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Petty Officer 2nd Class Bounlay Khaiaphone, 25, is a gas turbine technician on the USS Cowpens. He is from Laos, one of 15 nationalities represented by sailors in the engineering department.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Bounlay Khaiaphone, 25, is a gas turbine technician on the USS Cowpens. He is from Laos, one of 15 nationalities represented by sailors in the engineering department. (Kendra Helmer / S&S)

ABOARD THE USS COWPENS — Every day on this ship is like a United Nations gathering.

The 400 sailors in the engineering department hail from 15 countries, from France to the Philippines to Venezuela. That means melding several languages, cultures and customs into one purpose.

“I think it’s part of our strength,” said Lt. Cmdr. Vince Perry, 37, USS Cowpens chief engineer. “Some of these guys have done more to prove their devotion to the United States than U.S. citizens.”

The engineering department sailors on the guided-missile cruiser hail from the United States, Romania, France, the Philippines, Laos, Vietnam, China, Haiti, Dominican Republic, British Virgin Islands, Mexico, Cameroon, Jamaica, Panama and Venezuela.

Several, including Petty Officer 2nd Class Ngoc Le, have applied for U.S. citizenship, a requirement for becoming an officer.

Le, a gas turbine engineer, was born in South Vietnam. Though he’s a Christian, people sometimes unknowingly do something offensive to his Buddhist upbringing.

“For me, you don’t touch my head,” said Le, 28. “Our head is a symbol of high authority. You don’t let people walk over your head.”

Learning about those cultural differences makes ship life interesting, said Petty Officer 2nd Class Bounlay Khaiaphone, 25. He left Laos as a child for a refugee camp in Thailand.

“You chat about countries, learn about lots of other places,” said the gas turbine technician.

For the most part, the cultural differences aren’t noticeable, though the accents take some getting used to. Petty Officer 3rd Class Zhenping Wu keeps an English dictionary handy to point out words in case people don’t understand him.

Native to China, Wu was nervous about serving on a ship.

“I was scared because I didn’t know anything,” said Wu, 23, a gas turbine technician. “But I don’t feel different [from the other sailors] now.”

His family didn’t want him to join the military for fear he’d go to war. But he is at war, albeit from the sea. The Cowpens was the first ship from the Persian Gulf to launch Tomahawk missiles against Iraq last week.

Wu plans to get out of the Navy and return to the United States to take care of his parents, who don’t speak English.

“The Chinese have a responsibility to take care of their family,” he said. “I made a deal with my sister that after four years I have to go back to join the family.”

Family has been on the mind of Petty Officer 3rd Class Gueldo Cesar lately. His second daughter was born last month while he was under way.

Cesar, 30, a Haitian, and others said they joined the Navy because of a chance to learn about technology. Learning about other cultures has been an unexpected benefit.

But one sailor said it’s no big deal to work with so many nationalities.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Jermaine Johnson, 24, grew up in St. Catherine, Jamaica.

“The Jamaican national motto is, ‘Out of many comes one people.’”

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