Leaders Aboard Norfolk-Based Warships Report High Morale Despite Tense Climate in the Middle East

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The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) sails in the Gulf of Aden.
The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) sails in the Gulf of Aden, Dec.18, 2023. (Nicholas Rodriguez/U.S. Navy)

While Hampton Roads-based warships are embroiled in firefights in the Middle East, leaders from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower strike group report from the Red Sea that crew morale is high.

“Despite the tense climate, the crew remains motivated and professional. Morale is high because everyone has mission and purpose,” Capt. Christopher Hill, commanding officer of the Eisenhower, said in an email to The Virginian-Pilot.

The Norfolk-based Eisenhower aircraft carrier and its strike group were deployed to the Red Sea, where merchant vessels and military ships traveling through the Suez Canal have been the target of attack drones and anti-ship missiles launched from Houthi-controlled Yemen. The Houthis, backed by Iran, had previously targeted ships in the region at times, but the attacks have increased since the start of the Oct. 7 Israel-Hamas war, the Associated Press reported.

Missiles have been fired toward U.S. Navy ships, including Norfolk-based destroyer USS Laboon and other ships in Norfolk-based strike groups, according to the U.S. Central Command. In each instance, the missiles were shot down.

Additionally, a number of commercial ships have been struck since December, according to Associated Press reports, resulting in some damage but no deaths. The attacks have forced shipping companies with cargo bound for the East Coast to pivot to a longer, alternate route around Africa’s southern-most tip, the Cape of Good Hope, the Virginia Port Authority told The Pilot last week.

In recent weeks, U.S. forces have reported almost daily continued retaliatory strikes against Houthi targets.

In mid-January, Hampton Roads warships were part of joint strikes coordinated with the United Kingdom on Houthi radar systems, air defense systems and storage and launch sites, military officials said. They included the USS Laboon, Norfolk-based destroyer USS Gravely and fighter aircraft from the Eisenhower.

U.S. Central Command said on Dec. 31 helicopters from the Eisenhower and the Gravely were involved in a fatal firefight with the Houthis. The helicopters responded to distress calls from a container ship that was reportedly under attack by four Houthi small boats. The small boats fired on the helicopters, which returned fire in self-defense, military officials said. The Navy helicopters sunk three of the four small boats, killing the crews, officials said. The fourth boat fled the area. Central Command reported there was no damage to U.S. personnel or equipment.

The Eisenhower aircraft carrier, and some 5,000 sailors, deployed from Naval Station Norfolk for the Mediterranean in mid-October. Within 12 hours of pushing off the pier, it was ordered to sail to the Middle East in response to what Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said were “escalations by Iran and its proxy forces.” USS Gravely and USS Laboon deployed with the Eisenhower as part of its strike group.

Destroyer USS Carney deployed from Mayport in September, joining the USS Gerald R. Ford strike group, which recently returned to Norfolk following a thrice-extended deployment. The Carney, which has been a Houthi target, is positioned in the Gulf of Aden, military officials said.

“When the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group deployed in October, we vowed to be ready to bring credible naval power in support of any tasking,” Rear Adm. Marc Miguez, commander of the Eisenhower strike group, said in an email to The Pilot.

The sailors, he said, have upheld that vow.

“Each Sailor that comprises the strike group has had an impactful part in laying the foundation for stability, deterring aggression, and setting the example for maritime superiority,” Miguez said.

While sailors work to defend commercial shipping in the Middle East, commanding officer Hill routinely shares on social media about Eisenhower sailors, giving shout-out messages to their families back home.

“Unsuspecting Petty Officer called to the bridge at the request of his loving wife. Was busy working on nuclear reactor paperwork. Seemed dazed as he plopped in the Captain’s chair, but snatched a fresh cookie. Says, ‘Tell my wife I miss her.’ Goes back to serving his country,” one post said.

“This warrior is a 22-year-old nuclear reactor mechanic, and she’s proud to provide continuous propulsion and power to her warship. She’s also glad to get a little sun on her face — been a minute! Message to grandma: Miss you!!” said another.

While the Eisenhower is deployed, sailors have access to Wi-Fi in certain areas of the ship and can visit the ship’s USO afloat center, which has televisions and gaming consoles. Deployed aboard the ship is also a facility dog named Demo, who is intended to boost sailor morale. Sailors can also seek out chaplains and mental health counselors, who Hill said contribute to the well-being of the crew in what he called a “dynamic combat environment.”

Referencing the ship’s motto, Hill told The Pilot, “I mean it when I say that we are the ‘best damn ship in the Navy,’ and the crew believes it.”

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