A Military Mom’s Diary – Tiger Cruise!

Tiger Cruise [ty-ger krooze] noun – The Navy’s name for a very special guest cruise program. A Naval ship is permitted to embark relatives and friends of crew members (Tigers), eight years of age or older, for a Tiger Cruise. The cruise provides an opportunity for family and friends to see and participate in our daily shipboard routine.

Yes! I got to participate in a Tiger Cruise! This was an adventure that not many people get to enjoy and I was so excited to have this experience!  (I didn’t know that a Tiger Cruise was on my bucket list,  but I guess it was!  Check!)

As mentioned here on my blog previously, my eldest son is a Navy helicopter pilot who is assigned to the USS Nimitz Carrier Strike group.  In April of last year he deployed to the Middle East.  He was only supposed to be gone for six months…..that is until the situation in Syria happened.  The Nimitz carrier group was on its way home when they were rerouted to the Red Sea in early September as a show of force for the U.S.  This situation delayed their homecoming by months.

But finally on December 3, 2013 the USS Nimitz pulled into Pearl Harbor.  My husband & I had flown to Honolulu the day before and I happened to be in our hotel room when waaaaay out on the horizon we were able to see the Nimitz as it passed (click on the photo for a better view):

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We were soooo excited because we knew that soon we would be reunited with our son, Brooks!

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We got to spend a day and a half enjoying Waikiki and Pearl Harbor with Brooks.  We were privileged to be included in a special Anniversary tour of Pearl Harbor along with some men who were survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  Some of these men have never returned to Pearl Harbor until this year.  I am sure their minds were traveling 72 years in the past and reliving that awful day as we stood on the memorial floor with the wreckage of the USS Arizona just below the water’s surface.  Part of our visit included a “Floral Tribute” ceremony, when we were invited to scatter rose petals on the water in honor of anyone we wished.  Brooks, his father and I dropped petals and said prayers for two of Brooks’ fellow helicopter pilots who were lost in an accident on September 22, 2013.  (View my video tribute to those heroes in this post .)

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We boarded the Nimitz aircraft carrier on December 5, 2013 and pulled out of Pearl Harbor the next morning.  It was so moving to see the respect that all of the military personnel showed as we passed by the USS Arizona Memorial…..manning the rails and holding solemn salutes until the carrier passed the memorial site.

Life on board an aircraft carrier…..what can I say?  Of course it was a lot different for us “Tigers” than for the men & women deployed on board.  Most of the time when we tell people about the Tiger Cruise they ask two questions:

1.  “What were the sleeping arrangements like?”

2.  “Was the food any good?”

Because our “sponsor” (our son Brooks) was an officer, we got to enjoy the accommodations and priveledges enjoyed by the officers.  Tigers whose sponsors were enlisted men or women enjoyed the same accommodations and priveledges of the enlisted ranks.

Our sleeping quarters were more comfortable than I anticipated.  I was quartered in a four-bunk stateroom.  My three roommates were women who were also Tigers.  My husband was quartered in a two-bunk stateroom, and his roommate was an officer with the Wolfpack (my son’s squadron.)  I wish I had taken photos of the room….I can’t believe I didn’t!  But it was divided into two parts:  one room had lockers and desks for two people, and the other room housed the four bunks, lockers and desks for two people and a small sink and mirror.  The mattresses were actually pretty comfortable (but I can say that since I only had to sleep on it for 7 nights….sleeping on them for months might have created a different opinion.)  Once I learned to make sure that my earplugs, water bottle, tissues, cell phone charger, book and lip balm were all within reach once I had climbed up into my top bunk, I was set!!  🙂

The difficult part was learning our way around!  It is like a maze inside of the carrier, with many decks, ladders and hatches up & down and sections.  Luckily they put “No Tigers Allowed” signs on parts of the ship where we were not supposed to go, so that helped us as we were navigating around the ship.  For the first few days the only places I knew how to get to were my room, the closest women’s “head” (bathroom), the “Wolfpack Ready Room” (which is where the pilots are briefed before a mission & de-briefed after a mission and where they generally hang out in-between), and the Ward rooms (dining rooms for the officers.)

The food was pretty good! (Brooks said it was better during Tiger Cruise than it had been all during the deployment, so I guess I’m grateful for that!) In the Ward rooms they had a nice salad bar, a buffet line which usually held a variety of entrees, meats, and side dishes such as vegetable & starches (usually potatoes or rice or mac & cheese). There was also a buffet line in the kitchen where you could get items from the grill or fryer.  The Ward room had a beverage area which offered coffee, hot water for tea, soda and milk.  One item I missed was bread….there was not very much to be had.  But a few less carbs never hurt anyone, right?

