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February 8, 2012

ataan ends longest Navy deployment in nearly 40 years

By Corinne Reilly
The Virginian-Pilot
© February 8, 2012

ABOARD THE BATAAN

Rhaterahmi White can count on two hands - maybe one, even - the number of true days off he's had since this amphibious assault ship pulled away from Norfolk Naval Station nearly a year ago.

He knows it isn't many, but asked to put an exact figure on it, he hesitated.

"What do you mean by 'day off?' " he asked, an indication of their rarity for deployed sailors in his profession.

A petty officer second class who enlisted in the Navy five years ago, White is a machinist's mate with the Bataan's engineering department. He's in the auxiliary division, which means it's his job to keep countless things on board functioning - refrigerators, ice machines, steam kettles, air conditioners, water heaters, food conveyors, electricity generators, washers and dryers.

It's a big job, and on this deployment, which ended Tuesday morning after 10-1/2 months - longer than any U.S. ship tour in nearly 40 years - it was even bigger.

The Bataan was originally set to deploy this past summer, along with the locally based amphibious ships Mesa Verde and Whidbey Island. Instead, they left nearly four months early to help respond to the crisis in Libya. They did it on 14 days' notice, and among the consequences of such a rushed departure was little time to finish routine maintenance.

"These sailors had to do a lot just to keep the ship running for this extended period," said the Bataan's commanding officer, Capt. Erik Ross. "The epic length of this deployment called for a lot of ingenuity and hard work, on everyone's part."

For White, a 23-year-old Georgia native who is married with two little boys, this latest cruise was spent in much the same way as his previous three aboard the Bataan: working 12- to 18-hour days, sometimes under hot, dirty conditions, often with little sleep or time off.

A typical day started around 6 a.m. After clearing trouble calls - hot water outages, downed freezers - he usually passed the rest of his 12-hour shift with preventive maintenance. Many days, that was followed by a five-hour stint standing watch, which involves monitoring pressure and temperature gauges on generators and making precise adjustments to keep them running.

Throw a complicated trouble call into the mix late in the day, and White could easily find himself going longer than 30 hours without sleep, which he said happened routinely.

He recalled one day during the deployment when an air conditioner stopped working around 6 p.m. He'd been working since 7. Even so, he and a few shipmates spent the next 10 hours working to fix the problem - taking apart the unit, which uses sea water as a coolant, and then cleaning out the crabs, shells and sand that had clogged it before putting it all back together.

By the time they finished, it was time for White to report for his next shift. Because it was slow at that point, his supervisor told him to take a three-hour break to sleep before starting again.

"In any other workplace, if someone asked you to work a 24-hour day, you'd probably hear a lot of complaining, especially if you were asked to do it for 10 months straight," said Ensign Melissa Prater, a recently commissioned division officer in the Bataan's engineering department. "But that's just not how it's been. I've never seen a group of people work this hard."

Speaking about the entire crew, Ross, the commanding officer, made a similar observation, saying he would have expected a deployment of this length and difficulty to take a harder toll on the crew's morale. "Yeah, there were some tough days, especially in the middle," he said on the eve of the ship's homecoming. "But overall, these sailors handled themselves exceptionally well."

Besides not seeing his family, White said the hardest part about the extended deployment was how routine his days on board - roughly 320 of them - began to feel. Except attending church services on Sundays and calling home once a week or so, he says he rarely did anything other than work, sleep, eat and go to the gym.

"I just tried not to think about it," he said. "That's really all you can do. No one wants to hear you complaining, and you know everybody's going through the same thing, so you just deal with it."

Unlike most of his shipmates, though, White could have opted to leave the deployment and go home to Newport News in June, when his assignment aboard the Bataan expired. He instead chose to stay, deciding it might improve his chances for promotion.

And last month, he re-enlisted for six more years. Despite the sacrifices, he said he enjoys what he's chosen as his career. "You hate it when something breaks, but at the same time, you love to fix it. You take pride in it."

He spent the last few hours of the deployment like he did so many others, standing careful watch over a steam turbine generator.

As the Bataan prepared to pull into port - a delicate maneuver - the skipper ordered all five of the generators to be running, just in case any of them should go down. White got the call, then set to work bringing up his machine as most of his shipmates packed their belongings and changed into dress uniforms to line the edge of the flight deck for their arrival.

A few hours later, the long-anticipated call dismissing the crew was finally issued. As sailors rushed to reunite with awaiting relatives, White remained 10 decks below, dutifully securing his generator.

Corinne Reilly, 757-446-2949, corinne.reilly@pilotonline.com

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