MORE Voices of Leadership, Sacrifice, and Service
Nearly one hundred stories from the Class of 2002 were collected for In the Shadow of Greatness. The submissions printed in the bound volume were chosen because each best fit the thesis and helped to offer a variety of perspectives.
In the Shadow of Greatness: MORE Voices of Leadership, Sacrifice, and Service is the Kindle publication of those stories that we couldn't fit into the hardcover book. We hope you find them as interesting and poignant!
Two stories from this collection are also available for free below:
★ Prepared for Anything – or So I Thought by Rebecca Smith
★ A (Not So) Ordinary Day in the Life of a Carrier Aviator by Derrick Hunt
☆ Shevonne Wells
☆ Ryan Long
☆ Thedore Achimasi
☆ George Messner
☆ Patrick Alfonzo
☆ Stephanie Muskovac
☆ Benjamin Drew
☆ Heather Honnette Myers
☆ Marlon Terrell
☆ M. Alexis Wright Piet
☆ Susan Gormley Carter
☆ Casandra Koistinen
☆ Bradley Harrison
☆ Jefferey Raunig
☆ Timothy Steigelman
☆ David Johnson, Jr.
☆ Zachary Henry
☆ Casey Kirkpatrick
☆ Amy Jones Satrom
☆ Joe Hooper
Prepared for Anything – Or So I Thought
I am a legacy. My mother's father graduated from the Naval Academy. After he passed away, my grandmother married another Naval Academy graduate. My father graduated in the last all-male class, in 1979. My father was a career Naval Officer, so I spent my life around the Navy, and the Naval Academy. I went to my first Navy football game on my first birthday. We moved every three years, at the least - often, it was much more frequently. I adapted to each new town, each new school, each new set of people. I made new friends, and I managed. My mother always told me that Navy kids can handle anything, and she was right.
I followed in the footsteps of my father and grandfathers and I went to the Naval Academy. In fact, I'm the first child of a member of my father's class, Class of 1979, to graduate. The irony isn't lost on anyone, believe me. You'd think, after the childhood I'd lived and the exposure I'd had, I would have known exactly what I was getting into. I sure thought I did. I was absolutely wrong. Plebe summer, and the subsequent four years at the Naval Academy, made me realize that I will never be fully prepared. I had never in my life faced challenges that were more difficult, and I had never before thought that something might be impossible, but over four years I managed to overcome all of the obstacles thrown at me. This realization and confidence in my own strength and fortitude came in handy in the summer of 2004.
My ship, an amphibious dock landing ship or LSD, was deployed to the Middle East. An LSD's primary mission is to transport Marines, their vehicles, and their equipment to a designated location where they will move ashore in an amphibious assault. After training and exercising with our Marines on the East Coast, we dropped our Marines off in Qatar for a mission in Afghanistan. We headed towards our planned operating box off the coast of Pakistan to wait for them to complete their mission so we could pick them up and head home. The Quartermasters, upon pulling out the navigational charts for the region, realized that it was the exact same operating box that the ship had been assigned to on the previous deployment two years earlier. With very little to plan for, everyone was ready for a boring deployment. Then, on April 24th, 2004, everything changed. Terrorists had attacked near the Al Basra Oil Terminal (ABOT) in the Northern Arabian Gulf, or NAG, killing two Navy and one Coast Guard Sailor. Within days, we were headed to Bahrain to pick up a Special Boat Team and two helicopters. This would be the first time an LSD had ever embarked a helicopter detachment - while the class of ship does have a flight deck, it does not have a helicopter hanger. It would also be the first time an LSD had served as an Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB), which is what we were told we would be doing upon arrival. We didn't really know what this meant, but off we went, ready to do what we needed to do. Once all of our new embarked personnel and equipment were on board, we headed north towards ABOT and its sister platform, the Khawr Al Amaya Oil Terminal (KAAOT).
