Life Aboard USS Reagan Revolves Around Support to Iraq
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
ABOARD THE USS RONALD REAGAN, April 27, 2006 All the sailors aboard this floating city understand that what they do helps their brothers and sisters in arms in Iraq and Afghanistan.
F-18s stand ready on the USS Ronald Reagan. The ship epitomizes the 40th president's motto of "peace through strength." Photo by Sgt. Maj. Richard Puckett, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image)
A visit to the Navy's newest aircraft carrier shows that the sailors aboard believe they are the living embodiment of President Reagan's motto of "peace through strength."
The carrier, which is on its first extended deployment from its home base in San Diego, launches F-18 Hornets and Super Hornets, and EA-6B Prowlers and Hawkeye aircraft in support of the coalition "up north." From the waters of the Persian Gulf, pilots fly long missions all over Iraq.
"This is our maiden deployment," said Navy Capt. Terry Kraft, the carrier's commanding officer. "Our mission is a two-sided coin. For Operation Iraqi Freedom, every type of aircraft in our inventory right now is supporting the coalition in the country. That goal, of course, is to create the conditions for the Iraqis to create a stable government that can provide security and prosperity for the nation."
But the carrier has a second side of that mission. "In the Persian Gulf, we're very involved in maritime security operations and that is to also deny the maritime environment for the use of any terrorist organization and to guarantee the free flow of commerce throughout the region," Kraft said.
Roughly 50 percent of the world's oil flows through the Persian Gulf. U.S. and coalition vessels ensure the safety of these crucial sea lanes.
But it's not an easy life. Saying the aircraft carrier is "cruising" in the gulf makes it sound as if crewmembers are on a relaxing ocean voyage. It's actually like living in a steel mill or on a factory floor. While the Reagan is one of the largest vessels afloat, that doesn't mean the roughly 5,300 members of the crew and air wing have scads of room. Sailors live in crowded "berthing areas" with as many as 100 folks in each space. They are so close together that rolling over in the bunk probably would wake up the guys above or below.
There are fewer women on board than men, but their berthing areas are just as crowded.
And it is a young crew. The average age on the ship is 20 years old. "I'm a high school graduate working on a $30 million aircraft," said Airman Heath Pardieu, who was working on an F-18. "A couple of years ago I couldn't even borrow a car." Even the pilots seem young. One lieutenant looked as if he had to have a note from his mother to be there. Yet he was flying a multi-million dollar aircraft in support of soldiers and Marines in Iraq.
People stand in line to use the "head" -- bathroom -- in the mornings. Feeding 5,300 sailors who work all hours of the day and night means somebody is always working in the galleys.
There are two large chow halls for sailors, a Chiefs' Mess (for E-7 and above), and a number of wardrooms for officers. All serve the same food, just the surroundings get progressively better.
But the purpose of the craft comes together on the flight deck. That's the ship's reason to exist. Providing support up north is the mission, and the flight deck crew goes at it with a vengeance. The crew exhibits crisp professionalism, but they treat the whole experience a bit nonchalantly. They think nothing of walking on one side of the red-and-white "foul line" painted on the deck, while just on the other side of the line a jet screams in at 150 miles an hour and comes to a halt in about 300 feet.
At night, afterburners light up as aircraft catapult off the bow. One F-18 serving as a tanker launched at night, and the whole ship shuddered as the fully loaded aircraft launched. "That's nothing," said a sailor watching the display. "The F-18 only weights 68,000 pounds. The F-14 weighed 75,000. You could feel your fillings shake when they launched."
Seahawk helicopters are literally used hard and put away wet. The choppers must be in the air when the carrier is launching or recovering aircraft. They land on the deck and, with the rotors still spinning, deck hands refuel the bird, and a new crew takes over the controls.
There is no privacy aboard for sailors. Their racks have curtains they can pull to block out light, but the curtains don't block sound and, at any time of the day or night, sailors can hear the sounds of jet aircraft slamming down on deck.
On the hangar deck, aircraft maintenance goes on around the clock. Maintainers blare all kinds of music to work to, and the whine of power tools gets drowned out by the roar of jets on the flight deck. The hangar deck is also where the crew congregates when they have free time. The ship has a Rugby team, and they practice in an open area of the deck. Crewmembers play music and dance to it. At one end of the deck, crewmembers make use of a line of weight machines, stationary bicycles and treadmills.
The ship left San Diego Jan. 4. It stopped in Brisbane, Australia, and Singapore before arriving in the Gulf in February. On Feb. 22, the ship launched its first combat sortie.
Kraft said the cruise has gone extremely well. "We've been gone over three and a half months, and before we left roughly 60 percent of the crew had never made a deployment before," he said. "They were anxious and nervous about what the future would hold. I'm happy to report they've done just a fantastic job."