USS Theodore Roosevelt sailor, after a silent month, reports home that he is OK

By JOE MEDLEY | The Anniston Star | Published: May 6, 2020

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ANNISTON, Ala. (Tribune News Service) — A sleep-deprived month feels eternal for a Navy mom to go without word from a child on a virus-stricken ship, but Bernadette Mack’s phone lit up at 5 a.m. Sunday. No rolling over and trying to recapture sleep.

Braden Mack’s email had that familiar subject line: “USS Theodore Roosevelt.”

“He said, ‘Hi mom. I just want to let you know that I’m doing well,’” Bernadette Mack said, continuing to read from the email. “‘I tested negative both times we were tested, and I’ve been staying in a hotel for the last month. It’s been crazy and exhausting, but we are all we have, so we’ve been getting things done.’”

With that and a few subsequent emails, Bernadette Mack could file the 31-day span since hearing Braden Mack’s voice on a rushed, April 2 cellphone call as an anxiety-ridden month of her life.

Seaman Apprentice Braden Mack, who was a 2018 All-Calhoun County basketball player at Oxford, stands two years into his service with the U.S. Navy. A 6-foot-4 former forward who used to help the Yellow Jackets control air traffic in the lane with blocks and rebounds, now is an aviation boatswain’s mate aircraft handler and aviation apprentice who controls ground traffic in the Roosevelt’s hangar deck.

Shipmates lower planes from the flight deck on elevators, and he makes sure they get parked in the right spaces. There, chiefs and crews maintain some of the world’s most technically advanced high-performance aircraft.

Navy ships are built for efficiency and mission function. On the Roosevelt, a Nimitz Class nuclear-powered carrier, 4,865 officers and sailors live with 90 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters on a ship 1,092 feet long with a 252-foot beam.

Forget social distancing amid a global pandemic. At last report, COVID-19 cases among Roosevelt crew exceeded 1,100.

Crew have dispersed to a high school gym and hotels in Guam, where the Roosevelt is docked. Capt. Brett Crozier’s pleas up the chain of command went public, and then-acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly relieved him of command.

Modly has since resigned.

A widely disseminated video showing crew loudly chanting Crozier’s name as he disembarked seems to relay their feelings.

Back home, Bernadette Mack and her husband, Frazier, a 23-year U.S. Army veteran, followed developments in the absence of communication from Braden. News stories showed rising COVID-19 case numbers among crew members, and Crozier’s removal from command added to a sense that things were “spiraling down,” Bernadette said.

Speaking from military experience, Frazier reassured Bernadette they’d hear something, if something was wrong. Still, it’s not the same as hearing directly from Braden.

Bernadette tried to occupy herself with walking or painting tumblers, a favorite hobby. When she could sleep, she slept with the phone in her hand.

Well-meaning friends regularly asked her how Braden is doing. She called each question a “setback,” because it reminded her that she couldn’t answer with certainty.

“I would just always let them know that he’s in God’s hands, so I know he’s OK,” she said.

Bernadette leaned Bible verses, especially Proverbs 29:5: “The fear of man bringeth a snare, but, whoso putteth his trust in the Lord shall be safe.”

Before Sunday’s email, their last communications came in late March and early April. They spoke roughly a week prior to April 2, and the Roosevelt had just docked in Vietnam.

“They had been there only two days,” Bernadette recalled. “We were actually on the phone, and they were telling them that they need to get back to the ship.”

Braden called on April 2 and explained why he had to get off the phone in their previous call.

“He said, ‘I had to go, because they had several more cases of this virus,’” Bernadette said. “It was just coming out to us, so he said there were three more cases, and they were having to go back to the ship, because they weren’t sure if they contracted it in Vietnam, where they had just docked.”

Braden ended the conversation with a promise to call back. So began the month of no communication.

That ended Sunday morning, when Bernadette awoke to Braden’s reassurance. In subsequent emails, relayed by Bernadette, Braden stressed how much he misses family and friends. He also warned about COVID-19.

“He said, ‘This virus is real,’” Bernadette said. “He said, ‘Please let my brothers and family know this is real.’

“I guess it’s from his encounters and seeing some of the people sick. He said some of them were not so sick, but some of them were really sick.”

In another email, Braden stressed the importance of prayer in what he called “a temporary situation.”

“That kind of touched my heart,” Bernadette said. “I know that he is still believing in God, that God will be his protector.”

At the request of The Star, Bernadette emailed Braden questions about his experience. What follows are questions with his answers:

Question: What has kept you through all of this?

Answer: What helped me keep my spirits up through these troubling times was, my trust in God, the constant help and service of all my brothers and sisters in the military while in quarantine. They were instrumental in allowing me to focus on my health and state of mind.

Q: Did this test your faith?

A: Absolutely.

Q: Is this virus real?

A: This virus is very real! Unfortunately, we lost a shipmate to the COVID-19. There are many others recovering.

Q: What can you share with us?

A: Despite all the negative things you may hear about us on the news, the Navy is handling the situation well. They quarantined every sailor in a 4/5-star hotel room or housings on base. They tested us 3-4 times a day while we were there, just to make sure we were OK to come back to the ship. I’m beyond blessed to be one of many that’s virus free. Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind.

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