When most of us join the Navy, we don’t expect to be put into positions where our lives are in danger. For sure, we know it’s a possibility; as is joining any branch of the Armed Forces, but not as probable as our USMC and Army brothers-in-arms.
But now that a sailor has fallen to the virus, it’s apparent just how potent and diverse enemy combatants can be.
I served four years on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, from 2006 to 2010. The crew aboard CVN-71 refer to their ship as The Big Stick, personifying the ship as the US’s show of force to allow us to “Walk Softly” throughout the world. My job was to safely and efficiently maintain the electrical and steam plant systems within the two powerful Nuclear Reactor plants that power and propel the ship.
We steamed everywhere from South Africa to England to the middle of nowhere deep in the Atlantic ocean. We also spent six months sending F-18 Super Hornets to Afghanistan to provide Close Air Support for ISAF forces on the ground.
PHILIPPINE SEA (March 18, 2020) An F/A-18F Super Hornet, assigned to the “Black Knights” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 154, lands on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) March 18, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nicholas V. Huynh)
Sailing a warship is inherently dangerous. There are cables with thousands of volts of heart-stopping power running through them, manifolds of high-pressure steam harnessing enough force to easily cut a person in half and thousands of people carrying-out dynamic operations both above and below-deck. Not to mention the mighty (and oftentimes unpredictable) sea, rocking and listing the ship with sometimes violent and turbulent waves.
In my four years on The Big Stick I lost three fellow shipmates to these various dangers. Now that the world is fighting a new, global enemy, unconventional deaths like losing a sailor to COVID-19 are becoming a new normal for families all across the world. And now, we see that active duty military members are just as susceptible as anyone else.
Photo courtesy of August Dannehl
Part of the allure of joining the Navy is being able to see the world. The main mission of the Navy is to bring US sovereign territory, in the form of floating cities like the Roosevelt, to any corner of the planet in just a matter of hours. This allows sailors to enjoy the perks of visiting ports in places like Cape Town, Tokyo and Da Nang. Unfortunately, now, that perk also led to the death of one of my fellow Rough Riders.
The virus likely infiltrated the ship during a port visit to Vietnam’s fifth largest city. Da Nang offered its sandy beaches and opulent hotels to provide some RR for the crew of the TR but before long, the crew was ordered back to the ship, underway early and restricted to “River City” communications (meaning no phone calls or internet access).
Back in 2008, steaming off the coast of Iran, River City was set pretty much all the time (and we hated it) but we knew it was necessary. Recently, this order meant something very serious was unfolding and the sailors aboard knew it.
Photo courtesy of August Dannehl
When that first River City was set just weeks ago, it was hard to imagine just how serious this situation would be. No one could have predicted then that over 500 Rough Riders would test positive for the coronavirus, a Navy Captain with 30 years of military experience would be fired, a Trump-appointed official would resign and one sailor would ultimately die in the line of duty from this silent, unpredictable enemy.
Living for months at a time on a carrier out to sea, confined to extremely small and cramped spaces, living and working alongside fellow Sailors in close proximity; these truths have always been the downsides of Navy service. Now, in the age of COVID-19, they have proven deadly.