ABOARD THE USS KEARSARGE -- Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Eric Gomez could see for miles across the Caribbean Sea from his perch high on the tail of a UH-1Y Huey helicopter parked on the flight deck Thursday, but the cerulean water was far from his mind.
"It's just second nature at this point," the 20-year-old said as he used a rag and toothbrush-sized steel brush to scrub a week of grease, grime and salt off the aircraft.
After two weeks of dawn-to-dusk flight operations in Puerto Rico, Navy and Marine Corps helicopter squadrons aboard the Norfolk-based amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge mostly paused Thursday to take a collective breath and hit reset. The amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, formerly based in Norfolk, joined the effort Wednesday, easing some of the Kearsarge's workload.
"It takes a toll on the aircraft, and it starts to take a toll on the people," Rear Adm. Jeffrey Hughes said Thursday, recounting weeks of high-tempo operations after the ship began its humanitarian mission the day after the Category 4 storm Maria devastated the territory.
Hurricane Harvey in Texas required numerous search and rescue missions because of the widespread flooding. While similar missions have been required in Puerto Rico, helicopter crews embarked here aboard Kearsarge have focused more on damage assessment, delivering water and other aid, and shuttling engineers and workers to mainland hospitals, Hughes said.
The Kearsarge left Naval Station Norfolk on Aug. 30, along with the Virginia Beach-based dock landing ship USS Oak Hill, to support relief efforts in Texas. They ultimately weren't needed there, but the one-two punch that followed with Hurricanes Irma and Maria have meant a lot of around-the-clock work in the Caribbean.
The weeks away have exhausted some of the sailors aboard. Unlike a normal deployment, which comes with at least a target homecoming date, the Kearsarge's crew doesn't know when they'll return.
"That's one of the hardest things, because you don't know when you're going," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Joshua Hutchinson, who joined the crew five months ago. Although this deployment is the longest of his career, he called the chance to take part in the humanitarian mission a "once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Aboard the ship, there is hope that an end is near. Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan took over the relief mission last week, and the Pentagon has doubled the amount of ground forces in recent days.
The Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort also arrived Wednesday in San Juan and treated 69 patients from 6 months to 89 years old, spokesman Lt. Cmdr. David Lloyd said in an email. Cases ranged from wounds to hernia to heart failure and pneumonia, he said. The ship began moving to a north-central area of Puerto Rico on Thursday, he said.
While Kearsarge took a brief respite Thursday, that didn't mean a break from duty. That was especially true for aircraft maintenance crews, who used the time to get some work done before regular operations resume Friday.
"It's kind of like a beauty day," Marine Cpl. Johnny Smith, 22, said not long after he climbed out from under the same Huey that Gomez was buffing.
At the rear of the flight deck, three Marines stood on the tail of a CH-53 Super Stallion helicopter holding one of its seven blades in place while others replaced a rotor bearing.
"I'm basically the only one holding this thing up," Lance Cpl. Carter Murray, 20, called out to the others as they joked among themselves.
In the hangar bay of the ship, a crew assigned to Norfolk-based Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 7 -- the "Dusty Dogs" -- continued its work on an MH-60 Seahawk. Some pilots and crew from the squadron have responded to Harvey, Irma and Maria.
The crew noticed about a week ago that the helicopter's rotors weren't aligning properly when using its automatic fold system. The system takes seconds to fold the blades, which clears up precious space on the flight deck, as opposed to the several minutes it takes to complete the process manually, sailors said.
The sailors spent the day ripping the system apart. Helicopters on a typical day's flight schedule take priority over other helicopters waiting for maintenance, Petty Officer 1st Class Brad Holmes said.
On Wednesday evening, Aerosmith's "Livin' on the Edge" pumped through Holmes' white earbuds as he pulled wires from the Seahawk's ceiling. He called the day's break from the typical schedule "really awesome."
"It gives us a chance to catch up," Holmes said.
--This article is written by Courtney Mabeus from The Virginian-Pilot and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.