I had only recently earned my Officer of the Deck (OOD) qualification, which allowed me to stand one of the most important watch stations on the ship. The OOD is the watchstander who, when the Captain is away from the bridge, is responsible for the safe navigation and operation of the ship. It is the last major hurdle a junior officer is required to clear prior to sitting in front of a board to earn the Surface Warfare Officer qualification, and is described by many as similar to getting a drivers' license - the requisite time has been spent standing the watch with supervision, and the Captain feels confident in the watchstander's ability to do the job alone. Of course, nobody expects a brand new OOD to be one hundred percent confident, and new OODs are highly encouraged to keep asking questions. I had felt pretty good about standing my watches in our decent-sized box off the coast of Pakistan, but I had only stood a few solo watches before we were called away to the NAG. The Pakistan scenario had been easy, but the NAG was going to be much more complicated. Once again, life handed me a situation that far exceeded my preparation.
Standing watch in the NAG got very interesting, very quickly. It was a pretty tightly wound environment. Along with our ship, there was another Cruiser from our group and several Coastal Patrol ships (PCs), Minesweepers, and Coast Guard Cutters, not to mention the lines of merchant oil tankers waiting to fill up and Iraqi, Kuwaiti, and Iranian dhows (wooden fishing boats) filled with men just trying to make a living. A sunken crane just inside Iranian territorial waters had become a favorite surveillance spot for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and our lookouts were constantly monitoring the movements of the Iranian boats to and from the crane - tensions between the US and Iran have always been high, but at that point American and Coalition ships were experiencing higher than normal levels of harassment from the Iranians. The fear of another terrorist attack was always present.
Every ship's captain has a set of Standing Orders, designed to spell out the requirements of the OOD and other key watchstanders. The Orders include times when the OOD must call the Captain with a piece of information, no matter what, and no matter what time it is. These pieces of information include when another vessel is expected to close within a certain distance of the ship. The Captain quickly figured out that the distances specified in his Standing Orders, should they be maintained in the crowded environment we had entered, would result in his phone ringing off the hook. He wisely adjusted those distances, but, unfortunately, the dhow fishermen still didn't understand our comfort levels for space. While they were surely feeling much safer and more comfortable with the beefed up military presence in the area, we had no way of knowing if the approaching dhows, who often did not show up on our radar screens, were filled with harmless fishermen or explosives and a suicide bomber, which was the method used in the attack on ABOT. Most were probably innocent and just going about their business, but we couldn't risk the uncertainty. Our crew-served weapons teams were forced to man the guns several times a day and, in several instances, fire warning shots near the dhows who did not heed our warnings to back away. I felt awful for most of the fishermen, because even in the unlikely event that they had radios on their boats, they didn't understand our verbal warnings in English prior to the warning shots, which were surely terrifying. I knew they just wanted to feed their families and make a little bit of money, but the situation necessitated our tendency toward fear. While we never knew if this would be the time we'd have to actually fire upon one of these dhows, I know I speak for most when I say that we were all glad that it never came to that.
The areas around ABOT and KAAOT had been divided into sectors resembling pie pieces, and the smaller ships were assigned to patrol the sectors. Because of our ship's size, we were rarely given an actual sector; instead, we were given an operating box in between the two platforms with the occasional movement to a sector to cover a ship that needed to leave to resupply or refuel. Our small operating box made life even more interesting when we realized what our mission, as the AFSB, would be: send out our small boats twice a day with meals and supplies for the personnel working on board the platforms (primarily SeaBees and other engineers building living quarters), and launch helicopters, amphibious hovercraft (LCACs), and special boat teams in support of other events going on in the region, about most of which we were never really informed. To make thing even more complex, we had to do all of these things, which required certain wind envelopes, sea states, and speeds, in a small operating box, all at the same time, while surrounded by dhows, and while trying not to run over the fishing nets the dhows had laid with no regard to our presence. All of these tasks had to be monitored, and all of the operational requirements to carry them out met, by the OOD.
With the standard craziness of the NAG and all of our operational requirements, there was rarely a dull moment on watch. Even in the middle of the night there was excitement, quite often in the form of the VHF radio chatter and the infamous "Filipino Monkey." For years sailors have heard those words on the radio in all parts of the world. The "Filipino Monkey" calls were often followed by discussions of bananas and sheep and/or monkeys designed to make fun of the information gathering techniques used by our ships to track ships in the NAG. It sounds funny, but it just adds to the complexity, and quite often chaos, of the environment and makes OOD a very challenging watch to stand.