One of the things that occupied us for the first few days was to complete a “Tiger Qualification Standards” packet that was comprised of a LOT of questions about the different areas on the ship, their purposes, the people who worked there and their responsibilities.  To help us gain the knowledge we would need to answer the questions there was a series of six tours of the different areas of the ship scheduled throughout each day of the Tiger Cruise.  Brooks, Redgie & I spent a lot of time taking the tours and interviewing the people we met along the way in order to complete our TQS.  When we turned in our completed TQS we received an “official” Tiger Cruise certificate and pin.  🙂

After that experience I decided the place that I would least enjoy working was in the Fuel Pump room (where they constantly are purifying the fuel to standards needed to be used by the jets…..it was stinky down there, and dangerous) and the place where I would most like to work was for the Media department (which was responsible for all on-board movies, publications, photography, videos, social networks, etc.)

We got to tour all kinds of areas of the ship such as:

  • The Foc’sl – responsible for the huge anchoring mechanism including links of anchor chain that weigh 360 pounds each and two anchors (each weighing 30,000 TONS each!)
  • The Medical area which included a Surgery, X-Ray room, Pharmacy, etc.
  • The Hangar Bay where they store all of the aircraft that is not on the flight deck and also included a tour of the Fire Equipment and systems on board the ship
  • The Flight Control tower (“Pri-Fly”)
  • The control room responsible for driving the ship
  • The Flight Ops Center
  • The Brig (2 individual cells that house 1 person apiece and a “General Population” cell that could house up to 15 persons at a time.)
  • The Jet engine shop where they take apart, reconstruct and test the jet engines
  • Fuel Pump Room
  • Media Center
  • Viewed various “Static” displays of different aircraft and demonstrations

Some of the specific activities we participated in were:

  • On Saturday (our first full day at sea) there was an “Air Power Demo” on the flight deck.  The demonstration included all of the different kinds of jets and helicopters that are assigned to the ship.  It was a pretty amazing opportunity to see first hand all of the flight deck operations involved in launching and recovering the jets and helicopters.  Some of the helicopters demonstrated manuevers including dropping bombs into the water & we could see their explosions from where we stood! There was also a super-sonic jet demo that startled me so much I almost dropped my camera!  We had to wear earplugs because it was so loud!
  • On Sunday 12/8/13 at 7 a.m. Redgie and Brooks participated in a 5K “Fun Run” on the flight deck
  • On Tuesday 12/10/13 we watched the “Air Wing Fly Off” when all of the fixed wing planes and jets flew off the carrier to the base at North Island.  They have to be off of the carrier before it docks in San Diego because otherwise they would be stuck on the carrier since it needs to be at sea & in motion in order for the planes to fly off of it.  That is why as soon as we came within flight distance of North Island the Air Wing left.
  • On Wednesday 12/11/13 we watched all of the helicopters of HSM-75 & HSC-6 fly off the carrier to the base at North Island.

The rest of the time we spent mostly in the Wolfpack Ready room.  We watched a couple of movies – Ironically  the movie we watched on 12/7/13 (the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor) was the original  “Final Countdown” movie starring Kirk Douglas.  It was ironic because part of the movie is about the attack on Pearl Harbor and it was filmed on board the USS Nimitz!

The trip culminated when the Nimitz pulled into the port at North Island in San Diego on December 12, 2013.  We could see from our position along the side rails of the aircraft carrier that there was a crowd of family and friends waving signs and American flags and cheering the return of their loved ones.  I have seen scenes like this on TV lots of times but being on the other side of it, standing on deck amongst the brave men & women who had sacrificed so much in service for our country was such a moving experience for me.

I thought of those who leave home on deployment but do not get to return to hear the triumphant strains of our national anthem being played by a band on the pier as the two lost pilots of HSC-6 did, or of their families who instead of being in the crowd down below were at home missing their loved ones.  I said a prayer of gratitude for their sacrifice for our freedom and a prayer of thanks for the safe return of our son, and for the amazing experience that we were so privileged to have on this Tiger Cruise on board the USS Nimitz.

(Click on any of the photos below to view larger images)

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Merry Christmas 2013!

