Every branch, every unit, every person with a job there -- they are all just as important as anyone stationed anywhere else. They take their positions and duties extremely seriously, and they're ready for any action that might come their way at any point -- in fact, their mentality is almost to welcome it. It's a thing of beauty to see everyone in sync, working toward a similar goal and purpose.
Last Monday, we prepared for a two-day trip out onto the amphibious LH-3 ship USS Kearsarge. In the early afternoon, we put on flight gear and boarded a V-22 Osprey, which carried Devon and I, as well as a small unit of Marines out to the ship stationed in the Gulf of Aden, north of Somalia. And while we had a fantastic time on the base, the time spent on the boat was undoubtedly the highlight of the trip.
The sailors and Marines stationed on that boat had been out on water for nearly 110 days when we arrived. Typically, they receive port calls (two-day trips into land) every 45 days or so. But every previous time the Kearsarge was supposed to go to port over the last three months, they were called to another mission. The majority of the 2,500 or so troops there were a little stir-crazy, I think -- just really needing to get off that boat for a bit to recharge their batteries. But watching them work and fulfill their daily duties, you'd never have noticed it. It was awesome to watch them work, giving everything they had at every point, understanding the piece they each represent in the huge puzzle, and overcoming that potential dip in morale that came with the extended time on the water. It was absolutely inspiring.
When we arrived on the ship, we were greeted with red-carpet treatment -- literally -- as we walked into the deck triage room, where the ship's captain and his two highest-ranking subordinate officers were waiting for us. After a quick photo shoot and some basic instructions, we were shown our cabin and given an opportunity to rest. That evening, we were treated to a dinner in the captain's office with the three leaders of the ship. After a fantastic meal, prepared for us by the captain's personal chef, who coincidentally was also one of the personal White House chefs for President George W. Bush, we went back to our room to freshen up. We were then guests of honor at the captain's table for the nightly Intel Ops meeting, in which they give the minute-by-minute schedule of the following day's operations. It was incredible to see the coordination and preparation that went into everything -- absolutely impressive.
After the meeting broke up, we stayed around and visited with some of the officers that remained in the room. Devon went down into the racks where the lower-level troops sleep and played some dominoes with a few other Jamaican troops on the boat. I stayed in the wardroom and played some poker with a group of officers. Devon and I were ultimately escorted up to the top deck (essentially, the control tower for all the air ops on the ship) and were allowed to witness -- using night-vision binoculars -- nighttime take-offs for the Harrier airplanes aboard the ship, as well as a couple helicopter landings on the deck. Never, ever will the sound and power of a military jet get old to me. I've loved it since I was a kid, and I think I always will.
We slept well that night, knowing we had an early wakeup call on the ship for breakfast before a four-hour tour of the ship. When we embarked on the tour, we went to every level of the ship, starting at the bottom down in the engine/boiler room and working our way up to the top deck, having lunch in the Chief's Mess on the way up. We also got to sit in helicopters, Harriers, marine-land vehicles and hovercrafts, while learning the differences of various types of marine weaponry on board.
This is when I first realized exactly how many different jobs are required to keep a ship running smoothly and why the coordination is so important. There are so many things that I never thought about, such as the water-purification system that turns sea water into purified water (over 100,000 gallons/day). The toilets and dish-washing systems use straight sea water to do their jobs (dishes are rinsed with pure water at the end of the process). Also, their recycling/waste program is extremely environmentally friendly, with huge amounts of trash output daily to manage.
We were fortunate to have timed the visit perfectly to witness a very intricate process called an UnRep ("underwear replenishment") -- no, they're not really receiving underwear. But it is how they refill everything on the ship, as well as unload items that can no longer be used. This process best demonstrated the coordination needed to have success in missions on the ship.
It starts when another ship, the Amelia Earhart, lines up alongside the larger Kearsarge. After they station themselves about 200 feet apart, traveling on the same course at the same speed, the troops use a modified rifle to shoot three lines of rope across to the other ship. The other ship then connects the rope to a pulley and shoots it back. Then items are exchanged using the ropes, as huge pallets of all kinds of necessities (including cereal, toilet paper and mail) are traded back and forth over a four-to-five hour period. The storage on the ship, as well as the methods for exchanging the items, has to be extremely well coordinated to take on the huge volume of supplies to keep the ship running without a glitch. It was fascinating to watch.
After dinner that evening, Devon and I headed down to the Hangar Bay to give motivational speeches, as well as greet many of the troops on board while taking pictures and signing hundreds of autographs. It was at this time when the trip became the most rewarding for me, personally, as many of them really expressed a great deal of gratitude for our visit and helping them break up the monotony of the ship's activities.
At the same time, we did our best to express to them how much their service and sacrifice means to all Americans, whether everyone realizes it or not. We just wanted to make sure they understood that their role is in no way going unnoticed, and based on the level of emotion in that room, I think everyone walked away changed for the better.
Devon and I were exhausted after that, having spent nearly the entire day on our feet. We were asleep quickly, our last night on the ship. When we woke up the next morning, we grabbed a quick breakfast, then proceeded down to the level below the Hangar Bay to experience a little fun: a joy ride out on the ocean in a LCAC (hovercraft). They even let us take over the driving for a few minutes each, and we obliged by doing our best to create seasickness for the others on board.
When we got back, we spent some more time visiting with people we'd gotten to know in the short time there, eating lunch and preparing to return to base. Before leaving, we had the honor of being escorted to the deck triage room again by the captain for our final few minutes on the ship. It was really neat to see everyone in the room having casual conversation as we were approaching the room, but then the moment the captain walked in, someone yelled out "Attention on deck!" and the room was instantly silent and motionless -- a memorable display of the huge amount of respect they all have for their leader.
After a few more photos, the captain presented us with his commemorative coin, as well as a large framed photo of the two of us with the three ship leaders, taken the first day. We were then dressed in full-flight gear and escorted out to our ride back to land: a Huey (helicopter with no doors on the side). Our ride back was exhilarating, never getting more than 100 feet above the ocean as the wind whipped our clothes around while we leaned over to get awesome views of the sea below.
When we landed back on the base, we were escorted to our rooms where we were given the rest of the day to rest, pack, and say our goodbyes to the people who had made this trip possible for us. After some time to catch up on the Internet, as well as mixing in a game of cribbage with a couple troops after dinner, we headed for the airport and my 27-hour trip home commenced.
On the flights, I was able to reflect back on how truly special this trip was. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience -- one that allowed me to meet and express my gratitude to some truly remarkable people. I'm grateful to Armed Forces Entertainment for allowing it to take place. And I'm grateful to the men and women who serve this country selflessly and submit to fulfilling their individual roles, each playing an important part of protecting our rights and freedoms in this great nation. And I pray that they can all return home safely soon.