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Aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington

By Ken Horn

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. Navy.”

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 Southern Watch.

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 officers board.

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 their needs.

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.

A chaplain’s 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 together.

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.

Witt’s wife, 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.

Ken Horn is managing editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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