Some USS Gary sailors say being on a frigate beats carrier duty any day
April 18, 2003
ABOARD THE USS GARY — Fireman Jesse Merrill, his knee swollen to the size of a grapefruit, left the USS Gary for medical treatment on a nearby aircraft carrier.
Some may think he would have relished a break from his 453-foot-long frigate. The USS Kitty Hawk, a floating city of 5,500 people, has 22 times the number of sailors as the frigate.
“It was almost traumatizing,” said Merrill, 28. “By the third day, I was saying, ‘Can I go back to my ship?’”
Several of the Gary’s 250 sailors say they would pick a “small boy” over a carrier any day. Maybe it’s the camaraderie, the tight bonds formed after months at sea away from Yokosuka, Japan.
And don’t discount the perks. It would be a bit difficult to cast a fishing line off a carrier. Before arriving in the Persian Gulf, while waiting for ships to escort, sailors fished off the Gary’s fantail.
“It was a great stress-buster,” following 16-hour workdays, said Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Pfeninger, 35, an information systems technician.
One day, sailors had 15 mahi mahi to cook at a picnic on their steel beach.
While sailors haven’t cast any lines lately, the frigate’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Tito P. Dua, said he supports “lots of little things to keep the week going.”
Saturday is no-shave day. On Friday nights, different groups of sailors take turns baking pizza.
The best day of the week has to be Wednesday. It’s “any hat” day, with heads covered in bandannas, ball caps and Asian hats.
It is also Siesta Wednesday. There are no meetings from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and no work except for jobs necessary to keep the ship going.
“It lets people recharge their batteries,” said the executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Mark Metzger, 35, from Chardon, Ohio.
Most sailors stand watch and have more than one job. That can be tiring, but it has an advantage.
“You get a chance to know everybody and work with them,” said Seaman Corey Allen Smith, a personnel man from Wichita, Kan.
“From a carrier I’d never get to … shoot an MK 44,” he said, standing amid 7.62 mm bullet shells scattered at his feet after a training shoot with one of the frigate’s weapons.
On small boys — the term for ships other than the giant carriers — sailors can learn all the systems during a long deployment. The Gary left port in late January.
“A big carrier can be career death. You’re never going to get bridge time,” said Ryan Easterday, 24, an anti-submarine warfare officer from Davis, Calif.
Dua, 41, from McLean, Va., said he knows the importance of looking out for his sailors. He sends a weekly e-mail to about 100 sailors’ relatives, updating them on how the crew is doing.
“I ask you all to keep writing e-mails and sending your packages and letters. Your sailor really beams with pride when he gets a letter/box from home,” he wrote in recent message.
Some Gary sailors say they would prefer to be on a carrier, where mail comes more frequently. Those who say they prefer smaller ships likely haven’t been on a carrier, said Petty Officer 2nd Class Chinua Raine, 31. The aviation ordnanceman from Birmingham, Ala., misses the excitement on the flight deck of the two carriers on which he served.
Plus, he said, it is more like real life, with both men and women serving together. The Gary has an all-male crew.
“There’s more to do on a carrier,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin Salus, 21, a sonar technician from Colorado Springs. “We just don’t have space for anything [on a frigate]. There’s just one treadmill, and it’s broken a lot.”
But the Gary just got some new equipment. And the topside gym is pretty sweet with a sea breeze blowing across sailors as they pump iron.
Overall, it’s much more peaceful on a frigate. Bunks don’t shake because of aircraft launching and landing. The frigate’s gentle rolling lulls sailors to sleep — though, in rougher seas, the result is not so gentle.
“Here, you can go on the flight deck and look at the stars,” said Lt. j.g. Chris Rutland, 28, a helicopter pilot from Wheaton, Ill.
On a recent night, Seaman Joshua Laskowski was on watch on the fantail, his legs dangling over the wall to the poop deck. The nearby water occasionally glowed with passing jelly fish. During the day, sailors often spot dolphins.
“There’s lots of time to think on watch. It’s kind of peaceful,” said Laskowski, 22, from Scranton, Pa.
That’s part of what Merrill missed during his five days on the Kitty Hawk for treatment for the knee he injured falling off a diesel engine. Under doctor’s orders, the engineman exercised by hobbling around the carrier. He didn’t like what he saw.
“I was asked six times in one day, ‘Shouldn’t you be at a cleaning station?’” he said.
“Here, I know my place. I’m not afraid to speak up,” said the Camden, N.Y., native. “Over there, people have a tendency to look down at your lapel when they talk to you.”
He understands, however, why a ship with 5,500 sailors needs more structure.
“They have their own way of doing things. We have our own way,” he said. “I prefer our way.”