|The Perks of the Job
With about a week’s warning, the CLO office learned we would have the chance to bring a group of 20 people to ride the USS Saipan as it traveled through the Suez Canal. Plenty of US military ships or military contracted ships traverse the Suez each year. In 2006, the Suez will see approximately 170 such crossings. However, it is rare that civilians get to board these boats for the journey. CLO had permission to run 2 such trips this year, one in April and the trip I just led on December 4th. This was a privilege I couldn’t pass up.
In order to make the selection process fair, our office ran a lottery to see who would go on the trip. Forty people registered for 20 spots – a good number considering it was on a weekday. We selected names out of a hat, and informed the excited winners via cell phone a couple days before the trip.
On the morning of the trip, a bus took the participants to the town of Ismalia, on the Southern part of the canal. As we waited for the Saipan to arrive, some of the guests talked about their past experience with ships like the one we were about to board. In our group, there were a number of military and ex-military personnel, most of whom wanted to tell all their ship stories to each other before boarding. We took two pilot boats from the dock, and rode out to meet the Saipan, its enormity dwarfed our boats. We pulled along side the moving ship, and “hopped” aboard a ladder leading to the hanger bay.
The USS Saipan launches amphibious missions, and has the capability to operate anywhere in the world. Its size is just under a full aircraft carrier, but has a runway long enough for planes to take off. Most of the aircraft that take off and land from the Saipan are helicopters, the Navy’s version of the Blackhawk. The ship also has a giant bay at the stern, which fills with water and allows transport boats to drive right out of the rear of the ship. This past year, the crew filled up the huge tank in the Mediterranean Sea and had a swim party.
The USS Saipan also houses one of the largest floating medical units in the US Navy. Only the hospital ships have larger med centers. This, combined with the ability to easily transport people and supplies to shore, allows the ship to perform humanitarian missions. While we were passengers, the Saipan was returning from a mine sweeping exercise in the Gulf after dropping off a few Marines in Iraq. They narrowly escaped a two week extension of their mission, and the boat was heading back to Norfolk, VA after an R&R stop in Athens. Their arrival back to Norfolk was scheduled for December 22nd, so all the soldiers were thrilled to be home for Christmas. One gentleman I spoke with told me, “That’s my Christmas present, being home.”
Standing on the flight deck watching the Egyptian landscape float by, I was struck by the sheer size and power of this floating city. On our port side, the farmlands of the eastern Delta, on our starboard side, the Sinai desert; and here we were, a floating hunk of metal symbolizing the strength of the US military. After docking in Virginia, the USS Saipan is scheduled to be decommissioned. It will probably be sunk off the eastern seaboard, and become a future dive site. The crew and the ship all had a feel like they were on their last legs. After months out at sea, and knowing they were so close to the end, most were anxious to return home, see their friends and family, and leave the Saipan for the fish.
But for the 20 visitors coming from Cairo, this was a once in a lifetime chance to pass through the Suez Canal. It was exciting and refreshing, a chance to learn something new. And that’s one of the many perks to my job; it gives me a chance to make a journey like this one. And really, it’s not all that much work.
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