Nimitz sailors preparing for deployment

EVERETT — The sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz are getting ready for the warship’s first major deployment from its new homeport at Naval Station Everett. The official departure date isn’t public, but the day is coming.

Supplies are being stockpiled in the hangar bays, sailors have taken the written tests that allow them to move up in rank, the ship is getting its final maintenance check and families are preparing to say their goodbyes.

For many of the young sailors, it’s the first time they’ll live six to 10 months aboard this floating city of 5,000 people. Except for the blue “aquaflage” work uniforms they wear, the people gathered in the ship’s galley for lunch might just as well be in a college dining hall. The median age is 21. With all the hours they work, their salaries are minimum wage.

Navy Airman Jessica Stewart, 23, hails from Charlotte, S.C. Right now, she misses the spring heat and summer humidity of her home state. She admits she’s nervous about the impending trip, but also is excited about the potential of doing some humanitarian service projects in the countries they might visit.

Stewart has been away from home before, but not like this.

“I’ll be trading traditional letters and emails with my family, and they’ll be sending care packages,” Stewart said. “My mom, though, wants to know when she’ll hear my voice. But I’m like, ‘Mom, it’s all OK. I will have all my limbs when I get back.’”

What Stewart doesn’t say is that her job on the Nimitz is a dangerous one. She’s one of the people on the flight deck who help launch the Navy jets.

Outside, she spreads her arms, motioning across the acres of empty deck.

“This is where I work. I catapult the birds. When I joined the Navy, I knew I wanted to work outside, and I chose this job,” she said. “Once the birds come onboard, there won’t be time to be homesick. It will be time to man up and get on with it.”

Nimitz Chaplain Emile Moured, 42, knows Stewart.

He knows she has signed a will and designated power of attorney.

The chaplain also knows that Stewart has taken advantage of all the pre-deployment financial and practical help offered by the Navy, that she routinely attends Bible studies and that she works hard to keep up a good attitude. Still, Moured recently introduced Stewart to another sailor, an equally smart, mature and motivated young woman, to make sure each had a friend to count on.

“Deployment is a challenge for any of us, but if you haven’t done it before, there is a significant learning curve,” Moured said. “One of the things we sacrifice as war fighters is the ability to be home. During the time we are gone, many of these kids will lose a grandparent and not be there for the funeral. Knowing that there will be difficult days, you learn how to make this season of life the best it can be.”

Moured said the chaplains and lay leaders aboard the Nimitz offer 14 different religious services each week. They love and serve as counselors to everyone, including agnostics and atheists, he said.

“We walk with them through their valleys,” Moured said. “With the married folk, we talk about the emotional cycles — the ups and downs of this year — before, during and after deployment.”

Navy Corpsman Jesus Pacheco, 26, is from Atlanta, Ga. He and his wife, Maria, live in Marysville with their 7-year-old daughter and 1-year-old twin sons.

Pacheco, couldn’t find a good job after he graduated from college, so he joined the Navy on July 4, 2011. Onboard the Nimitz, he works as an optician, giving vision tests, making replacement glasses and performing minor eye care for his fellow sailors.

The impending deployment is rough on his family.

“My wife is wondering how she will take care of the kids by herself and my daughter doesn’t really understand it all yet,” Pacheco said. “But I signed up for this. As long as my family is fine, I will be OK.”

Pacheco’s feelings are common, said Moured, who counsels couples to express their feelings of anger, frustration and guilt. He urges them to discuss the practical issues of the separation and to find some good family time together before the deployment.

“Our young couples are already beginning to experience the stress,” Moured said. “I encourage them to write letters. Emails are OK, but this younger generation needs to discover the lost art of romantic letter writing.”

Sailors and their families also need to think about how they will handle birthdays, anniversaries and holidays during the separation. When they return from overseas, sailors and their families need to take a few weeks during the reunion period to get used to each other again, he said.

During deployment, which will take them all the way to the Persian Gulf, Moured encourages sailors to get plenty of exercise and take good care of themselves.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Ken Davis, 26, from Longview, said he plans to do a better job with exercise than he did during the ship’s last training trip.

“On the last underway, I didn’t work out and the stress built up,” Davis said. “Working out in the gym is very helpful and it’s fun.”

Airman Stewart is looking forward to some fun, too. When the ship cruises across the equator, the new sailors will participate in a traditional Navy initiation during which an appointed King Neptune will turn these new “pollywogs” into “shellbacks.”

Most of the time, though, Stewart’s job will keep her busy.

“What I am doing on this ship is bigger than me. All the little stuff each of us do is important to our mission to be prepared to protect America, and I am ready to work,” Stewart said. “But when I need to get away, I have a little secret spot on the ship where I can go to stare at the ocean.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

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