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Deployment Plan Keeps Sailors Guessing
By Scott Schonauer
Stars and Stripes
European Edition

February 17, 2004

ABOARD THE USS BATAAN - The sailors had only been home six months from a deployment to the Persian Gulf when the Navy ordered the Bataan to go back, again.

Some sailors grumbled, but the trip would be only three months, short by Navy standards.

"What's different about the third time here is that we know what the end game is," said Chief Petty Officer Jeffrey Niles.

"We know that there's a turnaround cycle and we're going to be home real soon as opposed to a six-month deployment. When you're going to war, you have no idea what the potentials are, what's going to come up."

The Bataan is steaming through the Arabian Gulf on a mission to drop off Iraq bound Marines, and should be home by April.

The mission is unusual for an amphibious ship less than a year removed from its last deployment, but more of the Navy's nearly 300 ships could see similar quick trips under a new deployment strategy that took effect in December.

Under the plan, ships go where they are needed for as long as they are needed.

The Navy calls it "presence with a purpose."

It means sailors might not necessarily stay at sea for the usual six months unless there is a good reason.

The catch is that their stay could be longer or it could be shorter depending on what the Pentagon wants, and they must be ready to leave on short-notice.

The Navy's Fleet Response Plan is designed to make the ship schedules more flexible to fight future conflicts.

Adm. Vern Clark, the Navy's top officer, told reporters in November that the old, six-month "heel-to-toe" deployment has become too predictable and rigid. Ships should leave with a clear purpose and be able to do so in 30 days, he said.

The Bataan is one of the first ships to test what commanders are calling a "surge" or "pulse" deployment.

The Norfolk, Va.-based ship plans to turnaround and head home once it finishes the job of dropping off helicopter squadrons from the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based II Marine Expeditionary Force. Another amphibious assault ship, the USS Boxer, also left in January to take Marines and their equipment to Iraq.

In the past, ships would have a period of up to two years between sea tours. Sailors would use that time to overhaul the ship and train to get ready for the next deployment.

The new plan calls for a ship returning from deployment to go straight to the yard for major maintenance and improvements. When it gets out, sailors must go through a rigorous training phase.

After that's complete, the ship is ready — or "surge capable" — and is on-call for emergencies. If the ship doesn't leave early, sailors follow the regular deployment schedule.

Capt. Earle Yerger, the Bataan's commanding officer, said the new plan makes it harder for sailors to plan their immediate future, but it is necessary in today's Navy.

"It's introduced some uncertainty in their lives," he said. "That's not a good thing in the grand scheme of things but that's the way the world works now and they understand that."

Cmdr. Jon Dachos, the Bataan's operations officer, said the lingering question is how the changes are going to affect families.

"The old way at least you could plan and say, ‘Hey, lets get married on this month because I'm not going to deploy for three months," he said. "Those kind of things might hurt. I'm not going to say it's going to hurt morale but job satisfaction."

Cmdr. Kieran Mandato, a Catholic priest who serves as the Bataan's chaplain, is worried the high pace of deployment will drive younger sailors out of the military.

"I think the sailors, some of them will get a bad taste in their mouths," he said.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Blake Hoyt, 22, said the frequent deployments — whether they are short or long — are hard, but families are adjusting. Other sailors said they have become "numb" to the greater amount of time they are away from home.

"It's sort of a way of life," Hoyt said. "You get used to it."

Most sailors will not have a choice.

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This article is provided courtesy of Stars & Stripes, which got its start as a newspaper for Union troops during the Civil War, and has been published continuously since 1942 in Europe and 1945 in the Pacific. Stripes reporters have been in the field with American soldiers, sailors and airmen in World War II, Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo, and are now on assignment in the Middle East.

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Copyright 2004 Stars and Stripes. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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