Thursday, June 26, 2008

Onboard USS Gonzalez: 30 Days of 21st Century Seapower as part of a NATO Force

On March 6, 2008, less than three weeks after departing Norfolk for a routine six month deployment, the guided missile destroyer USS Gonzalez (DDG 66) sailed over the Mediterranean horizon south of Crete and joined the other ships of Standing NATO Maritime Group Two (SNMG-2). Gonzalez reported for duty to the Turkish Flagship, TCG Salihreis, took station in a SNMG-2 Screen Wimbledon, and one hour later received fuel from the Dutch Oiler HNLMS Amsterdam. Over the next 30 days, the ship made port calls to both Aksaz and Antalya, Turkey; Volos, Greece; and Haifa, Israel, mooring pierside, outboard another ship, and anchoring twice. She served as Air Defense Commander for the NATO forces in the multi-national Exercise Mavi Balina 2008, conducted a PASSEX with the Israeli Navy, and commenced a period of Surge Operations in support of Operation Active Endeavor. Over those 30 days, Gonzalez Sailors experienced first hand the Navy’s role in the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.

“One of the tenants of the our maritime strategy is to foster and sustain cooperative relationships with more international partners. Specifically, the strategy notes that trust and cooperation cannot be surged. That is exactly what Gonzalez’ role in NATO has been all about so far. Over our first 30 days we worked hard to build the trust of the SNMG-2 Admiral. He needed to know that while we were just another team player in his task force, we were ready to be his Air Defense Commander and ready to execute a broad range of NATO missions. We spent our first weeks in SNMG-2 learning to think with a multi-national NATO mindset as opposed to the U.S. Navy mindset. Without a doubt our first thirty days in NATO set the expectations for the deployment,” added Gonzalez’ Commanding Officer, Commander Brian Fort, a native of Little Rock, Arkansas. “In fact, I look back on our first month in NATO and can’t help but think we truly experienced, and are still experiencing, the 21st century vision of seapower the Chief of Naval Operations signed up for with the Commandants of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard.”

Soon after joining SNMG-2, Gonzalez participated in the Turkish Navy Invitational Exercise Mavi Balina 2008, which took place off the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. The Turkish Navy invited the ships of the Standing NATO Maritime Group Two (SNMG-2) and Pakistani Navy to participate in various naval exercises driven by synthetic tensions between fictionalized opposing forces. The main objective of Mavi Balina was to provide operational training for units and staffs in planning and conducting anti-submarine, anti-surface, and anti-air warfare. The exercise enabled the staff and ships of SNMG-2 to hone their combat skills in a complex multinational environment, better preparing the force for combat operations in support of the NATO Response Force. The exercise also provided an opportunity to strengthen the NATO bonds between warships and their crews, and many Sailors spent time on other ships during the exercise, giving them a chance to see how their NATO shipmates operate on a day-to-day basis. On completion of Mavi Balina and enroute to the port call in Antalya, Turkey, Gonzalez had the unique opportunity to shoot 5” rounds on a live Turkish gunnery range as opposed to a virtual range.

After Mavi Balina 2008, unique opportunities continued to spring up for Gonzalez. First, the destroyer made a rare port call to Volos, Greece; the first U.S. ship to visit Volos in more than seven years. While in Volos, several Gonzalez officers made a journey to see the site of the Battle of Thermopylae, popularized in 2007 in the movie 300, and the ruins of the Temple at Delphi. For Lieutenant Derek Cedars of Denver, Colorado, a history major from the Naval Academy, visiting Thermopylae was a once in a lifetime experience. “It was not my first battlefield visit, having visited many of the American Civil War sites in the Mid-Atlantic region while a Midshipman at the Naval Academy; however it was a great opportunity to visit the site of a major battle that took place over 2,000 years ago. There has been some substantial soil erosion and the current coast is about 20 miles from the original cliffs, but you can still feel the energy and picture the combined Greek Army battling the Persians.”

Upon sailing from Volos and enroute to Haifa, Israel, Gonzalez and the other ships in SNMG-2 participated in a robust underway training program to hone the task force’s air defense and maritime interdiction operations skills. Daily the SNMG-2 ships participated in link and air defense exercises and practice boardings, rotating between the U.S., British, Greek, Italian, German, Turkish, and Dutch ships in the group. On the day prior to pulling into port in Haifa, Gonzalez was selected to serve in a combined exercise with Israeli Navy ships in the Eastern Mediterranean. Although it is not uncommon for U.S. Navy ships to exercise with the Israeli Navy, the PASSEX opportunity was quite historic for NATO ships, the Turkish Flagship Salihreis, and Greek frigate Hydra. The three NATO ships participated in a search and rescue exercise with the INS Lahav and INS Keshet, and upon completion, conducted close-order tactical maneuvering drills and a tactical communications exercise. Once in Haifa, Gonzalez held a damage control exhibition for over fifty Israeli Sailors, including equipment demonstrations on the ship’s flight deck and an internal fire fighting drill. Later, Gonzalez hosted a variety of Israeli Sailors for general tours.

Common amongst all port visits as part of a NATO task force, Gonzalez participated in force receptions, personnel exchange programs, sporting contests, and other forms of positive engagement with both the other NATO ships and host nation community and Navy; all of which are inclusive to the overall maritime strategy of international partnership, camaraderie and fellowship among Sailors. Many Gonzalez Sailors quickly realized they had a lot in common with their foreign shipmates and found themselves looking forward to visiting with their new friends in the next port of call. They were quick to learn that while they may be of different nationalities, they are very much alike, sharing the common bond of being mariners at sea dedicated to their countries and families.

Of course, the port calls have also offered Gonzalez Sailors the opportunity to explore the rich historical cultures of the Mediterranean. Trips sponsored by Gonzalez’ now world-renowned Morale, Welfare, and Recreation committee took Sailors to places from the ancient ruins at Ephesus in Turkey to the holy city of Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and Nazareth. Operations Specialist Second Class (SW) Travis Holloway from Norfolk, Virginia, noted, “I would never have imagined being fortunate enough to visit Jerusalem if it had not been for the Navy’s operations with NATO. Until recently, not many ships had come here. This was truly the chance of lifetime.”

Thirty days after Gonzalez reported for NATO duty, the SNMG-2 ships sailed from Haifa, and commenced a period of Operation Active Endeavour surge operations, NATO’s maritime security operations in the Mediterranean Sea in support of the global war on terror.
Over the remainder of her current deployment, Gonzalez will continue to serve in SNMG-2, participating as the U.S. Navy representative to the NATO Response Force, supporting the tenents of the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. Gonzalez departed her homeport of Norfolk, Virginia in February and expects to return from her routine six-month deployment in August.

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