By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
NAVAL BASE KITSAP, Wash. – In July, the crew of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis learned their ship would deploy four months earlier than planned, and to a different part of the world than expected. Less than two months later, they report they’re ready to go.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta visited the ship this week to thank the sailors for their service and their extraordinary effort in preparing the ship. During his visit, some of the crew discussed with American Forces Press Service what their summer has involved.
Petty Officer 1st Class Alex Armour has spent 10 years in the Navy, with two on the Stennis. Armour took part in the ship’s last deployment, seven months in the Middle East, which ended in early March.
“We went from place to place [for] port visits,” he said, “but we spent the majority of our time in the [Persian] Gulf.”
Word of the next deployment -– back to the Middle East -- came in July, he said, while the ship was underway for training. Many of the sailors were anticipating the deployment that had been previously announced, which would have taken the Stennis carrier strike group to the Pacific later in the year, Armour added.
“A lot of people had made plans; they weren’t planning on being out to sea [again] so quickly,” he said. “The turn-around was really quick for us. … We had to qualify the carrier and the strike group once again; just all this stuff got crunched into a four-month period. And that, I know, weighed a lot of stress [on] the personnel on board, as well as the chain of command.”
Armour said he understands why the Stennis carrier strike group is headed out to the Gulf region again.
“I know we are needed there. I know there’s a carrier presence that’s required to be there,” he said. “This is why we’re on the Stennis; this is why we all joined. It is a lot quicker than we initially expected, but it is our job. … It’s not easy, but we’re ready to do it.”
Seaman Apprentice Azusena Roman is 19 and enlisted in the Navy a year ago. Right after her initial training she joined the Stennis for the final two months of its last deployment, she said, and she’ll also take part in the upcoming one.
Roman’s introduction to the Stennis carrier strike group “was intimidating,” she said. “But I got along with people. Everyone welcomed me aboard, and I got the hang of things.”
Word of the change in deployment schedule was shocking, she said, but added, “When they need us, they need us. [We’ve] got to be prepared at all times.”
Roman, who got married in March, said she and her new husband had to change plans when they learned of the change in deployments. Both are from Los Angeles and her husband was planning to move this fall from there to Bremerton, Wash., the home port for the Stennis.
“He was upset about [the early deployment] as much as I was,” she said. “But we should be getting used to this. We talk every day, pretty much, and we have plans for the future when [the ship] comes back. … It’s going to be tough, but we’ll get through it.”
Roman said she has professional goals she’ll be working toward during the deployment, including earning the insignia of an enlisted surface warfare specialist, which requires study and, in some cases, qualification in various aspects of shipboard and combat operations.
“I want to get my ESWS pin, so I need to get qualified in many things,” she said.
Lt. Cmdr. Zachary Harrell, public affairs officer for the Stennis, said since the new deployment was announced little more than a month ago, the sailors and leaders of the Stennis carrier strike group have managed both professional and personal challenges.
“Informing the sailors and the families was definitely a big priority for the command,” he said. “The sailors and the crew found out directly from the admiral.”
Rear Adm. Charles M. Gaouette commands Carrier Strike Group Three, the Stennis strike group. Gaouette put word on the deployment out to the crew as soon as he heard it last month, Harrell said.
“We gathered on the ship – we were underway at the time – had an all-hands call, and the admiral addressed the crew,” Harrell said, adding that the admiral’s main aim was to let everyone know what was coming so they could start to prepare.
The change in deployment date affected everything from supply timelines to stress management, he noted.
“We can’t do what we do without sailors who have a good foundation with their families,” Harrell said. “So that was definitely made to be a priority, so that the families knew and could prepare.”
Ships’ crews are normally encouraged to take leave at the end of a deployment, and again before they ship out for the next, Harrell said. Though the Stennis sailors had a lot of work to do getting ready for the Middle East, the command allowed as much leave time as possible, he added.
“We got seven or eight days less [leave time] than we would usually get, but we still had about 24 days where people could take time off, spend time with their families [and] get their personal lives in order,” he said.
Morale among sailors on the Stennis remains high, Harrell said.
“People are always motivated to do what they’ve been trained to do,” he said, adding leaders at all levels of the crew are working to ensure sailors have time to plan for their personal and family lives, while at the same time preparing the strike group for a seven-month mission.
Harrell said he and his wife, Amber, are both ready for the imminent separation.
“I’ve probably got the world’s best wife,” he said. “She’s going to be working while I’m gone, and that helps. She’s very supportive of what we do as a Navy and what I personally have to do when I leave home. I’m lucky to have her.”
Other Navy spouses and families offer similar support, he said.
“They’re the best people you could meet on this planet, as far as what they have to sacrifice, and their own personal strength of character,” Harrell said.
The Stennis, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier commissioned in 1995, carries more than 80 tactical aircraft, rises some 24 stories from keel to mast, has a flight deck area of 4.5 acres and contains 900 miles of cabling and wires. As Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said during a visit to the ship earlier this week, the ship exemplifies the high-tech, flexible force-projection capability the nation’s defense strategy seeks to build across the forces.
The secretary also said, during his visit, that “none of that is worth a damn without men and women in uniform.”
Harrell echoed those sentiments: “We can’t do anything without well-trained and well-motivated people to support the system,” he said. “That’s how the mission gets done, and it gets done on their backs.”