USS KITTY HAWK, At Sea (NNS) -- The crew of USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) returned to their forward-deployed port of Yokosuka, Japan, Dec. 23, after 83 days at sea in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Kitty Hawk, with elements of Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5 embarked, got underway Oct. 1, after an accelerated sea trials and carrier qualifications period, carried out on short notice following the events of Sept. 11.
The ship transited more than 6,000 miles in 12 days, and reported on station in the North Arabian Sea, where it served as an afloat forward staging base for U.S. joint forces. While on station, pilots from CVW 5 flew more than 600 missions over Afghanistan in support of the United States' war on terrorism, including more than 100 combat sorties.
Lt. Adrian Calder, a pilot with Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 195, said one of the reasons Kitty Hawk and CVW 5 were able to meet such an unusual set of tasking simultaneously is that the Hawk/5 team is the most flexible carrier/air wing tandem in the Navy. "We were chosen for these missions because of how fast we can mobilize," he said. "The Hawk provided a unique combat platform for U.S. troops, and we took a partial squad with a handful of planes and carried out important strike missions"
Hawk/5's missions received attention at the highest levels. U.S. Army General Tommy Franks, commander in chief, Central Command, visited Kitty Hawk Oct. 23, bringing with him a direct order from the Commander-in-Chief.
"I told the President that I was coming out here and asked was there anything I needed to do for him," Franks told the ship's crew, who gathered on the flight deck for his five-minute speech. "The President looked at me and said, 'When you get out there, give them a hug.'"
"And that's exactly what this is. I came out here to give you a hug," the four-star general said.
"The United States of America owes you a debt," Franks continued. "You stand tall. You serve where you're told. Without (the Navy), we could not have done what has been done. And without you, we cannot do what we are going to do. Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. We all know who made the beginning on Sept. 11, 2001. And all of you are going to be what makes an end."
The Secretary of the Navy, Gordon R. England, visited Kitty Hawk Oct. 30, and expressed appreciation for the crew's service to the nation during "this critical mission," and urged Hawk warriors to understand their vital role.
"You are out here, literally creating the point of the spear," said England.
England said the importance of the military's role in Operation Enduring Freedom cannot be overstated. "There is great confidence in America that our government will put the necessary steps in place to win (the fight on terrorism). That confidence is very important. The underpinning is the confidence they have in the U.S. military," England said.
When crewmembers were not launching and recovering aircraft, or supporting the embarked forces, many looked for ways to communicate with family members.
The need for operational security precluded the crew from sending e-mails from the ship for the first 31 days of the deployment, but the restrictions were relaxed somewhat Nov. 1, with the implementation of "Freedom E-mail."
Freedom E-mail allowed Hawk Sailors and embarked personnel to send unclassified messages to family and friends. Each e-mail message was passed through a two-tiered screening system on board the ship before being transmitted to a server with a dedicated Freedom E-mail account, then on to its addressee. The ship processed an average of more than 1,000 e-mails daily during Freedom's first week.
Dental Technician 3rd Class Kimberly Hutcheson said Freedom E-mail was a welcome outlet for her correspondence needs. "I wrote letters all the time, but it was nice to have e-mail back," said Hutcheson. "I kind of got used to not having e-mail around, but once we did get it back, it was nice being able to get a quick response back."
The beginning of December brought a close to the Hawk/5 teams missions in the North Arabian Sea. After 74 consecutive days at sea, the crew made a port visit to the island of Phuket, Thailand, Dec. 13-15, for some well-deserved rest and relaxation.
Some Hawk crew members used the Phuket visit as an opportunity to do holiday gift shopping that were put on hold while the ship operated in support of Enduring Freedom.
"I did a lot of shopping for myself and for my family," said Aviation Boatswain's Mate (handler) 3rd Class Jerrel McKissick, of Flight Deck Division. "I got some movies, clothes and some jewelry. I was able to buy a lot more for less money then I would have spent elsewhere."
On Dec. 22, 499 Kitty Hawk Sailors joined the Navy-wide celebration, as each was frocked to the next higher petty officer pay grade.
According to USS Kitty Hawk's educational services office, the advancement rate for Hawk Sailors testing for pay grades E-4 to E-6 increased from 26 percent in 1998 to 33 percent in 2000, to 38 percent in 2001. The Navy average in 2001 was 33 percent.
Personnelman Seaman Jennifer Flanagan, who works in the ship's educational services office, said Kitty Hawk's numbers remain above the Navy average because the command channels the maximum available personnel, energy and resources into its professional development programs. "We put out all the information Sailors need to prepare for advancement. From bibliographies to rate training manuals, it's all here."
With the close of the frocking ceremony, came the end of the deployment.
Kitty Hawk Sailors reflected on finally completing their mission and returning to Yokosuka.
"I smoked, I cried and I threw tantrums," said Legalman 3rd Class Deidre Green. But we maintained focus and discipline, and now we're home."
For some Kitty Hawk Sailors, Enduring Freedom will continue as they return to their families and begin to see the war -- and their own role in it -- through the eyes of the people who love them and who have spent the past three months hoping for their safe return.
"It kind of fills me with pride that I'm out here doing something for our country. Now I'm a war veteran. My family treats me like a hero," said Dentalman Roman Escalera.
"It hasn't really hit me yet," said Legalman 3rd Class Stacey Dreakford, of Hawk's legal department. "We were all just working and doing what we do every other day. It's just this time it was in support of our country. The significance will probably hit me later, when I'm with my family and I get their reaction," she added.
"For our country, I think we did the right thing. It was long. It was hard. And I hope we have enduring freedom," Dental Technician 2nd Class George Booker said.
For more information about USS Kitty Hawk, go to http://www.kittyhawk.navy.mil.