I seemed to be handling the challenges of being an OOD well enough. My feedback from the Captain and some of the more senior officers was good, and my watch team responded well to my leadership. However, I was reminded not to get complacent on more than one occasion. One particular event stands out.
We had been assigned an actual sector of two pie pieces surrounding ABOT. The radars were not cooperating at such close range to the other ships, and our sector was much smaller than what I was used to. I thought I had plenty of space before I encroached on the sector owned by the Cruiser until I heard the radio call. First, it was their OOD asking my intentions. I stated them, saying I was about to turn, and the next thing I heard was their Captain telling me I'd better hurry up, and I'd better tell my Captain that I almost t-boned his ship. Needless to say I had not been prepared for that! I quickly turned the ship away from him, and called my Captain, letting him know that I had gotten a little too close for comfort, and he may hear something from the other ship's Captain. Luckily, he was understanding, told me to make sure I kept a further distance, and carry on. But my nerves were shot for the rest of the night!
We remained in our box in the NAG for 48 days straight. On the 49th day, we were directed to head to Bahrain - our time in the NAG was over, at least for the time being. The mission we began continued in the NAG, and more ships were tasked with missions outside of the ones normally given to its class.
My father and my grandfather passed me only two real pieces of advice regarding my Naval career: 1. No matter what, make sure that when you go to bed at night, you can look in the mirror and feel good about what you did that day; and 2. If you stop having fun, find a new job.
Taking this advice into account, I realize that I made mistakes as an OOD, and I was yelled at plenty of times. I learned that it was OK, even a good thing, to ask questions especially if I did not fully understand the task I had been given. The situation in the NAG in 2004 was not the first mentally tough situation I had encountered in the Navy, and it wasn't the last either. But through it all, I never once felt as though I had compromised my own integrity, and I became a stronger person, learned more about myself, and realized that no matter how difficult the situation, I can make it through. I can say with certainty that I look in the mirror every day and know that I feel good about each day of my Naval career. My time as a SWO, however, was not completely fun for me, so, when my initial service obligation was up, I chose not to continue in the footsteps of my father and grandfathers as a career Naval Officer. Though I am very proud to have been a part of that legacy, I knew that it was time for me to move in a different direction, and serve in another way.
Though I am no longer serving in uniform, the lessons I learned, both about life and about myself, made my time in the Navy worthwhile. If nothing else, I learned that no matter how prepared I may think I am based on past experiences, life has a funny way of throwing curveballs. The difference is, I know now that I can handle them.
A (Not So) Ordinary Day in the Life of a Carrier Aviator
Waking up that December morning, I was nervous. Just a few hours later I would be flying my first combat mission over Iraq in an F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 32 off USS HARRY S. TRUMAN. I was consumed with the sobering thought that I might be called on to employ weapons in a real world situation, and possibly take lives. The previous months of training and hard work were about to be put to the test, and I was determined to step up to the plate if necessary. Little did I know that the toughest moment would come at the end of my mission, attempting what had become routine: landing on an aircraft carrier at night.
Starting the Day
The day started off like all the others thus far on cruise, as the somewhat monotonous "Groundhog Day" routine was well established by now. Having to go one deck below to the nearest head for a shower, I was thankful for hot water, which had not been available the morning prior. Returning to my stateroom, I noticed that "Chach" and "Tight" were already gone. My third roommate, Mike Brown (callsign, "Mike Brown"), was playing bass in a tiny 5' by 5' corner of our free space, as he had a few hours to kill until he stood watch. After throwing my flight suit on, it was time for the first meal of the day: lunch. Most aviators are night owls and sleep until late morning; the joke is we have no clue that the ship serves breakfast. I found Tight sitting down in the wardroom already eating lunch. As the Schedules Officer, he was frustrated about having to write 3 days' schedules in advance, a futile effort since so much changes from day to day in that process. Tight worked for "Heed", the squadron Operations Officer, who came up with this needless busy work. We laughed about how he was being "Skeds O Heed," a phrase we used to describe his propensity to micromanage Tight's efforts to write the squadron flight schedule.
