ABOARD THE USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH — For sailors aboard this ship in the Persian Gulf, their focus on routing Islamic extremists in Iraq and stanching a humanitarian disaster there lends an excitement to their current mission that was absent during their last mission in Afghanistan.
“They [sailors] know, no kidding, they are at the tip of the spear, and that spear is having an impact on what’s going on,” said Master Chief Petty Officer David Carter, the Bush’s command master chief. He said the thought of helping people and doing good things really registers with the sailors.
Several sailors who spoke with Stars and Stripes shared the sentiment. But they also stressed that they devote the same kind of attention to their jobs whatever the mission.
Petty Officer 1st Class Shelley Paulina oversees all the flight deck lights and the Improved Fresnel Lens Optical Landing system, which helps pilots set down safely on the ship. She said the flight deck is always a hazardous place.
“We have to launch and recover aircraft regardless of what we’re doing, and that in itself is important ... so you have to take it serious at all times.”
This is only the second deployment for the Navy’s newest Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, named after the 41st U.S. president. It’s the last of the Nimitz series. Four ships and nine aircraft squadrons are part of the Bush carrier strike group.
Capt. Dan Cheever, commander of Carrier Air Wing Eight embarked on the Bush, tells his pilots to “follow the training, follow the rules and do what’s right.”
As of Monday afternoon, 17 airstrikes had been conducted by U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft, including some by F/A-18s from the Bush. The action is aimed at checking the advance of the Islamic State and at protecting U.S. personnel in Irbil, the regional capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Irbil was under threat by Islamic State forces when President Barack Obama authorized airstrikes Thursday. The first strikes were launched Friday.
While the airstrikes represent an escalation of the mission, pilots from the Bush have been flying armed patrol missions over Iraq since June, when the ship was re-tasked from supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and ordered to the Persian Gulf as the Islamic State’s threat emerged.
“We are always ready to support any contingency like that, it’s what we spend all the time training for; it’s just what we do,” said Capt. Andrew Loiselle, the Bush’s commander. He’s been keeping the crew informed on the current situation via the ship’s public address system, known as the 1MC. Sailors onboard have also been watching their ship’s role in the airstrikes play out on CNN.
Officials say the airstrike missions in Iraq are very similar to those flown in Afghanistan. Cheever, who has flown missions into Iraq in the past few days, said it’s not a giant shift, just “a little different geography.”
Cheever said he flew the missions to stay in touch with the situation there.
“Everything our guys do, I do, so that I know exactly what’s going on, and what they are going through.”
The operation in Iraq is the primary focus for the Norfolk, Va.-based carrier, which is on a nine-month deployment that started in February. But the ship also continues to conduct maritime security missions and training evolutions with allies in the region.
“We have a lot of capacity and a lot of ability do a lot of different missions,” Cheever said.
Officials said the operational tempo for the more than 5,000 sailors aboard the ship has remained consistent, despite the recent airstrikes, and that the ship can sustain the missions for as long as the president deems it necessary.