America's Military Might Displayed in Gulf
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
USS GEORGE WASHINGTON, ARABIAN GULF, Dec. 30, 1997 Until you see a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in action, terms like "forward presence," "power projection" and "military might" are merely Pentagon buzz words.
But when you're somewhere in the Arabian Gulf surrounded by endless night sky and pitch black ocean -- and Saddam Hussein is only a few hundred miles away -- "forward presence" becomes a reality.
Standing braced against the ocean wind, 30 feet from a catapult about to thrust an F-14 jet fighter into the sky, power projection takes on new meaning. Feeling the vibrating power of a jet coming in at full throttle, slamming against the deck and coming to a dead stop in seconds is a physical example of America's military might.
President Clinton deployed two carrier battle groups to the Arabian Gulf in November to counter rising tensions between Iraq and the United Nations. The USS Nimitz deployed to the region ahead of schedule, and the USS George Washington cut short a six-month tour in the Mediterranean and moved to the gulf to join the Nimitz.
"The fact that the president sent two battle groups to the region is evidence of how important naval forces are to the global reach of the Department of Defense," Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre said during a late-November visit to the George Washington. The United States has strong Air Force assets in the region, "but having two carriers here means all the difference in the world for our fighting force," he said.
Because America's military men and women are on duty in the gulf, the rest of America can "rest well and sleep easy," Hamre said. "This is the most important national security crisis we are facing right now, and they are the first line of defense for all of us. I hope the importance of that helps them realize their contributions are indispensable."
Visitors travel to the George Washington on board a COD -- carrier on-board delivery aircraft. Wearing helmets, seat belts and shoulder harnesses, passengers experience an arrested landing, thereby earning "honorary tailhooker" certificates.
After a slightly turbulent 20 minute flight from Bahrain, veteran COD travelers aboard Hamre's flight shouted, "Here we go-o-o-o-o-o!" as the plane did a stomach-turning dip into a 45-degree turn, thrust full throttle until the tailhook caught the carrier trap wire and then came to an abrupt stop aboard the floating American city.
The ship is as tall as a 24-story building and as long as three football fields. Nuclear power makes the George Washington capable of steaming more than 1 million miles before refueling. Nearly 80 aircraft use its 4 1/2 acre flight deck -- 50 strike-capable F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets and 30 support aircraft. With four catapults, the ship can launch a fighter every 45 seconds.
About 5,500 U.S. service members crew the aircraft carrier. About 3,500 sailors make up the ship's company and another 2,000 sailors make up Carrier Air Wing 1. A Marine detachment provides security. During launch and recovery operations, about 325 sailors are on the flight deck.
To the uninitiated, flight operations may look somewhat chaotic as aircraft move fore and aft, a Navy spokesman said. A flight deck control officer uses a scale replica of the flight deck and hangar bays to manually indicate aircraft movements. Nicknamed the "ouija board," everything from wing nuts to tack pins is used to represent the aircraft.
Life at sea, particularly moving massive aircraft around on a flat, open deck without railings, is inherently dangerous, Navy officials said. On average, one sailor is lost during each deployment. Hot air blasts from a turning jet can send a careless deckhand 20 feet into the air, off the edge and into the sea. A buddy system is employed to teach new flight deck hands the ropes and help prevent accidents.
During Hamre's visit, a "man overboard" announcement instantly sent crew members scurrying for a full personnel accounting within minutes. This time, however, it was only a drill.
Crew members say real world missions such as the crisis with Iraq puts added focus on their jobs. It's fairly common for carrier battle groups to respond to world crisis, a Navy official said, and often that very presence is enough to deter the situation. While ship routine stays fairly standard, normal training requirements are integrated with mission requirements to keep the ship and its crew at 100 percent readiness.
Aviation Storekeeper 1st Class James Robinson, a 16-year Navy veteran, said he has no problem shifting from the routine to the unexpected. "Here we get a chance to do something the country wants us to do," he said. "It's a real situation. We're not just doing drills. We're actually involved with something. It's great when you feel the country appreciates what you're doing."
Fifteen-year Navy veteran Petty Officer William Wiggins, from Newport News, Va., said the ship's leaders "keep us informed, so we pretty much know where we're going and what we're doing."
Lt. (j.g.) Ron Chamblis, a 19-year Navy veteran and former NCO, from Detroit, Mich., said when things get tense, some young sailors get depressed, some get a little scared and some get a little nervous. To keep morale high, Chamblis said, you get them all together and talk to them. "You say, 'Hey this is the world situation at the present time. We're all familiar with our jobs. We know what we have to do. We're going to do it with the best performance. You guys are the best.'"
Lt. (j.g.) Tim Bergan, an 18-year Navy veteran and another former NCO, said military leaders have to watch young troops who are not used to the pressure of a real threat. "Coming out here, they started issuing chemical protective gear, and you could see it on their faces," he said. "Concerns they hadn't really thought of before suddenly become very real -- how they're going to handle things -- life-and-death situations. You watch very carefully to see how people are reacting, and you try to explain what the real hazards are. You explain that being on a ship we're a moving target, so we're much safer than ground forces."
Any time you go from a training situaiton to a real situation, the pace picks up, Bergan said. "These guys will get things done 10 times faster in a real situation than in a training situation. When you go to general quarters for real, everybody is ready to go."
Commanding Officer Capt. Wendell G. Rutherford agreed. "The practice flavor goes away, and people take a renewed look at their responsiblities and there's a lot more focus on the issues on the table. They absorb a lot more, and the readiness gets higher. People rely on their training."
Moving to the Arabain Gulf was somewhat frightening, admitted Storekeeper 3rd Class Donald Dupree, from Newport News, Va. "One minute everything was calm, and the next minute we're called to duty, possibly to go to war," he said. "It's a very scary feeling, but in some ways it's exciting to be called to serve your country."
Dupree said he balances the benefits of Navy life against the risk of losing his life in combat. "My main reason for joining the Navy was to get an education and to travel -- to see different worlds, things I'd seen in my history books," he said. "You do know there's the possiblity of going to war -- it may come to losing your life -- but that's the chance you take. So far, I've been to Haifa, Israel; the Jordan River - I actually got to see things I read about in the Bible."
In some ways, life on the George Washington is like living in a small town, even though you don't get to know everyone among the 5,500 on board, Dupree said. "Sometimes you get lonely being away from home and your family," he said. "But being out here on the ship, you get to meet different people and you actually get to see different walks of life because everybody comes from different places. It's a good experience to interact with other people with different ideas. You can learn a lot."
Dupree described ship life as upbeat and intense. Storekeeper 3rd Class Christopher Powell said the pace picked up even further when the George Washington set sail for the gulf. The Atlanta native said he was looking for a faster pace when he enlisted right out of high school.
"Being here gives a whole new meaning to my life," Powell said. "It gives you more of a purpose than just doing same old everyday thing running the streets. I'm very proud of what I do. Saddam Hussein's doing a lot of bad things, and we're just trying to prevent that and keep peace throughout the world."
Aviation Bosuns Mate Charles Atkins, flight deck safety chief, summed up many of the crew's attitude. "You can go to bed at night and say you sold the most Post Toasties, or you can lay your head down and say you protected the United States.