At some point in one's military career, one expects that they may be called upon to serve in combat--whether short-lived operations or protracted conflicts. Since the end of the Vietnam War in May of 1975, American military forces found themselves involved in relatively short-lived operations--if, of course, one does not include the Cold War in that list. Grenada, Panama, Libya, Desert Shield/Desert Storm, the Balkans...
In July of 2001, the USS Carl Vinson Battle Group departed home port for a routine six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf, scheduled to relieve the USS Enterprise Battle Group and conduct Operation Southern Watch, which had been standard since the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi forces in 1991.
Our first "stop" was off the coast of Vietnam, spurred on by a diplomatic mission to show the flag, as relations were strained between Vietnam, China, and the Philippines over natural resources in the South China Sea and other regional areas of international waters. You see, unless other nations conduct Freedom of Navigation or exercises/operations in areas where there are excessive territorial claims, those claims may be codified under a maritime
premise of customary law. In this case, the CARL VINSON Battle group met up with the CONSTELLATION battle Group to conduct very overt dual-battle group exercises in the disputed maritime areas. It was a great experience for our forces, since it provided a complex and dynamic training environment within and umbrella of potential adversary capabilities...China in particular. It was, as may be seen in the picture, a pretty impressive display of American seapower!
The Battle Group stopped off in Pattaya Beach, Thailand, and a couple days of liberty, and then on to Singapore for supplies and the last few days of liberty the Battle Group would see until Christmastime. Now, Singapore is a beautiful country, unless one deliberately makes their way into their "slum" area--which is not easy to do. The country is very clean--in fact, it is a $500 fine for chewing gum in public and a $2,000 fine for spitting/throwing it out onto the ground, in bushes, etc. There is a great metro system there that can take you to stops pretty much in every area of the island. One such stop is a beautiful zoo, where great care was taken to provide a habitat for each animal that mirrored its native environment--and, of course, it was very clean as well.
Thailand was an interesting country from the moment one stepped off the Liberty Boat onto the wooden pier that provided a challenge to walk from the boat to the shore without stepping through a hole! There were a couple rules: first, a buddy system where one must be accompanied by at least one other Sailor while ashore; second, when getting to the ashore end of the pier, never turn right--always straight or left--because to the right was a seedy area with MMA-style fights, cock fights, prostitution...and women who were not really women (Thailand, at the time, was a leading country for transvestites and sex change operations).
Some Sailors took trips up to Bangkok, where a favorite place to visit was the Bangkok Zoo, where one could sit and have their picture taken with a live tiger...maybe not necessarily the safest of activities, but we were fortunate to not have anyone get injured or killed doing so. Thailand was also the first place where I tried actual monkey meat on a stick...lol...and I really do not recommend it as a staple in one's diet. It was, unfortunately, the place where our only fatality occurred during this combat cruise. A young Sailor had recently passed his exam for E-4 and was celebrating with some friends. During the evening, he apparently got slipped some drugs which, in the middle of the night, resulted in "his heart exploding" and killing him. A joyous occasion turned sad.
And then, it was back to sea and onward to the west. About six hours after the Battle Group
had rounded the southern tip of India on its way to the Persian Gulf, two commercial airliners hijacked from Boston's Logan International Airport each slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Another plane flew into the Pentagon, and yet another was brought down by passengers fighting the terrorists who had taken over the aircraft, resulting in it crashing in a field in Pennsylvania instead of the White House or Capitol in Washington DC.
This was the start of what would soon become America's longest "hot" war--one in which we are engaged still today--and I was there at the pressing of the first button on the first control panel to launch the first missile of the American response against the Al-Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan. My name is CDR Carl Forkner, Ph.D., USN(Ret). I was the Combat Direction Center Officer (CDCO), Assistant Operations Officer (OpsO), Integrated Training Team (ITT) Leader for USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), as well as Battle Group Training Director for Commander Carrier Group Three (CCG 3).
On the Alert
I learned of the 9/11 attacks early in the morning as the Battle Group was sailing north off the west coast of India. CDR Tim Duvall, our ship's Intelligence Officer, knocked on my door and told me to turn on the TV in my stateroom. After a minute, with sleep still in my eyes, I asked why he woke me up for a ship's movie channel event (it hit me as maybe being another installment of the Die Hard series of films with Bruce Willis playing the venerable Detective McClain)--it was then he told me to look again and that it was live and that I should wash up because the Captain (now retired Admiral, CAPT Bruce Clingan) was likely to call a meeting of department heads shortly. In fact, we were all meeting about 30 minutes after that knock on the door...
It would be nearly a month before we launched America's response to Al Qaeda's attacks. It was a month filled with intense preparations, focused training, and a psychological change in the crew from the moment that the word came down from the Captain that “The United States has just been attacked, we are going to war, we are ready, that is all.”
"No Atheists in Foxholes?"
To back up a few months to June, 2001, the Captain and our Ship's Chaplain Department Head (Chaplain CDR Father Kelly) took a risk to make sure that our people had the opportunity to learn a major cultural influence in the areas where the Battle Group was anticipated to serve on deployment--and those areas to which it may be diverted as well. One day of the pre-deployment training was devoted to the opportunity to explore the various religions practiced by cultures in areas where we could possibly deploy. This included representatives from Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, various Christian sects, Hinduism, Baha'i, and so forth. Now, nobody was required to join a church--the point was simply to provide and opportunity to learn more about the diverse sets of religious beliefs and customs to enrich our understanding of the areas where we may interact with local populations.