I traveled the length of the carrier to my squadron's ready room for mission preparation, and noticed a lack of the usual banter. Gone was the relaxed atmosphere, filled with jokes about our Skipper's weird sounding grunts or about how gnarly "Sauce's" mustache had filled in during the squadron mustache growing competition. There was a decidedly more serious tone during this first week of combat operations, as my squadron mates devoted all of their attention to mission planning. I put together a "kneeboard card," which is a sheet filled with important information like radio frequencies, expected fuel states, navigation points, divert fields and code words for the mission. Just as I finished printing out kneeboard cards for everyone in my flight, it was time to brief, 3 hours prior to our launch.
All 20 aircrew from the various squadrons who were launching on our cycle met for the intelligence update, which was provided by the Ground Liaison Officer (GLO). The GLO was an Army representative on the carrier who was the intermediary with our Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) that would be on the ground in Iraq. We planned to circle overhead an assigned area of responsibility, or killbox, in constant communication with the JTAC. Our presence greatly aided troops on the ground, as we would use our Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) to give them an airborne picture of anything suspicious or threatening. If necessary, we would also provide Close Air Support (CAS) to destroy or disrupt insurgent/terrorist activities. This included dropping precision munitions guided by GPS or laser, or strafing a confirmed target with rounds from our 20 mm cannon. During our time in the Arabian Gulf, we flew missions all across Iraq, notably over Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. The GLO ensured that we would arrive to our killbox knowing the hotspots, key roads and buildings, and potential threats for our mission. Thus, we would be on the same page as the JTAC when we showed up overhead. The GLO is the crucial link in the air-ground team.
Flight and Crew Brief
My flight lead, "Kass", and I went back to the ready room to discuss a number of important items. This included the weather, the formation we would fly, the frequency plan, expected fuel quantities, and the location/altitude/time where we would find our tankers. Next I had a crew brief with my Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) "Didja," where we discussed how we would operate together to maximize our effectiveness on this six hour mission. WSO's are seated behind the pilot in an F/A-18F; their job is to work sensors and communications for the myriad of missions we are able to perform.
Didja and I grabbed dinner, and I was thankful they served my favorite dish on the carrier, steak and lobster. Unfortunately the salad wasn't exactly garden fresh, but that's expected when you've been underway for a month. Our dinner was devoured quickly so we could make our takeoff time. We then rushed up to the paraloft to don our flight gear, which included a G-suit, harness, survival vest, and helmet.Usually a brief process, it took a little longer as we had to check our Night Vision Goggles (NVG's), and sign out extra gear (pistol, ammo clips, evasion charts, etc) that would be needed in case we ejected over the Iraqi countryside.
Preflight and Cat Shot
We then went topside on the flight deck to preflight. It is standard that we walk around the jet and inspect control surfaces, ensure all panels are shut, and check for proper fusing on our bombs. After that, Didja and I jumped in the cockpit, strapped into our ejection seats, and went through all the usual start-up checks. These checks included firing up both engines, turning on our displays, and testing sensors like the radar and FLIR. Our maintenance personnel looked our jet over one last time before our chocks and chains were removed.
Next, the "yellow shirts" or taxi directors moved us around the flight deck, as we were guided into the catapult. The jet blast deflector was raised, which prevented our exhaust from blowing aircraft and personnel over the side. It has been said that the flight deck of an aircraft carrier is one of the most dangerous workplaces around; if we don't watch out, we can be blown overboard or sucked down an intake! Once I ran the throttles up, I wiped out the controls and checked for any illuminated caution lights or flight control abnormalities before turning on the external lights, signaling the flight deck that we were ready to go. We were violently thrown back in our seat, and next thing we knew we were flying into the night sky. The catapult shot is an intense experience; you're taking a 60,000 lb piece of metal and accelerating it to nearly 200 mph in 2 seconds!
Transit and Tanking
The transit to and from the carrier is a very regimented process. We have to be talking to the right controller at the right altitude at the right location with the right amount of gas at every phase of the flight. It's actually straightforward if everything goes as advertised, but there's usually some curveball that forces us to amend our plan, and tonight would be no exception. Once I joined up with Kass, we completed our combat checks and transited together from the Arabian Gulf into Iraq.
