U.S. Sailors, Marines Ready for Action
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
ABOARD THE USS GEORGE WASHINGTON, Feb. 13, 1998 Commanders are confident. Troops are ready for action. The world is waiting. Will the United States launch air strikes in response to Saddam Hussein's failure to comply with U.N. resolutions?
For nearly four months U.S. sailors and Marines aboard this mighty warship have been watching CNN and waiting. They have a personal interest in the outcome of the U.N. standoff with Iraq.
If diplomatic efforts succeed, they will head for home as scheduled April 3. The carrier USS John C. Stennis will deploy to carry on the mission, maintaining stability in the region.
On the other hand, if diplomacy fails, the 5,000 U.S service members aboard will most likely go into action along with the more than 20,000 other U.S. troops in the region. If the president so orders, they will launch an offensive against the Iraqi dictator's regime.
In about a week, all the pieces of the strike force will be assembled, Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, U.S. Central Command commander, told reporters Feb. 11. Along with the forces already in the gulf region, Zinni has requested even more ships, planes and troops that are now on the way.
The USS Guam Amphibious Readiness Group with another 3,000 Marines is steaming toward the gulf. Another 3,000 soldiers are on alert at Fort Stewart, Ga., and will soon deploy to Camp Doha, Kuwait, to draw pre-positioned armor. They'll join 600 soldiers already there for exercise Intrinsic Action.
Aboard the George Washington, F-14B Tomcat, F/A-18 Hornet, S-3 Viking and other aircrews are at the ready. "Our battle group is ready to go," said Adm. Michael G. Mullen, group commander. "We're very focused. We're very ready. Morale here is very high."
Mullen says e-mail has kept morale at an all-time high during the six-month gulf deployment. "We typically send out between 7,000 and 8,000 e-mails a day, and we get about that many in every day," he said. It has been a marvelous revolution in how we stay connected with our families."
The George Washington carries 50 fighter aircraft. The USS Independence, the second U.S. carrier deployed in the gulf, carries another 50. The British carrier HMS Invincible sails with her U.S. counterparts and carries about 14 GR-1 Tornado ground attack planes. Since November, U.S. naval pilots have been flying 80 to 120 sorties a day over Iraq in support of Operation Southern Watch. U.S. naval forces also carry precision-strike Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Technology advances have made U.S. aircraft and weapon systems even more precise than those used in the Gulf War, Mullen added. Crews are prepared for missile and chemical attacks at sea, though they're considered unlikely, Mullen said.
"The threats that exist on land are threats we understand -- threats we think we can handle," he noted. Everyone in the battle group would like to see a diplomatic solution, he said, but in the meantime is ready for however long it takes to do what's required.
Since the George Washington arrived in the gulf in November, people aboard have maintained their enthusiasm, according to Lt. Susan Vitale Deni, the ship's intelligence systems officer, one of about 35 women aboard.
"People are ready to do whatever it takes to resolve the situation," said the Binghamton, N.Y., native. "The president sent us down here, and we're ready to do whatever he wants us to do, whenever."
Among the ship's naval aviators, the oft-repeated phrase is simply: "We're ready to go." They said they've put their affairs in order, and they're focused on the mission. If an attack is launched, U.S. defense officials aim to curtail Hussein's capacity to build and deliver weapons of mass destruction and his ability to threaten his neighbors.
"If that's what they want us to do, we're ready to go at a moment's notice," said U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Mark Wise, an 11-year veteran F-18 pilot from Redmond, Wash., assigned to Fixed Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251.
Maintaining high readiness is nothing new for the fighter pilots, said Navy Lt. Cdr. Tom Lalor of Strike Fighter Squadron 86. "We came to the gulf prepared to do a mission. We're ready to execute just as we were the first day we showed up. There's a little more sense of anticipation right now. Morale is high. There is a great sense of purpose on the ship. We're very excited to be here and be a part of the international resolve against Saddam's regime."
With only two months left in their six-month tour, Lalor said, the sailors and Marines are in "a win-win situation." "Either we get to employ the military tactics and training we've trained for all our careers, or we get to go home," he said.
Getting home and getting home safely is what's on most people's minds, said Navy Lt. Johann Kim, a combat coordinator on one of two ES-3 electronic warfare aircraft assigned to the carrier. The native of Silver Spring, Md., is part of Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 6 in Jacksonville, Fla. Kim said the homeward-bound countdown has begun, but everyone knows the situation could change instantly.
Like most others, F-18 pilot Lt. Joel Janopoulos of Dundee, Ill., assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 86, said he's eager to get home and hopes to leave on schedule. But on the other hand, he said, "What we do is very challenging. I wouldn't mind taking care of business and then getting home."