GREGG KAKESAKO / GKAKESAKO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Navy Chief Petty Officer Steven Couey, left, examine oil samples in the main engine room of the Pearl Harbor-base cruiser USS Lake Erie while Petty Officers Steven Shoemaker and Nathan Pyeritz look on.
‘Sand sailors’ do major duty
Seamen filling in at other services find it fulfilling and engaging
ABOARD THE USS LAKE ERIE » Chief Petty Officer Steven Couey has been in the Navy for 14 years and been sent out on sea deployments four times.
Here are the numbers of sailors reporting from Pearl Harbor installations and ships sent to Iraq and Afghanistan:
» 2002: 4
» 2003: 28
» 2004: 37
» 2005: 151
» 2006: 238
» 2007: 388
» 2008: 191 (This is for personnel with deploy dates through October 2008).
Source: U.S. Pacific Fleet
Beginning in September, Couey, 33, will again be deployed, but far away from any ocean or sea.
He will become a "sand sailor" and join the growing number of "individual augmentees" -- sailors whom the other services have begun to rely on to fill critical shortages in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places as the war continues to drag on.
Through last month the Navy said 4,975 sailors have gone to Iraq and another 1,497 served in Afghanistan since the war started. Adm. Robert Willard, Pacific Fleet commander, noted that the program was "initiated in order to provide a degree of relief to our Army and to our Marine Corps so heavily engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world."
After seeing what the sailors have been doing not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in Africa, Willard, in a written statement, said he believes they are "learning a great deal about our joint forces, about what our ground forces go through. They're learning a great many skills they otherwise never would have, and some of them are very much lending their expertise to the fight. For example, the electronic warfare experts who come from our electronic warfare squadrons, our Aegis ships and our submarine force are contributing to the effort to counter improvised explosive devices in ways that we never envisioned before.
"We even have sailors who are operating in provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan in remote regions, helping in civil affairs."
In return Willard said the Navy gets "sailors back with much broader perspectives and higher skills than they left with."
Lt. Cmdr. Ritch Martel, executive officer of the USS Lake Erie, where Couey has been an electronics mate for the past two years, said since July about dozen sailors from the Lake Erie have volunteered to serve in the desert.
He said one of his weapons specialist -- Petty Officer James Brown who is returning to the Lake Erie this week from Iraq -- was even awarded an Army Commendation Medal for his work with the Army's version of a modern Gatling gun -- the Phalanx Close-In-Weapons system. "It wasn't working," Martel added, "and he fixed it and the next day, it was used to shoot down an incoming missile. He was just the right man at the right time and what he did probably prevented the loss of lives and property."
Normally these high velocity machine guns are mounted on the sides of Navy warships to protect them from attacking aircraft and missiles.
However, Martel said the Army has modified them by mounting them on flatbed trucks and is using them at security checkpoints.
Couey said he will spend five weeks at Fort Dix, N.J., where he will receive his combat training before deploying to Iraq. He expects to return to his wife and two kids next May, but will remain as a part of Lake Erie's ship's company until December 2009.
But why be a "sand soldier?"
"I volunteered," Couey added, "to say I am doing my part."
Couey said he doesn't know where he will be stationed in Iraq and only knows that his skills as an electrician are what the Army needed.
He also is preparing himself for the more physical aspects of being in the Army, like "the use of weapons and carrying 40 to 50 pounds of gear on my back."
Martel said that Lake Erie sailors who have served as individual augmentees "come back saying it was the best experience they have had in their careers. It just comes down to -- are you willing to make a sacrifice for a year?
"Everyone I have sent are volunteers."
Martel said he has had to turn down requests either because the sailor was too inexperienced or too valuable to the operations of Lake Erie.