MANAMA, Bahrain — When the USS Ponce returned to Norfolk in December 2011 with its 360 crewmembers and thousands of additional shipmates — roaches that had inhabited the vessel — it was supposed to be its final deployment.
After its “victory lap,” it was scheduled to decommission in March 2012. But the U.S. Navy decided the race wasn’t quite yet over for the 41-year old ship.
The Ponce, nicknamed the Proud Lion, was reclassified from an amphibious landing transport dock to an interim afloat forward staging base for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, and it arrived at its new Bahrain homeport in July 2012.
It was a first for the Navy, whose officials described it as an experiment, partially inspired in part by the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk’s role as an afloat special operations staging base during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001.
For the first time, the Navy has such a platform permanently based in the 5th fleet theater and capable of doing a variety of missions — including humanitarian relief or special operations — utilizing the ship’s flight deck, well deck and immense storage capacity.
Another experimental aspect was that in its new role the ship would essentially be manned by a crew of civilian mariners from the Military Sealift Command integrated with U.S. Navy sailors. It currently has about 220 crewmembers — 165 civilians and 55 servicemembers.
“It keeps you on your toes,” said Capt. Jon Rodgers, commander of the USS Ponce. “I’ve touted two cultures, one crew.”
Walking aboard the ship, it’s common to see civilians with beards, long hair, and men with earrings — all things that would be considered to be contrary to good order and military discipline on a regular U.S. Navy ship.
Still, the biggest challenge for the Proud Lion in past year has been physically converting the ship to an afloat staging base. Since the ship was expected to have been decommissioned, it was in severe disrepair and much of the task of retrofitting and modernizing it fell to the crew, who did so even as the ship transited from Norfolk to the Middle East June last year.
“The ship was pretty broken,” said Christopher Semmler, an engineer on the Ponce, adding that all the maintenance work has given him good experience to put on his resume.
The bridge, pilot house, combat information center and many more compartments were completely overhauled. The crew also installed some new compartments such as a shipboard ER complete with an operating room designed by Navy surgeons. And the work continues, especially in engineering where temperatures below regularly exceed 130 degrees in the Gulf.
“We are constantly dealing with breakdowns, overhauls and fixes,” said Steven Wojtasinski, an engineer. Since the Ponce was built in the late 1960s, the engineering equipment “brings you back in time a little bit,” he added.
But the underlying problem of how much money should the Navy put into a vessel considered an interim solution, remains unresolved.
On July 10, 2013, the Ponce celebrated its 42nd birthday, and there is much uncertainty about how many more birthdays it will have. Rodgers said he believed it will remain in service at least until 2016 when it may possibly be relieved by a newer vessel.
Since the ship’s arrival in the 5th Fleet, it has played a key command and control role as the centerpiece in two 5th Fleet led, large-scale international maritime security exercises in the Persian Gulf.
“It is an experiment, and I think it’s been a successful one,” said Rodgers, who claims the vessel has 10 more years of life in her.
But, he admits he has a bias.
“She is a wise old ship, and if the nation needed her to go further I’m sure she can do it.”