By Lt. Nathan Christensen, USN
Special to American Forces Press Service
March 6, 2007 – Navy, Marine Corps and Army personnel are working side by side aboard the USS John C. Stennis Strike Group supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The Stennis Strike Group is afloat in the 5th Fleet area of responsibility, which encompasses about 7.5 million square miles and includes the Arabian Gulf, Red Sea, Gulf of Oman and parts of the Indian Ocean.
"This is the epitome of a joint operation," said Navy Rear Adm. Kevin Quinn, commander of Carrier Strike Group 3. "Our primary mission is to conduct air operations in support of joint and coalition forces on the ground in Afghanistan. Every single mission we conduct is a joint one."
Stennis' commanding officer, Capt. Bradley Johanson, noted that everyone on board plays an important role in joint operations.
"Support for coalition forces on the ground in Afghanistan starts here on the deck plates of Stennis, where everyone on board plays a vital role in achieving overall mission success in OEF," Johanson said. "From those preparing food in the galley to personnel on the flight deck helping launch aircraft to the engineers who provide propulsion for the ship, everyone has important responsibilities. The men and women of Stennis ensure that the ship is able to successfully launch aircraft to execute operations in support of OEF."
Navy personnel aboard Stennis, support coalition ground forces in Afghanistan, but Army soldiers and Marines on board the ship that give a traditionally "blue" Navy ship, a more "purple" flavor.
"Retired Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn stated that carrier aviation could be considered 'the world's largest and most complex team sport,'" said Capt. Sterling Gilliam, commander of Carrier Air Wing 9. "That analogy resonates with me because one only has to observe the activities on the flight deck to make the connection."
The "Death Rattlers" of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323 embarked on Stennis for the first time in 2006 as part of Carrier Air Wing 9 during the strike group's operational work-up cycle. They departed San Diego with the strike group on Jan. 20.
The squadron consists of 18 Marine Corps pilots who fly the all-weather carrier strike fighter F/A-18C Hornets, capable of ground and air attacks, and 145 Marines that help maintain, repair and service the aircraft.
"Ultimately, a Marine squadron operates just like a Navy squadron," said Marine 1st Lt. Bradley Byers, a pilot with the unit. "We bring a different perspective and help provide close-air support to Marines and soldiers on the ground operating in support of OEF. We have a great respect and understanding for what the Marines and soldiers on the ground deal with. We put a heavy emphasis on doing what it takes to help those on the ground and are here to support them."
Stennis' purple color also is enhanced by Army soldiers serving on board. Army Maj. Dave Lander and Sgt. 1st Class John Reardon work in Stennis' carrier intelligence center as liaisons to coordinate operations between the pilots of Marine Carrier Air Wing 9 and the soldiers on the ground in theater.
Lander and Reardon translate Army language for Navy pilots and then back again to Army speak for ground forces operating in Afghanistan.
"The incorporation of the ground liaison officer team has made a tremendous difference in the effectiveness of (Carrier Air Wing) 9," Gilliam said. "Their combat expertise, insight and ability to communicate rapidly with the ground elements have allowed our air crews to arrive on station with much better battle-space awareness."
Lander said the team's mission on Stennis is to support joint OEF operations and make sure the pilots are better prepared to support ground forces. "We've got the same mission," Lander said. "We bring the ground forces together with the Navy air power in the same place to defeat the enemy."
"We are flying missions in support of troops that we have on the ground," said Lt. Steve Neebe, a pilot with Attack Fighter Squadron 147. "It's not a personal fight for us most of the time; it's a guy on the ground who is calling for support, and we're there to provide that support for them."
The men and women of the Stennis Strike Group have formed a joint team to support coalition forces on the ground as well as help bring security and stability to the region. "Every day we conduct joint operations," Quinn said. "Navy and Marine Corps air crews fly missions; Army (ground liaison officers) communicate with ground elements; and we are dependent on Air Force tankers to conduct operations over Afghanistan."
The USS John C. Stennis Strike Group began conducting its combat operations over Afghanistan at the beginning of March in support of OEF. Stennis entered the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations Feb. 19 to provide support for ground forces operating in Afghanistan and also to conduct maritime security operations.
These operations help set the conditions for security and stability in the maritime environment, as well as complement the counter-terrorism and security efforts of regional nations. They deny international terrorists use of the maritime environment as a venue for attack or to transport personnel, weapons or other material.
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