Haze Gray and Underway on the Good Ship Russell

A Firsthand Experience on the Battle Ready U.S.S. Russell
By Patrick Brent, 2/20/2007 1:45:00 PM

I had the opportunity recently to serve as an embedded journalist aboard the battle-ready U.S.S. RUSSELL, a Navy high-speed vessel (speed classified) named after the 16th Commandant of the Marine Corps and Major General Russell.

A few years back, Admiral Walt Doren's aide Commander Brad Cooper decided that when the he secured a command at sea, I would be a lucky guest aboard. Most people might not get such a chance in their lifetime, so I thought I’d share a little of what life is like for these dedicated men and women in the U.S. Navy.

USS Russell - Real Navy, damn the torpedoes at full speed ahead. Photo by Seaman Tyler.

Day one, at 8 p.m. the ship fired up its four powerful DC 10 jet engines and the Skipper headed the sleek destroyer at 17.7 knots on a northeasterly course of 069 to San Diego.

The ship’s statistics are impressive: 550 feet in length / beam (width) 66 feet and a draft of 31 feet. The cost to taxpayers is also impressive at $1 billion, because there are multiple weapons systems, key one being the Tomahawk missiles (number 61), which have various options on firepower locked within their warheads (Cost is about $1 million apiece).

A week of training for the crew of 329 officers and enlisted lay ahead and they were ready. While many young American teens consume their early years wondering just who they are, there is no such problem in those serving in today’s Navy and Marines. They are given an identity at an awkward time of life - one that has codes of conduct, honor and work ethic - positioning them for a meaningful life during their critical formative years. They survive adolescent times and remake themselves into good citizens with values that last long after their service in the military is completed.

By early November, the Russell joined in maneuvers with the USS REAGAN Battle Group off of San Diego.

Since my last stint with these young men in blue a few things have changed. Chambers (air locks), which keep the ship safer from chemical warfare, are now at every point where you egress to the outside of the ship. As of 18 months ago the new garbage system was installed. To protect dolphins and other sea life, no plastic or garbage of any kind is ever jettisoned over the side. Instead, garbage is all compacted for return with the help of very costly in machinery, manpower and money. Valued space is dedicated to some sophisticated compaction equipment. A sailor is assigned full time on this compaction process. Clearly, the U.S. Navy is "Flipper sensitive".

Because of the U.S.S. COLE experience, fire protection equipment is scattered throughout the ship. The USS Cole had its fire protection equipment all in one place, the same area that was struck by terrorists.

Another change - it is a “cash free” Navy. Every sailor has a debit card that are enabled with a special chip, allowing the sailor to insert it into the ship's soft drink machine or use it to buy necessities and treats from the ship's store.

The great crew has sky-high morale, thanks in part to the Skipper who has a knack for motivating people - even me.

Commander Brad Cooper, USNA class of '89, looks like a Pierce Bronson type and leads with a gifted combination of discipline, empathy and above all, humor.

Ship's Skipper, Captain Brad Cooper on right, with author. Photo by Seaman Tyler.

The Skipper's daily chats with the crew on the public address system could well be taped for leadership schools and entertainment value. Corporate America would do well to emulate naval officers such as Brad Cooper.

The crew works 24/7. When civilians reflect on "cruising" be assured it is not like the experience our young sailors have today. Our Navy men and women work long arduous hours. They are professional. The system for schools at sea and learning a specified job is in place. Today’s Navy is sophisticated and ready to support the war of terrorism from the sea, air and on land. Yes, even on land, as one sailor Nick Calvert, once stated: "Our Navy owns the world's finest army (US Marines).”

Except for a few hours on Sunday, the crew of the Russell is always drilling and rehearsing for every possible scenario. One Saturday, we took the rib boats out and trained to board an uncooperative vessel for inspection. What kick...sailors working like a Marine Corps Fleet Anti Terrorist Strike Team (FAST) platoon.

On Sunday, Catholic and Protestant services at sea are held for the crew who choose to attend. Sunday afternoon break is a steel beach party with a barbeque on deck, rock music and any attire.

Steel beach barbeque - a Sunday tradition. Photo by Seaman Tyler.

(I wore my Notre Dame cover, which drew comments as to the boldness of the act, as the day prior, the fighting Irish beat Navy 38 to 14. We had checked the quarter-by-quarter score on the Commanding Officer's computer vis-à-vis CNN.com, which was not entertaining, albeit memorable for sure.)

On Monday, we ran a fire drill for a damaged helicopter landing on the destroyer's aft deck. The crew wore quite impressive fire protective suits going in to rescue the pilots, while foam sprayed all over the area. Monday night was overcast and therefore pitch black outside. It was a perfect opportunity to run a man over board drill, because as difficult to see a man overboard in the daytime, at nighttime, it is near impossible. Three drills on the dummy they named “Oscar” and all three times Oscar was properly rescued.

Emergency drill - missile attack ;-) Photo by Seaman Tyler.

On Tuesday, there was light rain and cool air. We ran a man overboard drill once again at 8 a.m.

On Thursday, midday, we arrived off San Diego's Point Loma Naval Base. While this billion dollar destroyer circles slowly, the rib boat (like a big rubber seal craft) ferried a few sailors to the base, collected a few sailors and returned to the ship to join the USS REAGAN Battle Group for maneuvers.

Much like our Marines, Army, Air Force and Coast Guard, these sailors are fine young Americans, mostly from small towns and eager to serve their country. Once again it makes me wonder, where and how we secure such extraordinary young people. God bless them all.

DDG 59 O U T

Patrick Brent is a resident of Hawaii who can be reached via email at mailto:[email protected]

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