Our first order of business was to refuel from an Air Force tanker aircraft. Think of them as gas stations circling around the sky. Tanking is one of many skills we must master, as it enables us to fly a mission hours beyond what is possible on one full tank of gas. We extend a refueling probe, and must connect it with a basket that is attached to the tanker by a hose. Inability to get in the basket or ripping off our pitot static instruments while making an errant attempt will cut short any mission over Iraq or Afghanistan, rendering us useless. Kass topped off at our first tanker, but when I connected with the basket, gas did not flow to my jet. We had to quickly find another tanker that wasn't broken, or else I was going to have to end my first combat flight at an airfield on land! Thankfully, we were able to find an adjacent tanker, and I quickly got my probe in the basket and filled up. The crisis was averted, and it was time to press on to our assigned killbox.
We arrived overhead, and checked in with our JTAC. He had us use our FLIR to scan along a major highway extending south from Baghdad, searching for Improvised Explosive Devices (IED's). It was quiet as we circled around the night sky, with Didja slowly moving our FLIR picture along the road, looking for any contrast in our picture that would denote a potential IED. This was tedious work, but we gladly performed it. Finding an IED would undoubtedly save lives, and we were quick to point out anything suspicious along the miles of highway. 95% of the time these flights are uneventful, but we must stay vigilant for the moment when troops on the ground truly need us.
For a couple of hours we orbited over Baghdad, left for our second tanker, returned to our killbox, looked for more IED's, and finally checked out with our JTAC. Although there was no action on my first mission, there would be a few exciting moments during the thirty other times I would fly over Iraq on this seven month deployment. Kass and I tanked for the third and final time, and we started our transit back to the boat. I mentioned to Didja that it flew by quickly, despite the fact we had been airborne for nearly six hours, far and away the longest flight I had in a Super Hornet at the time.
Preparing to Land
Our flight started down from 24,000 ft to 1,200 ft, and I mentally prepared for the impending night carrier landing, or night trap. Traps during the day are fun, and we can't get enough of 'em. Turn out the lights, andnot so much. Initially it's intimidating to land on a carrier at night, but as we get a few night traps under our belt, it becomes tolerable. However, add low cloud ceilings, bad visibility, and a pitching deck on top of an already dark night, and even the most experienced aviator will be shaking when they finally come to a stop! I was getting aboard at night without too much difficulty thus far on cruise, and I had no reason to think this night would be any different. Before beginning my final descent, I broke away from Kass, setting up 2 miles of spacing between us. I then dropped my landing gear, tailhook, and flaps, and vocalized my landing checklists with Didja. The controller called my position every 2 miles, and approaching glideslope, I reported "up and on," as my landing aids were lined up perfectly. Everything looked fine; I felt confident.
At night, we see nothing but black until beginning the final descent 3 miles from the carrier, when a couple of red lights become visible. At 2 miles we can make out the edges of the landing area, and at 1.5 miles the "ball" begins to appear. The ball is a light source that is used to determine if we are high, low, or on glideslope. If the ball shows us too high, we miss all the wires, or "bolter." The throttles are always advanced upon touchdown, so we can fly away and try again in case we bolter. If the ball shows us too low, then we run the risk of hitting the back of the ship. There is only 120 feet between the first and last of four wires our tailhook is trying to catch, and our approach speed is about 135 knots, or 155 mph! We also have to watch our lineup, as the landing area is 80 feet wide. If we touchdown only a few feet either side of centerline we risk clipping another aircraft or flight deck personnel. We also have to fly one exact airspeed, as being only a couple of knots off will either force us to bolter or cause damage on landing. No wonder it has been said that it's like landing on a postage stamp!
At 3/4 mile, the "ball call" is made to the Landing Signal Officers (LSOs) to let them know we can see the ball. The LSOs are fellow Naval Aviators that watch us land from the back of the carrier and ensure everyone gets safely aboard. If they are silent while we have made minor corrections from 3/4 mile to touchdown, it is considered a solid pass. If we don't initially see the ball, the LSOs will talk us into a safe position to land. If we are off parameters, their commands start to get louder and snappier, and if we are looking unsafe, they will scream corrections and eventually wave us off (i.e. save our life). Every pass is graded, and our reputations are formed by how well we perform behind the boat.
