Life on a navy ship is different for each sailor. As a female officer on a ship of 3000 crew (5000 at sea), my experience was an eye-opener after working in classrooms, offices and hospitals for years prior to joining the Mighty Battle Kat, USS KITTY HAWK (CV63) in 2004. On the best days, it was memorable and exciting. Most days, a bit boring (remember the movie “Groundhog Day” with Chevy Chase?) and on the worst days, heartbreaking and for some of my fellow sailors and officers, downright deadly. Last week’s at sea collision of USS Fitzgerald and a merchant ship brought back some long-forgotten memories of life at sea, along that very same route where 7 Fighting Fitz sailors were sent to Davy Jones’ locker.
You see, the fleet that’s homeported in Japan, 7th Fleet, is always at sea. When other ships homeported in the US might be docked at their homeports for months at a time, my ship and her guard ships were lucky to be docked in Yokosuka, Japan for more than a couple of weeks at a time. I recall going over our annual history for the ship’s public affairs officer and realizing that in my first year on board, I’d been at sea for 10 months. TEN. The following year, I was at sea for another 8 months. It would be easy to deal with if it were at sea for months at a time, but we were always in and out of port. Sometimes we’d be gone for a whole 4 months, but usually it was a couple of weeks out and then back for a few days before doing it all over again. (Remember, Groundhog Day!)
When we reached a port, it was definitely time to decompress. Get togethers, hail and farewell dinners, celebrations all had to be carefully planned for those rare times we were back. Some folks traveled when they could or just headed straight to the bright lights, big city of Tokyo. Others headed to the Fleet Recreation Center to work out, take classes or plug into the free wi-fi to play internet games. One of my sailors loved to roast his own coffee beans and make homemade ice cream and beer. One of my roommates rode her bike for miles. Another loved to cook. I loved to explore my town of Kamakura and find cute restaurants, cafes and shops.
Life was like a pin ball machine on the Pacific Ocean for us and after a few months, I grew used to it. When at sea or on 24 hour duty in port, I woke up, grabbed breakfast, went to my office in the medical department, checked email, and did most everything I did when I worked in a normal hospital. Days at sea were long and to this day, I find it hard to turn off my mind at night after months of being available and in my office well past the dinner hour. Every other day, we did drills in the evening (General Quarters) and sometimes, tragedy struck and we had to put what we practiced into action. I’ve twice had to get our transfer cases (used for remains) down from the Hawk’s hangar bay. We’ve had long nights at sea for a man overboard alarm or even worse, a flight deck accident. We were always ready to respond because of the multitude of checklists, endless inspections, and constant drills. If we didn’t, we risked loss of equipment or loss of life.
I hope to write a bit more in the future about life at sea and overseas, but in the meantime, I thought I’d leave you with a few general photos from my time on the Kitty Hawk.