For me, September 11, 2001 was to mark the beginning of “COMPTUEX” (a competitive, 45 day pre-deployment qualification detachment) in Mayport, FL for the crew of the USS Kennedy (CV-67) and the aviators and maintainers of CVW-8, of which I was a member of “The Pukin’ Dogs” of VF-143 operating the venerable F-14B (upgrade) Tomcat. This started just like any other work-up in which I had ever partaken – a lot of “hurry-up-and-wait” getting our tools and equipment up from the Hanger Deck to the Flight Deck and then down into our shops. I also distinctly remember that I was not really looking forward to re-visiting St. Maartin and St. Thomas again for the fifth or sixth time; I had a newly-wed wife at home in Va. Bch. and this was to be the final work-up of my career, so I was very anxious to get it over with.
Around 0845 we became aware of the events that occurred in New York City and since I was not in New York City, Washington DC, or Shanksville, PA, I will spare everyone my woefully inadequate narration of the tragedies that occurred. However, being a part of the initial reaction to the events that morning, I can attest that we were out there, in full battle dress, answering the call and performing as we had been trained, as you expected us to perform.
I am not sure how familiar you are with how deployments (even short 45 day deployments like the one we were taking) start and end in the Navy, but as you can imagine, most sailors have family that come to see them off and welcome them home. For an Aircraft Carrier, that can mean thousands of people on the pier to see their loved ones off. That morning, the USS Kennedy went to General Quarters (Battle Stations) still tied to the pier. The base immediately cleared the pier of wives, children, and other non-essential personnel; all of them under the long morning shadow cast on the pier by the Kennedy. Looking back, I realize that most of them had no idea why the forced removals from the base and all of the ships in the harbor were suddenly pointing their guns at them…. That had to be a frightening experience for all involved.
Most of the squadron personnel flew in the night before, from Virginia Beach, Norfolk, and Whidbey Island, WA or had driven in from NAS Jacksonville down the street (30 miles or so); however, there were almost no squadron aircraft, as they were scheduled for carrier qualifications (CQ’s) later that day. The only thing we had was a contingent of EA-6B Prowlers setting at the Terminal of NAS Mayport and a couple plane-guard SH-60H Seahawks and HH-60H RescueHawks – parked across from us on the other side of the port basin. In under 10 minutes from the initial call to General Quarters, the crew had the 1000ft, 90,000 ton USS Kennedy weigh anchor, unlashed, spun, and steaming past the Jetties of the St Johns River and into the Atlantic. Less than 30 minutes after that, we were at Flight Quarters with our two F/A-18 squadrons and my F-14 squadron circling overhead — fully armed, preparing to qualify.
As cliché as it sounds, it was a day that started like any other, and the night before was spent at a bar on the pier, having a beer (or four) with our friends, shooting pool, and generally not looking forward to the next 45 days or so of 13hrs-on-11hrs off. It was just as we had always done before – and would never do again.
I remember the next two weeks as a blur. Innumerable emails back and forth with my wife. Non-stop news coverage of “Why.” Somebody called “Osama?” Afghani – where? However, what I remember the most is how we were all AMERICANS. All of us. There we were, steaming in large circles off the Virginia and North Carolina Capes flying Combat Air Patrols over DC and Norfolk (!!DC AND NORFOLK!!), and all united against a previously unknown enemy – and we wanted to kill them all. Here we are Ten Years Later. Osama Bin Laden is dead as we remember those he killed, and the families that remain.
May God continue to Keep and Bless America, Gather Our Fallen, Protect Our Warriors, and Comfort Those in Battle and All of Us Left Behind.
Gregory K Roane
AT2/E-5, USN (veteran), VF-143 “The Pukin Dogs” 1998-2002