Night in the Barrel
So there I was. Didja made the ball call and I was slightly high, right where I wanted to be. I touched down, advanced my throttles forward, and realized – damn, I'm flying again. I heard over the radio from the LSO: "bolter bolter bolter" followed 30 seconds later with "that was a hookskip." To say I was frustrated was an understatement. I flew a nearly perfect pass, only to have the hook bounce over and skip a wire I should have caught! Hookskips rarely occur, and this was a most unwelcome time for one. I couldn't let it get in my head, it was time to try again and fly another strong pass.
As we entered our downwind leg, fuel became the primary concern. There is a maximum weight at which we can trap, and when we are weighed down with bombs, we must land with less fuel than normal. It takes almost 1,000 lbs of fuel each time around the night landing pattern, and now I had one more attempt before I would be forced to take more fuel from a fellow Super Hornet configured as a tanker. I was on final with another good start, but in the last couple seconds added too much power when I felt myself going low. I boltered again, and this time it was my fault...no hook skip this time. This was turning into my "night in the barrel," a phrase we use to describe having trouble getting aboard.
Now I had to rendezvous on the tanker above me, as I didn't have enough fuel to divert to a friendly field. While closing in, I initially came in too fast and almost blew by the tanker, correcting just in time. I was letting my nerves get to me. I then missed on my first attempt to connect with the basket. Here I was, flying around the Arabian Gulf in a $60 million jet, fuel down to a critical level, and struggling to perform a seemingly simple task - no pressure. I finally plugged in and took gas, exhilarated to be in the basket. Although the sequence was nerve racking, I channeled my fear into focus, knowing that I had to succeed; no one else was going to stop training or bail me out.
Next was my third attempt at landing: after yet another good start, I found myself going too high right at the end, and boltered once more. I muttered a couple of expletives out of frustration as we flew away from the flight deck, and Didja tried to reassure me with a "hey, no worries, get 'em next time" pep talk. On downwind for attempt #4 it occurred to me I was "that guy" who couldn't get aboard, and that everyone back on the ship was probably watching this unfold on the PLAT cam, which is a live video feed that shows aircraft on final to land. Instead of watching the nightly movie, your squadron mates and anyone else who cares to watch has the TV on the PLAT channel, fixated on you trying to get aboard. I also was mindful of the fact I would have to tank again if I boltered one more time. On final, I was seconds away from touching down when I saw myself going high again, and pulled power to correct. Pulling off too much power can be dangerous, as we can go from high to low in the blink of an eye. I got the "POWER BACK ON" call from the LSO's while crossing the back end of the carrier, saw the ball drop down as I caught the 2 wire, and finally ended this 7 hour ordeal. All I could think about as I was being taxied to the edge of the flight deck for shutdown was: Thank God it's over.
So much for my first mission over Iraq, now it was time for all the post-flight tasks. I thanked all the enlisted maintainers around my jet for their hard work on the flight deck. I went below for the mission debrief in the Combat Information Center (CIC), which didn't take long because of the absence of notable events over Baghdad. I took off my flight gear in the paraloft, and hung the twisted, piled mess on my hook. As I stepped into the ready room, the LSO's were there to read me my landing grades. It turns out I had a real nice initial pass, as I couldn't control the fact that the hook bounced over the last two wires. However, the head LSO sternly let me know that the subsequent 2 bolters can't become a regular occurrence, an admonishment I took to heart. We are expected to safely land on the first pass, and thus my reputation (and landing grades) took a temporary hit. I was determined to learn from this humbling experience, and quickly bounced back to succeed during the remaining 5 months of cruise. No more "nights in the barrel" for me!
Finally, I was done and headed back to my stateroom. From brief to debrief, the total process was 12 hours… quite the long day. As I reflected on that momentous flight, I felt like I walked away with a better appreciation for why my instructors and flight leads had always critiqued and nitpicked every facet of my performance, no matter how minor. In Naval Aviation we are painstakingly thorough in debrief and critical of ourselves, because odds are we will be required to succeed under extraordinary levels of stress. It is a mindset that has been continually impressed upon me since I-Day at the Naval Academy, and this experience demonstrated the necessity to stay focused in the face of adversity. Flying jets can sometimes be a blast, but from that point on I truly understood just how serious this business is.