April 19, 2002

First Person:

The Real Heroes

By YN1 Kevin Gouveia

After a long delay and extensive repairs and a herculean effort by the ships crew, the finest ship in the U.S. Navy, the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67), got underway and is now on station assuming the watch from USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) and continuing the war against terror. As a child, I never expected in my wildest dreams that I would actually be onboard a United States Navy vessel, let alone defending my country against terrorists but, here I am and proudly serving my country.

It is quite an honor to be amongst the finest men and women of the U.S. Navy, onboard the JFK. These Sailors worked around the clock, seven days a week since October 2001 until the ship got underway in February 2002 for Operation Enduring Freedom. It is the men and women of the JFK who sacrificed their personal time with their families and friends to get the ship ready to defend our great Nation against Terrorists. It was their hard work that brought the JFK back to life. On 7 February 2002, in the early hours of dawn under a darkened gray sky, I watched families, parents, girlfriends and boyfriends dropping off their loved ones at the pier, saying good-bye to them, not knowing what their love ones would encounter, let alone what their future had in store for them. And in the back of their minds, wondering if they would return. It takes unique individuals to do what their country is asking of them and the hardships their families must endure from being separated from their loved ones for an extended period of time.

Every day I watch the men and women of the this great ship take their lives into their own hands-putting out fires, using whatever means possible to stop oil spills, battling temperatures in excess of 100 degrees or more to keep the boilers running to provide steam to the catapults so the aircraft can take off. It is the men and women on the flight deck who take their lives into their own hands each time as they go out to support the pilots and the aircraft.

As I stand and watch from the bridge, I find myself gasping for air each time the pilots take off and land, knowing they are doing the same and saying a little prayer for a successful takeoff and landing.

It is the men and women in the galleys and laundry departments throughout the ship who are working 24/7 providing meals, laundry services and support to over 5000 people. It is the men and women onboard who keep the ship functioning and they are lucky if they get five hours of sleep a night in between their normal working hours and standing watches. This is their portable city and home for the next six to seven months. But, through it all the morale still remains very high in spite of being over worked, lack of sleep and not knowing what might happen next. They keep themselves busy with listening to music and taking a few minutes to chat with friends. I call it the city that never sleeps.

An Air Force persons between flight during Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Air Force. Photo by Staff Sgt. Larry A. Simmons) File Photos.

As I walk around the ship, I see the young Sailors coming in from the flight deck where temperatures range from 100 degrees or more, sweat pouring down their dirty faces, exhausted and hungry, they manage to make it to the galley for a quick bite and then off to bed for a couple of hours of sleep before their day starts all over again. I can only imagine what is going through their minds when they hit their racks. I wander around the ship and pass a young Sailor who is stripping the decks and waxing them and just a little ways down the passageway I see Sailors painting the bulk heads, sweeping the decks and polishing the brass work for the next day. As I pass each one of them you can see the exhaustion all over their faces but they manage to crack a smile and say hello. It is quite obvious who keeps the ship afloat. It is the JFK spirit that keeps them going and working as a team.

As we sail towards the Suez Canal, the Air Wing is doing flight operations and one by one the F18’s; F14’s, E2’s, EA6B’s, S3’s and SH-60’s are getting their flight qualifications done. I am stunned that these aircraft can take off and land on such a short runway. As I stand and watch them, the same thought keeps coming into play — what if they do not make it — and then the thought is quickly gone when the aircraft lands safely on the deck.

Then all of a sudden you hear the words you thought you would never hear over the ONE MC, Aircraft down, an Aircraft down. The ship’s worst nightmare has become a reality. One of our F-14 TOMCAT’s has crashed into the Mediterranean Sea south of Crete, Greece and both pilots have ejected. God only knows what went through their minds as their hearts started beating rapidly and the ejection seat handle was pulled and their bodies were thrown into 170 knots of air until they landed seconds later in the ocean.

I am sure they kept asking themselves what went wrong and desperately looked for each other and wondered if their friend was lucky to survive the crash. At this time the ship sets the at-Sea Fire Party Watch, the flight deck crew is racing to prep the helicopter for the rescue mission and out of the corner of your eye you see the pilots and crew running to get to their helicopter.

They board and immediately take off in the hopes of finding survivors and the Sailors hurry to put the Rescue Boat and the team into the water to assist with the recovery. The feeling that overcomes you at this point cannot be put into words. Your main objective is rescuing the pilots and hoping for the best. As the helicopter surveys the crash site they spot one of the downed pilots, a sense of relief comes over them. He is still alive.

The swimmer jumps from the helicopter into the icy waters below and swims towards the pilot and grabs onto him and they are quickly whisked back into the helicopter. The pilot radios back, letting us know he is alive and that they are returning. We can only hope for the best that the second pilot was just as lucky. As the rescue boat approaches the other pilot, they see no movement and the consensus is, he was not so lucky. At that point you can just imagine what was going through their minds. The sense of urgency is pressed upon the boat crew to get him back to the ship as fast as they can in the hope that there is a slight possibility that he may survive; then reality sets in and the rescue team has the unpleasant task of bringing back one of their fallen shipmates, an experience we would not wish on anyone.

And, for his buddy who survived the crash and the rest of the crew, they will have that unpleasant memory to live with for the rest of their lives. The world today is definitely not the same as it was 20 years ago; we now have to look behind us, think twice about opening mail, worry about boarding an airplane and wonder if you will make it to your next destination. We have new terror amongst us and we, as a Nation, cannot let anyone dictate how we are going live our lives. The Terrorists must be defeated at any cost. Our world has changed forever as a result of the September 11 attacks. We cannot live our lives as we have before. We must protect our way of life and those countries that side with us for future generations to come.

President Kennedy said “Any man may be asked in this century what he did to make their life worthwhile, I think I can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction, I served in the United States Navy.”

It is the men and women of the armed services who everyday are doing their job to defend our way of life. These are our heroes.

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