Although some Sailors wrote letters of complaint, our Carrier Group Admiral and Third Fleet Commander supported the Captain and the Chaplain and, after 9/11, it turned out to be a blessing. We ended up with an almost three-fold increase in attendance at religious services once the reality--and preparations hit--that we were going to be involved in an armed conflict. We actually had to add additional service times for Catholic and Protestant services, and the small chapel within which less populous faiths worshiped was filled at each service. Were there really "no Atheists" in our floating foxhole? I cannot say because each individual's beliefs and manner of worship are their own personal right that they may choose to exercise either publicly or privately. One thing was evident, however--the attacks and the coming conflict were a catalyst that reignited the practice of faith...and were the final step in forging a Flag-DESRON-Air Wing-Ship TEAM that would exceed the standards for supporting one another and accomplishing the mission thrust upon it by the acts of war and the will of the American people...
Preparing for War
Even though the ship had undergone extensive training after its dry dock maintenance period, that training necessarily included all the potential operating regions where the ship may be called upon to serve. Now, with knowledge of the operational area where the ship--and Battle Group--were going to operate, more focused preparations and training could take place. This included building a coalition of allies for the fight, doing mission-specific training, and increasing our intelligence on the area where we would be operating. It was a time of high-energy and unsurpassed teamwork among the Battle Group. The slideshow below illustrated some of those preparations:
Along with our Battle Group, the USS Enterprise Battle Group--which was already partway down the eastern coast of Africa on their way home from deployment--was recalled to the North Arabian Sea to assist in the preparations and conduct of upcoming operations against Al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan. For USS Enterprise--American;s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier--it would be the start of her last...and longest...war, being decommissioned in 2017 after proudly serving this country for since her first conflict--the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
On the evening of October 7th, 2011, American launched it's response to the attacks of 9/11 in Operation Enduring Freedom. The operation was originally dubbed Operation Infinite Justice, but the name was changed because it was thought that "Infinite Justice" would send the message that our forces would be there forever...and as it turns out, we are still there 17 years on. See the slideshow below for some of the details:
We really were a team. The ship and Airwing worked well together with a focus on the mission. Strike Ops worked with the Airwing to optimize effectiveness in scheduling air assets, both for combat operations inland and for Battle Group defense. In the Combat Direction Center (CDC), we monitored every flight the Airwing made, anxiously doing a manual count of every aircraft coming back, just like was the case in World War II as carrier-based planes returned from missions--we were on pins and needles until every one of our Airwing brothers and sisters had returned and landed safely. Exactly ZERO aircrew or aircraft were lost...whew!
Moreale was high among the team. The Enlisted Mess Decks on the 3rd deck were covered with pictures, drawings, and banners sent to us by school children and citizen groups across the United States. We had pen pal campaigns going with schools in Iowa, Washington, and other locations in America.Shipmates who rarely talked with one another now shared their experiences. It was a good time for our team.
By the way, the first woman pilot to lead a fighter section into battle was LTjg Ashley Spalding of VF-213, flying the F-14 Tomcat. Some have written that the first woman to fly a fighter in combat was Air Force pilot Martha McSally; however, she flew the A-10 attack aircraft, a close air support (CAS) aircraft that required either a fighter escort or a permissive air-to-air environment in order to do its mission.
The War Progresses
Coalition Forces were supporting efforts on the ground in Afghanistan being conducted by two main forces--the Northern Alliance under General Karzai, who would become the new President of Afghanistan, and the Southern Alliance under General Shirzai, who would become Governor of Nangarhar Province and later a Minister in the new Afghan government. Coalition efforts with these Alliance forces were critical in conducting the ground war.
Turning Over and Heading Home
Our relief--the USS JOHN C. STENNIS Battle Group--arrived in December, 2001, to join USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT Battle Group (which had relieved USS ENTERPRISE shortly after the start of the war in October). After 72 days of continuous combat air operations, it was time for us to head home, having lost no personnel, aircraft, or ships during the conflict.
We almost lost a few shipmates during the Crossing the Line "Shellback" ceremony, when we got hit by a sudden typhonn-strength storm and a piece of support gear broke loose on the hangar bay. A Sailor jumped in front of it before it hit others (who were in the midst of push-ups at the command of King Neptune). He tore out stitches from a recent surgery--but after recovering, he was awarded a medal for his fast thinking that saved shipmates for injury...or death.
In January 2002, USS CARL VINSON, USS SACRAMENTO, and COMCARGRU THREE returned home to Naval Station Bremerton, Washington, to a heroes' welcome. Over 5,000 people were on hand to welcome the CARL VINSON back home after the successes of operations in response to 9/11. We watched the first Tomahawk missiles being launched from our cruisers and destroyers on October 7th. We launched the first air strikes with our aircraft later that night. We exceeded expectations and set new standards. Most importantly, we were a TEAM...
I served with some great people on that deployment, both officers and enlisted personnel. Many of those key Shipmates are still friends and always will be.
Enjoy this short video synopsis of the historic USS CARL VINSON 2001-2002 deployment: