What a modern Navy deployment looks like aboard the USS Truman
By BROCK VERGAKIS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: July 2, 2016
ABOARD THE USS HARRY S. TRUMAN (Tribune News Service) — As one F/A-18 after another vaulted off the deck of the USS Harry S. Truman, operating in the Mediterranean Sea recently, a Russian frigate followed within eyesight.
Fighter jets from the Truman were heading into Iraq and Syria, where Russia also is flying combat missions in a complicated conflict where the longtime rivals, now cooperating to avoid each other in the skies, don't always have the same enemies or goals.
The frigate wasn't there by U.S. invitation.
This is what a modern deployment looks like for Norfolk-based ships in an era of a resurgent Russia and with the U.S. determined to operate wherever it wants in an effort to crush the Islamic State group.
No ship illustrates that more than the Truman as it nears the end of an eight-month deployment.
"I think it is very cool to see an aircraft carrier in operation, and I bet they're taking a look at us through their binoculars going, 'That looks awesome,' " Capt. Ryan Scholl, the Truman's commanding officer, said from the ship's bridge.
"All ships out here have just as much right to the sea as I do. … I don’t find that to be any more of a challenge than anyone else that’s out here. I do find it significant to pay attention to them and keep an eye on what’s going on with them."
A few days later, a Russian frigate sailed within about 300 yards of the USS Gravely, a Norfolk-based destroyer protecting the Truman, which was less than six miles away. The U.S. said last week the frigate displayed a false international signal about its movements so it could interfere with the Truman's operations.
Russia said it was the Gravely creating problems by cutting in front of its ship and released a video it says supports its claims. The U.S. contends there's more to it.
"These actions have the potential to unnecessarily escalate tensions between countries, and could result in a miscalculation or accident which results in serious injury or death," said a U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the incident.
The Truman strike group didn't set out seeking involvement with Russia or Iran in the Persian Gulf. But their leaders say it's part of the job.
"When you’re operating in the world there are dynamics that go along with that," said Rear Adm. Bret Batchelder, commander of the Truman Strike Group.
"The interactions that we’ve had with others operating in international waters and international airspace have been for the most part safe, routine and professional, as I would expect them to be. There have been a few that have been a little bit less than that, but we’re extraordinarily well-trained and came with the skill sets to deal with that."
The Islamic State group had killed more than 130 people in Paris just three days before the Truman pulled out of Norfolk Naval Station in November. Sympathizers of the terrorist group killed 14 in San Bernadino, Calif., in December. President Barack Obama declared in March that defeating the Islamic State was his top priority following yet another attack in Belgium that killed 31 and injured hundreds more.
That meant the Truman was going to be busy and motivated, even more so following a gunman's rampage in an Orlando, Fla., nightclub in June that killed 49.
"I think we defeat the homegrown terrorists by destroying the people that inspired him," Batchelder said of the Orlando shooter. "He avowed his allegiance to ISIL in his 911 call, as I understand it, while he was killing those innocent people." The American flag over his ship flew at half-mast in honor of the victims.
By April, the Truman already had set a record for bombs dropped by Navy jets in the fight against the Islamic State with 1,118, surpassing the Norfolk-based USS Theodore Roosevelt's record of 1,085. The targets have included enemy fighters, weapons stores, missile launchers, vehicles, oil plants and cash reserves.
"We’ve been able to see on our sensors villagers coming back into areas that they had to vacate, so that really does give you that sense of momentum, and say, 'Hey, we are doing some good work here and are able to liberate some towns in Iraq and Syria.' And that’s very important to get back to a more normal way of life for them," said Lt. Cmdr. John Hiltz, an F/A-18 pilot aboard the Truman.
Batchelder said before the Truman arrived, the Islamic State was generating about $500 million a year from oil production. The most recent estimates he's seen say that's been cut by between 30 and 50 percent.
Crew members say they're making a difference when they see jets return with fewer bombs than they left with.
