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Elk Mound native relishes role in U.S. Navy crew preparing to launch new amphibious assault ship

After Courtney Craig graduated from Elk Mound High School in 2003, she joined the U.S. Navy to see the world.

That’s exactly what the 28-year-old has done, already having lived in many states, visited several countries and served aboard ships cruising the waters off Japan and the Middle East.

Yet her latest landing spot may be the most exciting of all for Craig, the former Elk Mound dance team member and softball player who now is a chief petty officer and chief aviation ordnanceman.

She is serving aboard the USS America in Pascagoula, Miss., as part of a hand-selected crew charged with bringing the Navy’s newest and most advanced amphibious assault ship into service. The 844-foot-long, 45,000-ton ship is expected to be commissioned in October in San Francisco.

Craig clearly doesn’t take her role lightly.

"I am a part of the America," she said. "We are the fourth ship in the U.S. Navy to bear the name USS America. I am helping to build another great legacy of the name USS America. I get to be part of the very first crew this ship will have.

"This ship is built to be around for at least 50 years, and I was a part of it from the very beginning. This is a huge legacy."

Craig is part of the 900-person crew slowly bringing the ship to life by overseeing construction, testing new equipment, training on new systems and executing trials at sea, according to Navy spokesman John Scorza.

Eventually the crew will grow to more than 1,200 sailors and nearly 1,900 Marines when the ship, being built in Mississippi by Ingalls Shipbuilding, sets off on a sea voyage.

As part of the initial crew, Craig is getting a firsthand look at improvements in the ship’s design: a more fuel-efficient gas turbine propulsion plant, increased capacity for aviation operations, advanced weapons systems and sophisticated electronics.

The America class of amphibious assault ships, which replaces the aging Tarawa class, will serve a role similar to that of an aircraft carrier but on a smaller scale, Craig said.

Its design will enable the ship to embark and launch the newest aircraft in naval aviation, such as the tiltrotor MV-22 Osprey, the short takeoff and vertical landing F-35B Lightning II Strike Fighter and a mix of cargo and assault helicopters, she added.

America can support a wide spectrum of military operations and missions, including putting Marines ashore for combat operations, launching air strikes, keeping sea lanes open and delivering humanitarian aid following natural disasters, according to a Navy news release.

Craig’s role as an ordnanceman involves responsibility for the receipt, issue, handling and stowage of all weapons and ammunition on the ship. She also is part of the team coordinating the commissioning of the ship, which ultimately will call San Diego its home port.

Her dedication comes as no surprise to her mother, Bobbi Craig of Eau Claire, who described her daughter as being extremely goal-oriented and maintaining a serious outlook on life.

"I call her an old soul," Bobbi Craig said of her daughter. "She has experienced a lot more and grown up a lot faster than most people her age."

That will happen to someone who early in her military career served on a ship that was the target of enemy fire in the Middle East.

Courtney Craig’s rapid maturation and advancement — the Elk Mound native is scheduled to become a commissioned officer next April, when she will be transferred off the America — should serve her well as she pursues her goal of advancing up the officer ranks and someday becoming captain of a Navy ship, her mother said.

"I wanted to stay within my job and be able to make decisions on a larger scale and eventually make bigger decisions that could affect the entire Navy as a whole," Courtney Craig said.

One of her superior officers expressed confidence that Craig is sailing along the right path.

"Since arriving on board, Chief Craig has established herself as an efficient, effective leader in the Weapons Department," Lt. Matthew Eaton, the America’s weapons officer, said in a news release. "As the weapons assembly and magazines division chief, she is responsible for the training and mentorship of sailors in the largest division in the department.

"She possesses the positive attitude that is essential for success in the officer community. She will be a very successful commissioned naval officer in the world’s greatest Navy."

Such words are music to the ears of the sailor’s mother, who long ago got over the shock of her daughter not discussing the possibility of joining the Navy until after she enlisted.

"I couldn’t be more proud of her," Bobbi Craig said.

Lindquist can be reached at 715-833-9209, 800-236-7077 or eric.lindquist@ecpc.com.

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