ABOARD THE USS ENTERPRISE — War is often the last thing on the minds of the sailors who would be at the frontline if tensions in the Middle East were to erupt.
Deep in the Gulf of Oman, far from any hint of land, they smoke cigarettes in dark rooms reeking of fuel, play video games, run half-marathons on treadmills in the gym and sometimes practice their war skills, because there is little else to do.
“It’s routine,” Brett Ruopp, 21, a gunners mate third class, said before firing rounds from a machine gun into the choppy sea during a recent weekly exercise designed to keep sailors on their guard.
Ruopp said he doesn’t think much about Israel or Iran. His mind was focused on the girlfriend who had stopping sending emails.
Amid a buildup of U.S. Navy presence in the Gulf and growing tensions with Iran over its nuclear ambitions and threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, sailors on board the USS Enterprise are focused on their daily lives aboard ship and the wait to return home.
The sailors help fighter jets take off for nearly daily flights into Afghanistan, many simply standing around for hours waiting for a potential fire or aircraft crash. On days when there are no flights, sailors run laps on the flight deck for an hour of fresh air.
Erick Skoglund, 29, an aviation ordnance airman from Minnesota, makes sure the flight deck is mopped down and that he’s applied enough sunblock to withstand the sun. There has been little action coming out of Afghanistan and less from Iran, he said.
“We are always looking for a jet to come back with no bombs on it,” he said. “We are always doing less.”
Skoglund knows that could change in an instant.
“We really don’t know,” Skoglund said. “We know it’s serious enough to have two (aircraft) carriers out here.”
Tony Marshall, 27, an aviation machinist mate from Prairie City, Iowa, is married and has a 6-year-old child. He is eager to see his family again, but knows global tensions could delay their reunion.
“We are here in case something goes wrong,” Marshall said. “Iran, Syria, I mean, everybody around here.”
Petty Officer 3rd Class Tyrone Buie, 25, wants to leave the Navy after six years of service to pursue an acting career and spend time with his 3-year-old daughter. He has heard rumors that the Enterprise’s deployment might be extended, but doesn’t spend much time thinking about what might happen if the ship were to become entangled in another conflict.
“I don’t concern myself with the big picture,” said Buie, a Navy electronic technician. “We are big, bad America. No one is going to mess with us.”
Lt. Jared Shullick, 29, was preparing to fly to Afghanistan on a recent Friday morning to help with ground operations there. Each time he flies to Afghanistan, he said, “it’s equally scary as the first time you did it.”
Iran would simply be another assignment, another experience.
“I wouldn’t say we are tense,” said Lt. Scotty Trossevin, who has flown above Afghanistan during two deployments. “We are anticipating.”