Family, Friends Get Tour During Pleasure Cruise on USS Iwo Jima
ABOARD THE USS IWO JIMA -- Some people tossed footballs back and forth through a stiff breeze on the flight deck, while others preferred deep-sea fishing off the stern of the ship to pass time during a Sunday pleasure cruise hosted by the U.S. Navy.
It was a day for crew members on the USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) to show their friends and family what life is like when the ship deploys from Mayport Naval Station -- with an added element of live music and entertainment to please the civilian contingent on board.
The guests got the chance to watch the crew fire .50-caliber machine guns into the water, and an MH-60R helicopter buzzed by the port side of the amphibious ready group command ship to excite the people taking pictures and shielding themselves from the wind.
The largest ship based at Mayport -- with an 820-foot flight deck -- took the group about 70 miles into the ocean where they were treated to demonstrations on safety, live weapons and other aspects of the daily routine on board.
But there were also sumo wrestling suits available for a little roughhousing and basketball hoops for pickup games as a DJ played music to keep the energy pumping.
A magician traveled from deck to deck doing card tricks for anyone he came across, and people took turns playing video games or trying their luck at oversized games of Jenga and Connect Four while they waited in line for food on the mess deck.
The ship's commanding officer, Capt. James Midkiff, encouraged the family members on board to take full advantage of the opportunity and to ask questions when any crossed their minds.
"This is a real warship; it's not a Disney cruise liner or anything," he said over the loudspeaker before leaving the dock at the Mayport basin about 10:30 a.m.
Guests were then given full tours of berthing compartments and medical facilities as they made their way through passageways, climbing up and down ladders to get to different parts of the enormous vessel.
"I kind of felt like a Ninja Turtle as we were going through all the holes and popping out of different places on the ship," Kourtni Lewis said.
Her father is Master Chief Master in Arms Paul Lewis Sr., who said he was thrilled to finally be able to show his children where he works. He said he was happy to walk them up the long ramp to the hangar bay as soon as they boarded the Iwo Jima to let them feel the climb he's endured day in and day out for years.
"Now she knows why my knees are so bad," he said of his daughter.
The hangar bay is usually a place for maintaining aircraft, but Sunday it was packed with people eating hot dogs, hamburgers, ribs and ice cream, with a stage set up for musicians.
"It's a way to bring the families out in a positive environment to see what their family members do," Midkiff said. "This is not what we do all the time, of course, but it's great having the family out just to see what their sons and daughters and husbands and wives do every day."
The meal started after a rendition of the national anthem performed by the ship's choir, and the party didn't stop until the ship returned to shore about 5 p.m.
Midkiff said his favorite part about the "Friends and Family Cruise" is the fact that he gets to look parents in the eyes to thank them for allowing him to borrow their children for a couple of years. But he said it's also a chance to give young members of the community a look at what their future could hold.
Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps drill teams from the area and as far as Missouri performed for the crowd before taking in everything the ship had to offer.
"We just met an enlisted [woman] who has a job in ammunition and bombs. It was so cool," said 18-year-old Layla Howard of Willard High School, just outside Springfield, Mo.
Lisa and Ken Siler traveled almost as far to see where their son, Jeffrey, started working after leaving Arkansas to join the Navy a couple of years ago.
"I'm too old for this," Ken Siler said. "It's just neat to see what he's going through when he's out."
The older Siler realized right away that he could never trade places with his son after seeing the berthing area where he sleeps.
"A big guy like me could never get up on the top bunk," he said.
But he was proud to know his son can handle the cramped sleeping arrangement without any problems.
Many of the other parents shared that same sense of pride.
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