Monday, September 22, 2008

Guest Blog Post - Chris Van Gorder

Good evening (or morning or afternoon in California),

Today our JCOC is going to visit the USS Iwo Jima today just off the coast of Crete.

The USS Iwo Jima is one of the Navy's largest Amphibious Assault Ships which provides the Marine Corps with a means of ship-to-shore movement by helicopter in addition to movement by landing craft.

The Iwo Jima was launched on Feb 4th, 2000. The ship was accompanied on her maiden voyage by more than 2,000 World War II veterans, many of them survivors of the Battle of Iwo Jima on June 23rd, 2001.

Anyway, after our preparation, we were flown out to the amphibious assault ship in five Marine Corps CH-46 "Sea Knight" helicopters. Those of us in San Diego see that helicopter regularly - it is the tandem rotor (or banana) helicopter used to transport equipment, supplies and Marines (now JCOC members).

Our group was briefed, safety checked and given our helmets, goggles and life preservers before we left Souda Bay Naval Air Station. Our flight of five CH-46 helicopters taxied southbound on to the runway and then one-by-one, took to the sky in single file making a slow right turn to the north crossing over the airport and heading out to the USS Iwo Jima which was cruising about 25 miles off shore.

We had landed on the port or left side of the ship at the stern since we were the 5th of the five helicopters - all on the designated landing spot - precisely. When it was safe to exit the aircraft, the rear ramp was lowered and we exited to be met by a line of officers and sailors all making sure we walked exactly where we should. I could see they wondered who we were but nobody asked. As we walked around the "island" or main control tower on the ship, our safety gear was collected and we were met by the ships Captain, Capt. Robert Irelan, his Executive Officer and the Commodore of the squadron of ships. I apologize, but I did not get their names.

We were taken below to the Officers Mess and immediately broken up into groups for our day-long tours.

My group started with having breakfast/lunch with the enlisted crew, never mind that we had just finished breakfast before we left for the ship. But the breakfast was not important - meeting the Marines and sailors was. I sat with a young Marine Corp enlisted man - 20 years old just yesterday (about the age of my youngest son) - by the name of Mike Morales. He told me this was his first cruise. He also told me about his mother - a first generation immigrant from Colombia, who started work in the U.S. making $.67 per hour and now is a DEA Agent assigned to the Washington DC area. Mike told me how proud he was of his mother and how - after he re-enlists for a second tour of duty - he wants to follow in his mothers footsteps in the DEA.

He asked me what I did and I told him about my background and several others in the JCOC. Mike told me he was very impressed that this group would come and visit. I told him not to be - that we all came to see him and his buddies - to tell them how much we appreciated their commitment and sacrifice. I told him he was a hero in our eyes.

Our conversation continued until breakfast was over but before it ended, I asked him for his mothers e-mail address so I could send her a note to tell her that her son was well. He gave me the address and told me his mother would be surprised. I sent her a note a few minutes ago.

I think that was the highlight of the day for me and yet the day had just begun.

We toured the ship, saw "fast rope" rappel demonstrations my some very young - but well trained and disciplined Marines. We saw static displays of weapons, vehicles, aircraft; combat marshal arts, and the "well deck" where $24 million amphibious hover craft (the same kind we see up at Pendleton) were loaded up and ready to go to war - or rescue - if necessary.

We also saw a Marine Corps Harrier Jump Jet take-off (photo attached), fly by and demo along with a helicopter search and rescue (one of my favorites for obvious reasons) demonstration.

At the end of the day, we had the chance to purchase some gifts from the ship, met with the Captain and Commodore for a debrief, put our safety gear back on and headed back to Souda Bay. As we walked around the corner of the island to walk to our aircraft, the enlisted personnel were lined up for us to walk in between. They did a "piping ceremony" and saluted as each of us walked through. Quite an honor for a civilian guest of little importance. Like the rest of my colleagues, we just walked through mouthing thank you to each of the heroes paying us this honor.

I wish I could find a better way to honor them.


Tomorrow - off to Rota, Spain and the U.S. Coast Guard. Cvg

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