by the Navy has grown.

"The only time you find out something is when you say, 'I am demanding questions and answers,' " she said.

Since she got word her son was missing, Eckels said, she has thought back often to that conversation when she steered him away from the Army.

"I have been thinking about that over and over," she said. "I feel like I shouldn't have even given him that option."

Bushell graduated from Gaithersburg High School in 2009, the Montgomery County public school system confirmed. Bushell's father, Thomas Bushell, told The Baltimore Sun that his son joined the Navy after holding a couple of other jobs after high school.

"He meshed well with the Navy," Thomas Bushell said. "He was doing well and coming up in the ranks, I mean, smart kid. … It wasn't anything anybody pushed him toward, as far as I know."

If Bushell is dead, his father said, he didn't have anything left to prove in life.

"I think just God wanted him more than we did," Thomas Bushell said.

Thomas Bushell recalled riding four-wheelers with his son growing up, something they both enjoyed.

"There wasn't a mean bone in his body," Bushell said. "He was a very good kid."

The head of the Navy told all commanders to pause operations after the incident, the fourth collision in recent months, and carry out safety reviews. The commander who led the fleet that included the McCain has been relieved of his duties.

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