"This is hands-down the most I’ve ever seen expended on any deployment. This one is going to be one for the ages," said Petty Officer 1st Class Dustin Boudreau, an aviation ordnanceman. He moves bombs to a waiting area on the side of the ship called a "bomb farm" before they're attached to jets. "We’re letting them feel the pain, that’s for sure."
Nearly 1,600 bombs were dropped by the Truman's jets by the end of June. In comparison, fewer than two dozen were dropped during the Truman's last deployment in 2013 and 2014.
Each pilot's combat mission typically lasts seven hours. There have been more than 2,000 combat sorties launched from the Truman so far, with jets often taking off in quick succession as their deafening noise thunders through the decks below. The vast majority of those missions involve close-air support, where they're in contact with U.S., Iraqi or Syrian forces on the ground that identify targets.
"At higher altitudes there’s definitely a sanctuary. But our air crew are out there flying missions where there is enemy air defense threats that they have. The aircraft are being shot at," said Capt. David Little, Carrier Air Wing 7's commanding officer.
"For the newer air crew, it’s definitely intense because it’s their first time going into combat, first time flying over enemy territory, the first time that they’ll ever employ a weapon that is not on a range."
Typically, aircraft carriers completing a tour in the Middle East stop flying combat missions once they return to the Mediterranean Sea. But Navy leaders didn't want to ease the pressure on the Islamic State and extended the Truman's deployment 30 days so there wouldn't be a gap between attacks from it and the Norfolk-based USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, which is replacing it in the region. The Truman's missions from the eastern Mediterranean were the first from a U.S. aircraft carrier since 2003.
Here some of the highlights from the Truman Strike Group deployment. (Click on a date to read more about each one)
Truman crew members said it was difficult when they learned their mission would be extended, in part, because it was supposed to be the first aircraft carrier guaranteed a seven-month deployment since a shorter-tour plan was announced in 2014. Their extension came on the heels of having to leave several months early because maintenance to the Eisenhower took longer than scheduled and delayed its deployment.
Sailors have spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine's Day, Easter, Memorial Day, Mother's Day and Father's Day away from their loved ones. The extension also meant canceling Fourth of July plans at home.
"It was a little heartbreaking, but it’s what we’re here for," said Airman Jessica Daniel, who works on the elevators that lift jets to the flight deck. "They were asking who wants to man the rails, and I was like, 'I will,' but I’ll be crying the second I can see people."
The ship is expected to arrive in Norfolk later this month. Eighty-one crew members will meet their babies for the first time. The ship offers classes to help sailors adjust to life at home.
Most sailors say they can't wait to see family and enjoy a favorite meal when they get home. Some just want to play with their dogs or ride motorcycles through the mountains.
Sailors can email or call loved ones when they're not on duty, but free time is rare and the time difference makes calling difficult. Most days are spent working, exercising and studying, with brief breaks for morale-boosting events like a singing contest dubbed "Truman Idol."
Spirits are lifted by mail from home and signs of support from people they don't even know.
A banner thanking the crew for its service and signed by hundreds of Virginia Tech fans at the Independence Bowl hangs in one of the officers' wardrooms, or dining halls. Drawings from children showing their support decorate a passageway.
"We all loving getting mail and even the little care packages we get from, like, the little kindergarten classes that just put something together for us," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Samantha Martin, a dental assistant. "Even those are so sweet, and even the small things that they can bring us, even the cards, it makes us feel a lot better about what we’re doing out here."
About 3,000 sailors keep running what's effectively a small city with its own post office, convenience store, barber shop, Starbucks, chapel and museum. Another 2,000 sailors are embarked with the air wing to support its 75 aircraft and 178 pilots.
"It’s very humbling to be that last step in the chain that actually goes out there with the bombs on your aircraft," said Cmdr. Marvin Scott, the executive officer of the "Rampagers" of Strike Fighter Squadron 83.
"The American people have a good idea of what we’re doing out here. I just think that it’s important for them to know there’s a lot of hard-working young men and women out here on the Truman."
©2016 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
Visit The Virginian-Pilot at pilotonline.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.