Sailors battle complacency at sea by shaking up routine
By CHRIS CHURCH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 25, 2015
ABOARD THE USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT — "Reveille! Reveille! Reveille! All hands heave out and trice up. Reveille.”
The U.S. Navy’s 6 a.m. wake-up call on the USS Theodore Roosevelt marks the start of a long day that, for many, may seem like a repetition of the day before. But on this aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, every task is key to the mission of launching strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
For that, everyone — from the flight deck crew to the engineers — must retain focus, a challenge given the monotony of repetitive tasks carried out day after day, month after month, sometimes in extreme temperatures.
In addition to battling insurgents, the commander of the Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group is intent on battling complacency among the crew.
Rear Adm. Roy J. Kelley let his staff and crew know immediately after taking command mid-deployment in July that the issue is one of his top priorities.
“This is typically when complacency sets in,” Kelley said of the halfway point of an eight-month deployment. “There’s always the fear that someone’s mind is going to wander away from the task at hand, and in this business, especially, that can become very dangerous.”
The reveille call, broadcast over the public address system, means it’s time to get dressed, eat and prepare for a 12-plus-hour shift. For some, like the flight deck crew, that means spending large portions of the day in the beating sun. On this particular day the heat index is only 110 degrees aboard the aircraft carrier, better than a couple of weeks before, when it soared into the 150s.
Along the flight deck, sailors in brown shirts sit in the cockpits of F/A-18 Super Hornets riding the breaks while shipmates check the jets’ equipment. Blue and yellow shirts are walking along the flight deck ensuring jets are properly positioned.
The red shirts, a team of aviation ordnancemen, begin their day carrying munitions, some weighing more than 500 pounds. Facing one another in two rows, they link arms under the bomb they are hoisting onto a jet, their faces contorted from the strain. But when the task is done, the crewmates joke and laugh. One sailor sings a medley of Britney Spears and NSYNC songs.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Emily Marie Blonski, an aviation ordnanceman, said it’s this sort of camaraderie with her “red nation community” that keeps her focused every day.
“My job is repetitive, but it’s not at the same time,” Blonski said. “Our chain tells us to always try something new to keep the mind fresh.”
Staying fresh and focused isn’t always as easy as Blonski makes it seem. Five months into the deployment in the 5th Fleet Area of Operations, some sailors said their jobs are becoming second nature, and that’s when the mind can wander.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Britton Jackson said he does basically the same thing over and over.
“You’ll find yourself just going with the motions, not even thinking about what you’re doing,” Jackson, an aviation electrician's mate, said. “They tell us not to get complacent, but it’s really hard not to.”
Small missteps could cause aircraft to crash on the flight deck, those standing watch might miss a potential threat on the radar system, or a sailor could get injured falling down a ladder well.
Kelley has ordered the commanders of the five ships that comprise the strike group to make small adjustments to prevent such scenarios.
“You change some of those sequences and force people to refocus on the mission and what they’re doing,” Kelley said. “Quite often that’ll help prevent you from having mishaps due to complacency.”
The Roosevelt’s commander, Capt. Craig Clapperton, who also took command just last month, tries to instill a sense of shared mission and achievement. He gives a daily rundown via the public address system of what the crew has accomplished each day.
“They work so hard, I think it’s important to know on a daily basis the impact they are having in Iraq and Syria,” he said.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Ramon Martin, an aviation machinist's mate, does not feel it helps him personally, he welcomes the shared information. “Because now we know where we are at and what’s going on elsewhere,” he said. ”We sort of understand our position in the bigger scheme of things.”
Recreation, entertainment and other sanctioned distractions from the daily routine are also key to keeping sailors on their game.
After the long work day, sailors can participate in a variety of fitness programs, including soccer and basketball games in the hangar bay. The ship organizes bingo, open mic nights, singing competitions and sometimes brings musicians onboard for concerts. The pop group We The Kings rocked the hangar bay in June.
The Roosevelt’s “Fun Boss,” Megan Villapudua, said such programs allow sailors to relieve stress and get a sense of normalcy.
“This gives an opportunity for sailors to get involved and to relax in a way they might not think possible on deployment,” she said.
Port visits also offer a break from the grinding routine.
The strike group still has months to go before it heads back to San Diego, its new home port, Kelley said. “Getting everyone successfully home at the end of this is important.”
At day’s end, the voice on the public address system is a reminder that tomorrow will start and end the same as today: "Taps! Taps! Lights out. All hands turn in to their racks and maintain silence about the decks. Taps.”