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Capt. Thomas Parker, commanding officer of the USS Kitty Hawk.
Capt. Thomas Parker, commanding officer of the USS Kitty Hawk. (Joseph Giordono / S&S)

ABOARD THE USS KITTY HAWK — Just weeks after a major combat deployment, the crew of this aging aircraft carrier is about to face the “most aggressive maintenance period ever for a forward-deployed carrier,” its commanding officer said Saturday.

In an interview as the Kitty Hawk steamed for a Tuesday homecoming, Capt. Thomas Parker commended his crew for the job just completed and said the near future holds a summer-long dry-dock period for the ship.

“It was time to give us a good, long time to work on all of that stuff,” Parker said, ticking off a list of major projects for the ship’s steam plant, hull and air-maintenance department.

“The payback is that you have a carrier up here forward-deployed which is able to respond to these events like we had in the Persian Gulf.”

Parker assumed the ship’s command the day after it entered the Persian Gulf in February, making him the third Kitty Hawk captain in less than a year. His predecessor, Capt. Robert Barbaree, took over in September 2002, after Capt. Thomas Hejl was dismissed by the 7th Fleet commander.

Parker said he felt no extra pressure assuming command of the ship — literally on the eve of war. A five-week overlap between his arrival and the change of command helped, he said.

Soon afterward, he began putting his own stamp on a ship that was developing a reputation for turmoil. Now, many sailors say, the right man is in the job.

“I think a lot of us are more comfortable knowing that he’s going to be around for a while and that he won’t put up with a lot of the things that got the crew in trouble in the first place,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Chris Spencer, who has been on board two years.

Every afternoon at 1 o’clock, the ship’s public address system crackles to life, and a full, jovial voice greets the crew of the “Fightin’, bitin’, howlin’, growlin’ Battle Cat.”

As a small token of how much focus is being put on the sailors’ behavior once they return to port, Parker took to calling the ship the Battle Cat.

“When we pull back into Yokosuka, this will be a different crew than the one that left,” he says over the loudspeaker.

But Parker knows it will take more than a few encouraging words to erase the stigma brought about by last summer’s string of in-port incidents, which led to strict new liberty rules that will remain in effect when the ship returns.

“I’m a big believer in personal responsibility. You are responsible for your actions, whether you’ve been drinking or not,” he said.

“We want to make sure that those who do act responsibly — and most people on the ship do — get the appropriate amount of freedom that’s due to someone who is well-behaved.”

Though he’ll be new to the Yokosuka community, Parker is no stranger to Japan. He spent several years as commander of the USS Belleau Wood and USS Essex in Sasebo.

Before coming to the Kitty Hawk, he was assigned to United States Space Command in Colorado Springs, Colo. It was a strange coincidence, he said, that his first weeks as Kitty Hawk commander landed him in the middle of combat.

“You train for this your whole career. No one wanted a war, certainly not I,” Parker said.

“I’ve been in air-combat situations before, enough to know that it’s not something I particularly enjoy, though it’s something that we do. We project power. We drop bombs. We break things.”

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