main story image for facebook sharing

Around The Fleet

Two Cultures, One Crew

A perspective from Capt. Jon P. Rodgers, USS Ponce commanding officer

To the casual observer, Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS Ponce (AFSB(I) 15), may appear to be just another haze gray Navy vessel operating in the 5th Fleet area of responsibility, but a look inside the skin of the ship reveals something much different than the standard U.S. Navy military crew and a challenge for traditional thinking; leading a unique hybrid Navy and Military Sealift Command civil service mariner (CIVMAR) crew.

Married couples, sons and daughters, piercings, ponytails, beards, dreadlocks, Nike sneakers and backwards ball caps add to the remarkable blending of the MSC civilian mariners and their uniformed Navy shipmates serving aboard Ponce. As civil service employees, MSC crew's clothing and grooming standards are far from typical for Navy Sailors. (However, in the near future MSC will implement a pilot program to test new flame-resistant uniforms for CIVMARs aboard two ships, including Ponce.)

The military crew is also an out of the ordinary manning concept, since all military Sailors are individual augmentees from more than 50 commands worldwide, serving in seven, nine and 11-month rotations.

Capt. Jon P. Rodgers, Ponce's commanding officer, serves as the first U.S. Navy captain in command of the hybrid-crewed afloat forward staging base. He assumed command of Ponce April 16, 2012, following the ship's re-designation from an amphibious transport dock (LPD) to an AFSB(I), and deployed her with the hybrid crew 45 days later. Ponce is his fourth steam-plant ship and the third ship more than 35-years-old.

"Ponce is not old, she is wise!" Rodgers is quick to point out.

It is difficult to ignore the value of the hybrid manning concept for the AFSB permanently on station in 5th Fleet with a rotational crew substantially smaller than the legacy LPD version.

"The LPD crew billet base consisted of 360 active duty Sailors, not counting the Marine complement," explained Rodgers. "The AFSB(I) sails with only 165 [MSC] civilians and 55 [Individual Augmentee] Sailors manning the entire ship.

"The engineering watchbill consists of three watch standers in each plant, compared to 12 when she was an LPD. Deck department covers the bridge watch, flight deck, well deck and crane evolutions, with half the crew of the LPD. The same person refueling helos is the same person in ballast control operating the stern gate. The hybrid manning concept is our dealt hand, and we play it the best we can to fight fires, flooding, and foes as one."

The duties between the civilian mariners and Sailors are allocated to best handle the decreased manning. MSC civil service mariners crew engineering, supply and deck departments, while U.S. Navy Sailors crew operations, combat systems, weapons, communication stations and handle force protection duties. The ship is held to both military specifications and American Bureau of Shipbuilding (ABS) standards.

One of the major challenges Rodgers centered on was blending two distinct cultures together to serve Ponce's intense mission requirement.

"My first task was to take a crew of complete strangers and meld a team to deploy a near decommissioned ship in 45 days," said Rodgers. "I am reminded of the old REFTRA and GITMO days with a compressed inter-deployment training cycle of 45 days. Now, the greatest challenge is training continuity with the constant turnover of both military and CIVMAR personnel." Rodgers referred back to a time when U.S. Navy ships conducted a comprehensive refresher training (REFTRA) at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, (GITMO) training range within a short period of time.

We take the best of two cultures and fight fires, flooding and foe as one."

Rodgers explained that civil service mariners and military Sailors are very proficient in their individual job ratings, but the teamwork of a crew demands a certain degree of continuity. CIVMARS are only committed to serve four continuous months underway, and the IA military crew rotates frequently as they serve shortened tours. Rodgers is commanding the ship under two-year IA orders.

"Since our June 1, 2012 deployment, we have turned over approximately 85 percent of the crew," said Rodgers. "Nothing is routine in Ponce. Last underway, we had two of three brand new mates on watches [as officers of the deck], two of three new master helmsmen and five new engineering watchstanders. When I say new, I mean they never stood watch on Ponce, or on this class of ship before. The [crew] churn demands a deckplate presence and a lot of trust.

"Trust is a big thing for me, especially during evolutions where an effective bridge team is essential, like underway replenishments (UNREP), sea-and-anchors and maneuvering details," said Rodgers. "Because [experienced watchstanders rotate often], during an UNREP you will find me conning, the ship's [MSC] master handling traffic and comms with the rigs, and the chief engineer and first engineer as the throttlemen. The master, chief engineer, air boss and I speak directly with each other without middlemen phone talkers. Additionally, the bridge team consists of three people during normal underway steaming."

One civilian mariner in the role of mate on watch serves as the officer of the deck, junior officer of the deck, conning officer, lee helmsman, boatswain's mate of the watch, quartermaster of the watch, combat information center phone talker, and one of two required lookouts. Combat information center (CIC) and embarked security team (EST) personnel are heavily integrated with the watch, and the EST acts as additional lookouts. With less people, each watch station requires more duties and responsibilities.