Christmas 2013

Merry Christmas from the USS Nimitz!  Redgie and I are currently on a “Tiger Cruise” on board the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier! A Tiger Cruise is when a Navy ship that has been on deployment is on its way home and along the way friends and/or family members of some of the personnel assigned to the ship come on board and sail to the home port with their “sponsor” (military personnel responsible for their “Tigers”.)  Redgie & I met Brooks in Honolulu, HI on December 3rd when the Nimitz pulled into the Navy yard at Pearl Harbor, and on the 5th we checked onto the Nimitz as “Tigers” and began our cruise towards San Diego.  We are having a blast spending time with Brooks, learning about his experience as he was deployed with the Nimitz in the Middle East these past 8.5 months and learning a lot of interesting facts about life on board an aircraft carrier!  We will arrive in San Diego on Thursday, December 12, 2013 where Brooks will be reunited with his wife Christina after his long absence.

A quick review of 2013 reveals quite a bit of change and travel for us in 2013.  On December 31 we rang in the new year with our annual New Year’s Eve party at the “BBH”.  A lot of friends and family (including my sister Vickie, her husband Jim & their youngest son Justin as well as Brooks & Christina who were visiting from CA) were there to celebrate with us.

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Also in January I accompanied Redgie to Orlando where he had to attend a conference.  We stayed in the Ritz Carlton and enjoyed a few days of warm weather (and at least for me) a few days of relaxation!

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In February Redgie went on his annual Myrtle Beach golf trip with several of his buddies from Altoona, PA.  The trip usually lasts around 5 days and in that amount of time they usually play 8 rounds of golf.  Redgie looks forward to the fellowship and fun of that trip all year long.

March was a red-lettered month as that is when we officially finished the remodeling of our condo in Dillon, CO.  Ever since we purchased it in June 2012 we had been working on remodeling the condo from the bottom up!  Thank goodness for the help we received from our friends Ray & Donna Kent or else we may not have finished the job in time for our first vacation rental guests who checked in on March 7, 2013.  We are very pleased with how everything turned out and our guests seem to have been very pleased as well!  To date we’ve received 18 five-star reviews on our listing at http://www.vrbo.com/382 !

Also in March we spent Easter weekend in San Diego with Brooks and Christina before he left on his deployment.  We were glad for the opportunity to spend some time with them before Brooks left.  The Nimitz carrier strike group was supposed to return home from this deployment in October but on September 1 they were diverted to the Red Sea because of the situation in Syria, which extended their deployment until December.  Christina stayed busy with frequent trips due to work obligations and personal reasons.  In fact in September she went to Africa with a group of family & friends and climbed to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro ….quite an accomplishment!

In June we took a short trip to Islamorada, FL with Redgie’s company Perdue Farms, Inc.  We got to stay at the Cheeca Lodge Resort which was right on the beach and very nice.  Also in June we hosted a BBQ lunch up at our Dillon condo for the “Colorado Iron” biker group of which Redgie is a member.

The biggest change for me happened in July when I retired!  I had worked for VRBO/Homeaway for over 11 years but finally came to the decision this year that it was time for me to resign from my position as US Manager of Email Support. Since then I have been enjoying all of my free time and have not yet committed to anything else on a regular basis.  After the holidays I may see if I can find another job that interests me, but I’m not making any promises!  : -)

We spent the 4th of July in Dillon again this year with Ray & Donna.  Every time we get to spend some time in the condo we pinch ourselves to make sure we aren’t dreaming!  The condo is so comfortable and the view of the lake & the mountains is breathtaking!  Immediately following Independence Day Redgie & I flew down to Hot Springs, AR to attend a reunion of the “EnPsalms” which is the vocal group that Redgie was a part of during his years at Liberty University.  Seeing all of his old friends from the group was wonderful….in some ways it didn’t feel as if hardly any time had passed since the last time we were with them.  The weekend flew by with lots of laughter and good music, fellowship and love.

In August Brady experienced a big change in his life….he transferred to Colorado State University!  He had decided that he wanted to experience life on a large university campus during his last years at college.  While we were happy that he was going to be closer to home we were also disappointed that we would no longer be attending football games at Augustana College.  We’re crossing our fingers that Brady might be able to try out for & win a walk-on spot as a kicker on the Rams football team next year.  Brady is studying Business Administration at CSU.

We went RV camping at Golden Bell camp in Divide CO with Dave and Lynn over the Labor Day weekend.

Reg in hammock

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Later in September Redgie traveled to Altoona to participate in the annual Precious Life Gold Tournament…another time of reunion and fellowship with his Altoona buddies.

In November Redgie traveled to Lynchburg VA to attend a football game at our alma mater Liberty University.

