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USS Nimitz returns home after six-month deployment

The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz pulls into port at Naval Base Kitsap on Dec. 10, 2017.

GREG HALL/U.S. NAVY

By JULIANNE STANFORD | Kitsap Sun | Published: December 12, 2017

BREMERTON, Wash. (Tribune News Service) — The USS Nimitz returned to Bremerton this weekend following a six-month deployment that brought the aircraft carrier across the globe, performing combat operations in the Arabian Gulf's scorching heat and participating in the Navy's first three-carrier exercise in a decade.

Nimitz departed Bremerton on June 1. While underway, the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group spent three months in the Arabian Gulf launching more than 1,000 combat sorties that dropped more than 900 pieces of ordnance on Islamic State targets in the Middle East in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced on Saturday the government had regained full control of the country's border with Syria, marking the end of the military fight against ISIS in the country.

"I feel like we had a big part in that," said Capt. Kevin Lenox, the Nimitz's commanding officer.

The most challenging aspect of Nimitz's deployment was operating in the gulf's excessive heat from July to October, ship leadership said.

The average heat index often exceeds 150 degrees in the gulf, making it so a sailor would be drenched with sweat after a one-minute walk across the hangar bay or while merely standing watch in certain parts of the ship.

"Hot wasn't the word for it. There's some other word we need to come up with." Lenox said. "I've been joking that there's cool, warm, hot and then whatever the next word is, that's what it was like there."

The heat posed challenges to the ship's schedule and impacted both the crew working up on the flight deck and inside the ship.

"The actual temperature inside (one of the catapult spaces) was 150 degrees," Lenox said. "I went in there one time after I heard about it, and immediately, it was like every blood vessel in your skin opens up to try to cool yourself and so your blood pressure drops and you instantly feel a little woozy."

Work and watch schedules were adjusted to reduce exposure to temperatures that could cause heat stress, heat stroke or heat exhaustion while still being able to meet the needs of the mission, Lenox said.

"We got everyone all trained up to the point of where if they weren't feeling well to get off the flight deck and get to a cool space before they got further down that spectrum," Lenox said.

The ships' supply department ordered a bunch of hydration backpacks and a special kind of lightweight flight deck jersey to keep the crew cooler and hydrated while working. The crew's uniform standards were relaxed so all sailors could wear their coveralls with the top half tied around the waist.

The ship's supply department stopped stocking vending machines with soda, and hydration stations with water and electrolyte beverages were set up in the hangar bay instead.

At one point, Nimitz Command Master Chief Jimmy Hailey recalled holding a meeting in his office where five master chiefs tried to figure out how to make enough ice for 5,000 people without overburdening the ship's systems.

The solution was to buy a bunch of gallon-sized plastic zip-top bags, fill them with water and freeze them to make a large enough ice cube to drop them into a cooler to make cold water.

"Little things like that all over the ship helped out immensely," Hailey said.

In July, Nimitz reported 38 heat-related injuries, which was a record high for ships deploying to the region. By September, the number of heat-related injuries dropped to only five cases.

To combat the effects of the heat, a team of 15 people from the Naval Health Research Station came onboard Nimitz in June and again in August to study the impact on sailors working in such conditions. The researchers collected data from 37 volunteers who wore heat-monitoring devices that tracked the high temperatures’ effect on work performance and safe heat exposure times, with a particular focus on flight deck crews.

The Navy’s prior research on physiological heat exposure limits was based on studies that date back to the 1960s. The data gathered from these observations are intended to help future sailors deployed to the Arabian Gulf during the summer.

The strike group made port visits in Hawaii, Sri Lanka, India, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Thailand and Japan.

The lack of docking capacity for a ship of the carrier's size in some countries proved to make a few of Nimitz's port visits difficult. In Chennai, India, some sailors waited about 10 hours in line to get off the ship into port, only to have to turn around and get back on the ship since by the time they arrived, liberty was almost over. Nimitz was unable to make a port visit to Colombo, Sri Lanka.

"We knew it was going to be a little bit of challenging port visit, so we planned a bit better there," Hailey said. "We had a lot of things set up on the ship for sailors to do, such as video game systems and the basketball court set up. I think that kind of helped sailors to take a knee, take a breather and relax after three months of pushing hard in the heat in the Arabian Gulf."

Nimitz is the first and oldest active service nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the fleet, and Lenox said the ship handled the deployment well for its age.

"This is a 42-year-old ship, and you don't see a lot of 42-year-old cars driving around because complex machinery takes a lot of work to keep it going," Lenox said.

Nimitz is scheduled to undergo a maintenance period at the shipyard, where it will be docked for at least the next year.

©2017 the KitsapSun (Bremerton, Wash.)
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