the aircraft carrier USS George Washington
It is the second anniversary
of 9/11. A jet approaches the landing strip of the aircraft carrier
USS George Washington. The plane lands and, as it has so many times before,
hooks a cable to help it stop quickly. But this time something
goes wrong. The cable snaps and the aircraft skids across the
deck. The pilot ejects safely before the jet slides into the water,
but eight sailors are injured by the recoiling cable.
The three chaplains
aboard respond quickly to assist in emergency relief and to offer
comfort and prayer support. Chaplain (Lt. Cmdr.) Paul Witt dashes
to the flight deck as the other chaplains report to medical.
“It was miraculous
that more were not hurt,” says Witt, “and that no
life or limbs were lost.” At press time, all but one of
the sailors has been released from the hospital.
Witt, an Assemblies
of God chaplain in the U.S. Navy, has been stationed aboard
the George Washington only
a few months. He originally enlisted in the Navy in 1977 as a
boiler technician. After three years, he felt God’s call
on his life and went into the reserves while earning an undergraduate
degree from Bethany Bible College in Santa Cruz, Calif., and a
master’s degree from Assemblies of God Theological Seminary
in Springfield, Mo. He returned to active duty in 1991, this time
as a Navy chaplain.
Like most chaplains,
Witt has changed venues often. His latest assignment is in a place
of strategic importance. The George Washington is
a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier based in Norfolk, Va., at the
largest Navy base in the world, “the capital of the U.S.
As the flagship for
Rear Adm. Joseph A. Sestak, the George Washington’s
primary mission is to conduct sustained flight operations over
enemy forces. When its strike group is deployed, the George
Washington becomes the command
center for the theater of operations.
Since it was commissioned
in 1996, the carrier has made three Mediterranean/Arabian Gulf
deployments to places such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and the gulf
where it enforced the no-fly zone over Southern Iraq in Operation
On August 29, I am
privileged to go aboard this floating city with other civilians
for a glimpse into military life aboard a major aircraft carrier
… and for me, a glimpse into the life of a Navy chaplain.
We board the carrier
well before the sun rises. I am struck by the size of the carrier.
It is as long as the Empire State Building is tall. Some 5,500
people call the George Washington home when it has a full complement. This includes permanent ship’s
crew and the air wing, which comes aboard when the fleet is deployed.
Bells sound as senior
As I walk through the
ship with Witt, frequent stops are made to meet people with whom
he has built relationships. Witt appreciates the opportunity to
minister to the troops in an informal way. He has lots of opportunities
to pray with troops as he visits among them, and to facilitate
Chaplains are on call
24 hours a day, serving in a variety of ways: counseling, notifying
sailors of the death of a family member, responding to emergencies
… even assisting those who find themselves in financial
difficulty. When the ship is under way, some 50 services of various
kinds are held per week.
day starts early. Every morning after the Foreign Object Damage
(FOD) walk-down — a patrol across the ship’s flight
deck to pick up all objects that could affect an aircraft, no
matter how small — Chaplain Witt and other believers go
into the No. 4 aircraft elevator and have prayer. After that there
is prayer in the handler’s office (the handler keeps track
of all the equipment on the flight deck and in the hangar bay).
In the evening there is another FOD walk-down and Chaplain Witt
has recently begun prayer following that.
As we cruise out of
Chesapeake Bay, a Coast Guard boat with mounted guns escorts us.
We are belowdecks in
the air traffic control center when we hear and feel the loud
shudder of a catapult — a mechanism that helps propel outgoing
aircraft off the deck — directly above us. This time it’s
a dry test with no plane launched. Later we will see it in action.
In the control center we watch a helicopter land on screen. There
are monitors throughout the many centers belowdecks that sailors
watch constantly. In the control center I’m shown a computer
that can take over and fly a plane, even land it.
Later on deck we are
treated to a spectacular display of the vessel’s power as
we watch the crews and pilots take planes and helicopters of various
sizes through their paces.
One crucial role of
a chaplain is to work closely with other chaplains. Witt introduces
me to the command chaplain aboard the ship, Cmdr. Brad Ableson,
a Cumberland Presbyterian. He speaks humorously about the problem
of finding enough water for baptism by immersion on a ship in
the Atlantic Ocean. It is evident that Witt and Ableson work well
I am also granted access
to the bridge to meet commanding officer Capt. Martin J. Erdossy
III. I take the opportunity to tell him that the people of the
Assemblies of God consider it their joy and their responsibility
to pray for the members of our military, and that after this article
has been published there will be many more people praying for
the crew of the USS George Washington
and the military as a whole.
Laressa, shares some insights from the perspective of a military
wife. “Military life is very hard on families,” she
tells me. Deployments of six months at a stretch get harder every
time. Paul and Laressa throughout their ministry have been accustomed
to ministering together — they conducted marriage enrichment
retreats together throughout Europe and in Bahrain — but
here they are separated more often. Laressa fills much of the
time that Paul is gone ministering to military wives.
In September of this
year, a major hurricane threatened the Virginia coast. When the
threat of hurricane arises the Navy deploys ships away from the
piers in order to avoid damage during high winds. This leaves
thousands of women, many with young children, to weather the storm
alone. During the approach of Hurricane Isabel, the wives were
told to prepare for evacuation within a few days. Fortunately,
this time the evacuation did not take place.
As we reenter the harbor
after a full day at sea, we find ourselves beside the fleet’s
No. 67 ship. It’s the USS Cole. The Cole,
the object of an infamous terrorist attack that cost American
lives, is a grim reminder that these ships do more than go through
routine paces. They are also placed in harm’s way.
It is reassuring to
know that, in peace or war, aboard such ships there are men and
women called of God to serve the needs of our armed forces with
the peace of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Horn is managing editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.
E-mail your comments