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Camaraderie at work


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POSTED: Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Two Hawaii sailors have a front-row seat in one of the most intensive combat operations in history: the decks of a modern, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in wartime.

Helping to arm F-18E Super Hornet jet fighters with bombs and missiles on the 4 1/2 -acre flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan is Petty Officer Kealiikaleikanani Auyong, a 2004 Pearl City High School graduate.

Currently in the Gulf of Oman, the Reagan and its 44 fighters have provided 30 percent of the close air support for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

As an aviation ordnanceman assigned to one of the seven squadrons aboard the Reagan, Auyong, 23, who goes by the nickname Kealii, is part of a team that works long hours on the flight deck, then eats and relaxes together.

“;There's a lot of teamwork,”; said Auyong, whose crew can be easily identified by the long-sleeved red shirts they wear. Everyone who works on the Reagan's flight deck has a specific job indicated by the color of his deck jersey, float coat and helmet.

“;AOs have a brotherhood or a family,”; Auyong said in a phone interview from the Reagan, which has been in the northern Persian Gulf since July 6. “;It's a camaraderie.

“;It was feeling of belonging to a family or this brotherhood that made me want to be an AO,”; said Auyong, whose parents, David and Mary Auyong, still live in Pearl City.

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Also on the flight deck during air operations is Airman Moana Mustra, an aviation boatswain's mate whose family lives in Kapolei and Makakilo. Her job is to maintain the arresting gear that helps jets land on the carrier.

“;I picked this job because I wanted to work on the flight deck,”; said Mustra, who wears an emerald green jersey that signifies crew members who are aircraft or equipment maintenance personnel, during a phone interview. Duty on the flight deck is long — sometimes 16 hours long, seven days a week.

It was her father, a former gunner's mate, who inspired her to join the Navy after she graduated from a high school in California, she said.

Both Hawaii sailors have been on multiple deployments. Mustra, 21, first deployed in 2008.

This is the fourth for Auyong, now with the “;Eagles”; of Strike Fighter Squadron 115, scheduled to be reassigned from Lemoore Naval Air Station, Calif., to Japan after this deployment.

Lt. Cmdr. Ron Flanders, spokesman for the Reagan, said the carrier has 61 aircraft, of which 44 are F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet fighter jets that cross Pakistan to patrol Afghanistan and to support U.S. or coalition troops under fire. The aerial patrols can include taking pictures, looking for improvised explosive devices being planted, and assisting ground troops coming under fire.

“;Afghanistan is a dangerous place, but we provide a huge blanket of support for the war,”; Flanders said. “;We are hundreds of miles away providing this capability. These aircraft are equipped with bombs and missiles, but weapons are used only as a last resort.”;

The Reagan's Carrier Air Wing 14 has flown 1,550 sorties into Afghanistan, he said. Aircraft have dropped 35 bombs and done 41 strafing runs.

The Reagan, which cost $5 billion to build and costs $1 million per day to operate at sea, will be relieved by the USS Nimitz and make a liberty call at Pearl Harbor next month. It is expected to return in November to its home port in San Diego, which it left on May 28.