Decrease in number of port calls disappoints sailors
ABOARD THE USS BATAAN — Some sailors join the Navy to see the world, but many aren’t seeing much more than water these days.
Terror concerns, busy schedules and budget cuts have nearly wiped out port visits on most sea deployments.
Capt. Earle Yerger, the commanding officer of the Bataan, said things are loosening up a little now, but the visits are fewer than he would like.
“It got to the point where it was easier for them to just say, ‘Drive over there, take care of business and drive home,’” he said. “Some of the places we have historically gone on a regular basis were either unwilling or unable to pony up the kind of force protection we asked the host nation to provide. So we quit going.”
The Bataan has deployed three times since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the United States, but it has made only four port calls. Five years ago, ships might make 16 to 18 port visits to places such as Turkey, Egypt and Italy on a single, six-month deployment through the Mediterranean Sea.
Last year, the Bataan went 147 straight days — a record for an amphibious assault ship — before pulling into Lisbon, Portugal, on the way back to Norfolk, Va.
This trip, the ship will visit two undisclosed spots on the way home from its three-month deployment to drop off Marines in the Persian Gulf.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Chris Grimes, 39, of Delcambre, La., understands that the mission should take precedence, but he would like the opportunity to see different people from across the globe.
“For me, it enhances my life,” he said. “I get to see how other people live. I get to see what other cultures are like. And I can base my freedoms and liberties on what I see from other places. That’s what I enjoy.”
The ship had a long list of places to stop during its scheduled deployment in 2001, but the attacks changed everything.
“Yeah, it’s a disappointment in that aspect,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandy Tilbury, 23, a Navy photographer from Houston. “But 75 percent of the world is water. They say you’re going to see the world when you join the Navy. Well, we’ve seen about all the water we can see.”
The Navy used to market itself by the places ships visit, running commercials with sailors smiling from exotic places. Now, the Navy’s slogan is “Accelerate Your Life” to match the higher pace.
Before the war on terrorism, commanders worried about sailors going to a bar and getting drunk. Now, safety at a foreign port is the biggest concern.
“Now you have to worry about somebody throwing a bomb in a bar where they’re getting drunk,” Yerger said.
Force protection requirements can also put so many sailors on security duty that only a small fraction would be able to enjoy port visits.
But commanders and veteran chief petty officers said it would be a shame if port visits became a thing of the past.
“I hope not,” Yerger said. “Because that was one of the neat things about being in the Navy, was going to the different places and seeing how other people live. It really is one of the things that drives home an appreciation for the United States.”