Civilian Visitors Get Feel for Navy Life on USS George Washington
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, April 22, 2008 Forty-eight business, civic and local government leaders visited the USS George Washington about 80 miles off shore from here April 20, and a lucky dozen got to spend the night on the ship.
“It reminds me that the best and the brightest are right here representing our country,” said Neal Denton, a senior vice president of government relations and strategic partnerships for the American Red Cross, based in Washington, D.C.
Denton and the other visitors are participating in the 75th iteration of the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, a defense secretary-sponsored program for America's leaders interested in expanding their knowledge of the military and national defense. JCOC is the oldest existing Pentagon outreach program.
The USS George Washington is here on its way to its eventual new home port in Japan. It will replace the USS Kitty Hawk based there now. JCOC participants toured the ship talking to sailors and meeting its leaders.
An aircraft glitch led to a small group of participants spending the night on the ship and having the rare opportunity to watch night operations aboard the aircraft carrier.
One participant likened the incredible synchronicity of the flight operations to a “high-risk ballet.”
But, equally fascinating for the group was walking up to the bridge and finding Seaman James Holzmann, a 19-year-old from Arizona with only two years in the Navy, driving the ship.
The George Washington’s flight deck is 4.5 acres. The ship can accommodate about 6,000 sailors. It can distill 400,000 gallons of water a day, serves 18,000 meals daily, and is held together by 60,000 tons of structural steel.
Denton said that he was struck by how everyone on the ship worked together despite the enormity of its daily operations.
“This is a city, and everyone has a job and everyone has a responsibility and knows each other and knows what their jobs are and how they rely on each other,” Denton said. “I guess I just didn’t perceive it like that, as a city where everyone here has a role to play in making sure this thing ticks from the first thing in the morning until they all go down to bed at night.”
A former Army enlisted man, Denton said the best part of his visit was in the galley with the sailors. In fact, he said, getting back in touch with the troops was one of his main motivations for joining the JCOC trip, he said.
“I love some of these guys here. I had some of the best conversations. That was my favorite part. Sitting at the tables talking with them,” Denton said. “This was a chance to sort of reconnect with what is going on in today’s service.
“There has been so much discussion in Washington -- public policy decision makers who are trying to find their way into making the right decisions now -- and I like to be engaged in their conversations. Now I feel like I’m engaged in those conversations with a different pool of knowledge than I had before.
“I feel as though I know a heck of a lot more now than I did before,” Denton said.
John Stross, the owner of Leverock’s Restaurant, in St. Petersburg, Fla., said he was impressed with the efficiency of the air operations. It takes only 45 seconds for crews to clear the landing strip between planes during the day. At night it still takes only minutes.
Crews in different colored shirts, each with their own meaning, move around the deck with precision speed, moving planes, pulling chains and cables, and sending signals with colored flash cones.
No detail is too small on the spotless ship. Sailors on their hands and knees scrub the insides of divots in the deck to secure chains tied to the planes. Dirt can settle inside the indentations and stick to the planes’ tires.
Debris on a tire could find its way onto the landing strip and into one of the jet engines, causing a “blowout” requiring the engine to be rebuilt. Each engine costs more than $1 million, an officer explained.
“If I could run my restaurant as efficiently as they run their flight operations, I would never put out a bad meal,” Stross said.
The longtime business owner used a seafood restaurant analogy to give credit to the ship’s leaders.
“I believe the fish stinks from the head down. I think that great leaders make great organizations,” Stross said. “My hat is off not only to the enlisted people, but especially to the officers and the [noncommissioned officers] who, to use Army terms, have made these enlisted people the best that they can be.
“I think, in interacting with the people, at times if you didn’t see … the rank or the brass they wore on their uniforms, you might not know the difference,” said he added.
Karen Johnson, senior vice president with Valente and Associates, a government affairs firm based in Washington, D.C., was all smiles when she came off the flight deck after the night operations ended.
“I thought it was incredible. Seriously, you could just feel it in your gut when they landed and when they took off. It was the most amazing feeling,” Johnson said as she tried in vain to put her hair back in some sort of order.
At this point, it was nearly 10 p.m. local time. The group had left at 4 a.m. two days earlier and had not seen a bed since. They spent the first day of their trip in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, reviewing military operations there, before boarding an all-night flight to Rio de Janeiro, where they waited all day for their flight to the ship.
But, Johnson summed up her opportunity on the ship in one sentence as she wrestled to shove her hair up under the souvenir conference hat.
“It was worth a bad hair day,” she said.