One thing I’ve learned during my time as a human, and especially as a Sailor in the US Navy, is life is unpredictable. As Forrest’s mom would say, you never know what you’re gonna get. My most memorable deployment occurred on board USS Peleliu, an Amphibious Assault Ship, carrying a Marine Expeditionary Unit of around 2,500 Marines. We set out for adventure and port visits, August 2001. It was supposed to be a normal deployment, and we were scheduled to have port visits to Australia, Hong Kong, Seychelles, and more, between training evolutions. We made the usually stop in Hawaii, and not long after, we were in Darwin, Australia. It was shaping up to be a great deployment.
I was in a bar on September 11, around midnight (Australia time), and had just won a T-shirt, and a transistor radio shaped like a six-pack of Victoria Bitters, in a karaoke contest. While I was accepting my accolades, people’s attention started turning toward the television. We watched the Trade Towers coming down in New York. I joined some other Chief Petty Officers, who were going from bar to bar, telling everyone to get back to the ship. Darwin’s taxis were hauling people back to the ship for free ... gotta love Australians.
When I returned to the ship, I heard my name called over the 1-MC (the ship’s intercom system), telling me to report to the commanding officer. I was the public affairs officer for the ship, and several media outlets had reporters headed toward our pier. By now, the beers I had consumed had (mostly) worn off. I got a statement from the commanding officer, then detoured by my office to pick up a handful of press kits (information about the ship). The press had all kinds of questions, but I could only tell them we were going to push out to sea and await orders.
We sailed to the island of East Timor, to keep a commitment to provide humanitarian support to the citizens there. They had recently come to the end of a horrible and violent civil war, declaring their independence from Indonesia. Only medical personnel and a few others were allowed off the ship. I went ashore to record the visit, and take photos of our medical and dental professionals at work.
After that short detour, we went straight to Afghanistan, where our Marines were the first ground forces into the country. Thus began Operation Enduring Freedom.
We went in circles in the Persian Gulf, providing support to our Marines. December 14, the American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, was brought aboard to have a bullet removed from his leg, and to be interrogated by Marine Intelligence. He admitted he wasn’t just Taliban, but also a member of Al Qaeda. You can look this guy up on the Internet.
We had one period during that deployment, where we never left the ship for 137 days. Talk about a lock down! We were extended a month over our expected return date.
Funny, although I remember it being difficult and boring, I think back on that deployment as a positive experience. I got to know some real characters during that time, and although most of our port visits were cancelled, we did get to visit Perth and Sydney, Australia on the way home.
Every so often, when a ship has been at sea for 45 days, the crew is authorized a beer day. We had a few during this deployment. The crew gathers on the flight deck in shorts and T-shirts for grilled burgers and are allowed two beers. (It’s a system waiting to be played, ha ha.)
I also happened to be the lead singer for the ship’s rock band, Midwatch. I wanted to name us, A Band On Ship, but was down-voted. We performed for the crew during these events. I really enjoyed these little moments.
My next deployment, in 2004, was extended from six to nine months for Operation Iraqi Freedom, also aboard USS Peleliu. This time we spent most of our time off the coast of Iraq. Port visits were few and far between. I’ll never forget watching the oil fields on fire from the deck of the ship, or tomahawk missiles being launched off the USS Philippine Sea, floating right next to us. It was a surreal and somber experience, during which I felt no joy.
Other than just telling sea stories, as Sailors are known to do, the point I’m trying to make is, despite how miserable it may feel to be stuck at home with many of your freedoms on temporary hold, it’s important to enjoy the moments in between. Those time when your kid or dog does something funny, maybe your spouse did something thoughtful, or you were able to read a great book – those times are what help you keep it all together. I read A LOT on deployments. I was a permanent fixture in the ship’s library.
I had a big win yesterday. I had been really sweating the fact, my retirement extension might not be approved. If that were the case, I would be in a state of limbo right now, unable to legally stay in Thailand for long, but not knowing when I’d be able to leave. I found a good visa company, and they were able to help me obtain my one-year extension. Now that I have that simple stamp in my passport, there has been a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I’m still locked down, but happy.
You never know what’s going to happen. Things to which you look forward may never come to fruition. Plans may get derailed. You may find yourself in compromising positions from time to time. Just know, that even during trying times, you may occasionally be surprised. You may find joy in an act of kindness, or a documentary about ridiculous people on Netflix. The indomitable spirit of the Thai people, as they help each other through this with food donations is uplifting. Try to look for the wins, and take them to heart. This won’t last forever, and you never know. You may just grow a bit from the experience.
Please share any positive experiences you’ve had during all this. Hang in there friends!