By Jim Haley Special to The Herald
The USS Nimitz was in the Indian Ocean after spending five months conducting exercises with allied fleets and war operations in support of troops in Afghanistan.
It had turned and was slowly making a return trip to its home port in Everett when the ship’s mission suddenly switched, due to a crisis in Syria.
“We were actually on our way home,” said Nimitz skipper, Capt. Jeffrey Ruth Jr. “We turned around and went into the Red Sea and there we were basically a flexible option, putting pressure on Syria to end its chemical weapons program.”
Not heading home was a major disappointment to the crew of 5,000, including about 3,000 men and women stationed on the Nimitz at Naval Station Everett.
“The challenging piece to this thing was we didn’t know when it would end. We were not given an end date,” Ruth said.
He and Nimitz strike group commander Rear Adm. Michael White spent a lot of time explaining he situation to the crew.
“They understood what we were doing and why we were there,” Ruth said. “They understood we were providing a service to our country and that it was important. For the most part, they handled it quite well.”
One of the rewards for lengthy deployments on naval ships is the ability to go ashore in foreign ports.
That also ended because the ship stayed at sea from the middle of August until the end of October — 79 days — without a port call.
There are gyms and entertainment aboard the carrier to keep crew members occupied. The ship maintained flying operations. Hundreds qualified for various job ratings, which meant promotions.
Also, the captain and admiral “had the sailors focus on goals. We asked that they do a personal goal, a professional goal and a third goal of their choice,’ Ruth said. “We wanted them to focus on that while we were gone.”
It’s rare that a West Coast ship travels through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea, but the Nimitz was ordered to stick around the Middle East for a while. That meant a 14-hour trip through the canal, some 90 miles.
Ruth said there’s no special preparation for taking the big ship through the narrow waterway. He said normal navigation techniques applied and there were no problems.
He also said he always wanted to be the commanding officer of a ship that went through the canal. “It was pretty cool,” he said.
The Nimitz conducted exercises with allied navies in the Mediterranean before finally getting a port call in Naples, Italy.
When the Syrian crisis first arose, the ship was told it was unlikely to be home before Christmas. The atmosphere became more upbeat when the crew was told it would go into the Mediterranean and then head back home before the holidays.
“There was a change in attitude,” Ruth said. “People were hugely excited. Although morale was never low, it got tremendously better. There were a lot of smiles on faces. Our bosses decided it was worth it to get us home.”
No single event stands out for Ruth about the nearly nine-month deployment.
The ship conducted numerous exercises with allies, it supported the war in Afghanistan, stood by in the Red Sea as a contingency for the mess in Syria and then went into the Mediterranean.
“I think when we came out of the Suez Canal on the transit home, we began to look back at just what we accomplished,” Ruth said. “It was not just one thing but it was the aggregate.”
His sailors received tremendous accolades from every level of the Navy and Department of Defense, Ruth said.
“Looking back it was very impressive. It was a sense of accomplishing everything we were asked to do and accomplishing it well.”