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Then we celebrated Thanksgiving at the BBH with family and friends.  (Dave & Lynn were in California so they were not able to be with us on Thanksgiving.)

Thanksgiving 2013

And so we are back to the beginning of this letter where Redgie & I are on the Tiger Cruise for another three days.  We fly back home to Colorado on December 13 and will be home for exactly one week before we have to leave again!  This time Redgie, Brady & I will be flying to Ft. Lauderdale where we will meet up with Brooks & Christina, my Mom & Dad and my sister Vickie, her husband Jim & their youngest son Justin.  We will all be boarding a Royal Caribbean ship (the Liberty of the Seas) for a Holiday cruise that will stop in Belize City and Cozumel before returning to Ft. Lauderdale on December 26, 2013.

Unfortunately, Shannon & Robert are not able to join us on our holiday cruise.  Shannon has spent this year developing her Personal Chef business.  She has a couple of regular clients (including Dave & Lynn at the BBH for whom Shannon cooks on a weekly basis.) She is hopeful to be able to acquire a few more regular clients.  She & Robert still live in Parker not far from us.

As always, at the close of this letter we send our love & wishes to you all for a wonderful and blessed Christmas holiday.  May we always remember the Reason for the Season, the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Redgie, Valerie, Brady (& Bebe!)

IMG_1069IMG_1062IMG_1071IMG_1054IMG_1052November 2013

A Military Mom’s Diary: “Safe and Sound”

MH-60S Knighthawk

MH-60S Knighthawk

Yesterday I received the best email I’ve ever received in my life.  In the span of about 60 seconds I experienced the emotions of fear, joy, guilt and grief:

FEAR – Something bad has happened…are they involved in hostile activities?

JOY – Thank God my son is safe!

GUILT – My son is safe! But five other mothers’ sons are not…God help them!

GRIEF – Lost at sea…if they are alive they are probably hurt and afraid.  Will any of them be found? Will any of them survive? Lord be with them and hold them in Your hands!

The email that I received was from my son Brooks who is currently deployed as a Naval aviator assigned to the USS Nimitz strike group.  Brooks is a pilot and a member of the HSM 75 Helicopter squadron “Wolf Pack”.  He pilots the MH-60R Seahawk.  (I wrote about the experience of Brooks receiving his Naval Aviator “wings” in this previous post .)

Brooks’ email (Subject:  safe and sound) was received on Sunday, September 22, 2013 10:11 AM and said:

“Family,

 I can’t respond with any details but if you read the news I just wanted to calm any worries you might have and let you know that I’m okay. Please keep our sister squadron in your thoughts and prayers.

 Love you all,

Brooks”

A quick search on the internet revealed a news article that reported the crash of a MH-60S Knighthawk helicopter while either taking off or landing on a guided-missile destroyer, the USS William P. Lawrence.  Five crew-members were on board the aircraft at the time of the crash.  These helicopters are flown by the “Indians” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 6, sister squadron to Brooks’ squadron (HSM 75 Wolf Pack.)

At the time we viewed this article originally, all five of the crewmen involved in the crash were still unaccounted for.  This was very concerning because the crash happened six hours earlier, but we hoped the delay was just in the reporting of the events.  Later in the afternoon the article was updated to report that three of the five crewmen had been rescued and were in stable condition and that search and rescue operations were being conducted for the missing two crewmen.

Sadly, this morning at 11:50 am EDT this Navy News article reports “Search and Rescue Efforts for MH-60S Aircrew Suspended.”

As the mother of an active-duty serviceman who is deployed in the Middle East I have had to learn how to live each day without being consumed with worry.  It is not easy but my faith in God helps me trust that Brooks is always being held in His hands.  Even so, I am realistic enough to know that bad things happen all of the time and no one is exempt from that possibility.

I saw this slogan on the USS Nimitz (CVN 68) Facebook page: “One Nation, One Navy, One Family” and it is so true.  Two families are being informed that their sons (brothers, husbands, maybe even fathers) were lost at sea.  My heart is so heavy with grief for them and I know that it could have so easily been my son involved in such an accident.

Joy > Guilt > Grief….such a dichotomy of emotions.

Lord in Heaven, I pray that you will be with the families and friends of the two crewmen who were lost yesterday in this terrible accident.  Please envelop them with Your comfort and peace and give them the strength to bear this realization of their greatest fear.  Be also with their fellow crewmembers that experienced this tragedy and those who helped with the search and rescue operations.  Give them the comfort of knowledge that they did all that was humanly possible in the situation. Help them stay strong and courageous during their mission.  Please bring them all home safely and soon.