Sunday, December 23, 2001

USS Russell fireman Jack played with his 4-month-old son before being deployed in October from Pearl Harbor. (The Navy declined provide last names to protect privacy.) The holidays are often difficult for Navy families who miss their loved ones.

Naval noel sails to
ships at sea

Crews on 2 isle-based ships will
celebrate Christmas away
from friends and family


By Gregg K. Kakesako

The Christmas decorations will still be up at a Kamehameha Heights home until Ensign Jacqlynn Duquette returns home and has a January holiday dinner with her family.

"I've missed the last two Christmases in Hawaii, although I was able to spend them with family members on the mainland," said the 1996 Iolani School graduate and communications officer on the destroyer USS O'Kane. "This will be the first I will be completely away from my family for the holidays. It's going to be different."

Duquette, who received her commission through the Navy's ROTC program affiliated with Harvard College two years ago, is among the 255 male and 75 female sailors assigned to the O'Kane who will spend the holidays 3,000 miles away from home, friends and family.

Cmdr. Taylor Skardon, O'Kane's skipper, has planned a Christmas Eve meal and "a day off" for his crew as the 500-foot destroyer steams south of India on its way home to Pearl Harbor after participating in enforcing united sanctions against Iran in the Persian Gulf. The O'Kane set sail on its maiden six-month deployment Aug. 1 after being commissioned in 1999.

That mission was interrupted on Sept. 11 when the O'Kane and the rest of the USS Carl Vinson battle group was diverted to the Indian Ocean as part of the Navy task force in the war against terrorism and Afghanistan. The O'Kane provided air cover for the battle group and the Marines who eventually went ashore into Afghanistan.

Also participating in Operation Enduring Freedom are the 25 officers and 300 enlisted sailors on another Pearl Harbor-based destroyer, USS Russell.

On station in the Indian Ocean 10,000 miles from home, the Russell's skipper, Cmdr. Hank Miranda, plans to have his officers and petty officers serve the enlisted crew a turkey dinner with all the trimmings on Christmas Eve.

"Then we will exchange gifts and have Christmas caroling," said Miranda through a satellite phone interview arranged by the Navy.

"We plan to hold a barbecue on Christmas Day on the flight deck. We will be even setting up a golf driving range for anyone who wants to hit a few balls."

Both Skardon and Miranda said their ships have been decorated with traditional Christmas lights, candy canes and other holiday items sent from family members and even artificial trees provided by the Navy.

"All these items come in a special kit that the Navy provides," Miranda said. "Besides the trees and decorations there are even costumes for a Santa and his elves."

Being at sea for six months at a stretch is tough at any time on families, but the holidays can make the absence seem even harder and longer.

Chief Petty Officer Gil Kualii, a Hilo resident serving on the Russell, said it's the large Christmas luaus he will especially miss this year.

Kualii has been in the Navy for 19 years, but only missed being with his family during the holidays on two occasions during the seven times he has been deployed.

But Petty Officer Tui Kalapa, another member of Russell's crew, said his 8-year-old baby sister probably will miss his presence this year.

"She always sits in my lap when we open presents," said Kalapa, a 1997 Waianae High School graduate.

Many of the crew on the O'Kane, like Duquette, will postpone celebrating the holidays until they return to Pearl Harbor.

Petty Officer Darrell Florence, a seven-year Navy veteran, said he's bringing home a "very special gift" for his 5-year-old son.

Without revealing his surprise, Florence, who is spending his first Christmas away from his family, said, "It deals with stars and the moon since my son is curious about astronomy."

Chief Petty Officer Walter Volinic, also spending his first Christmas away from his family although he has been on three deployments, said his 6-year-old son has "a Christmas list that keeps growing. I told him I would take him shopping when I get back."

Petty Officer Jaime Gonzalez, a 12-year Navy veteran, just plans to take his wife and four children to a vacation cottage on Oahu and spend the time getting to know each other again and "having a small celebration."

Lt. Dan Manetzke, who missed his first wedding anniversary in October because of the deployment, said the Russell has several sailors who plan to re-enlist, and part of the Christmas celebration will include swearing them into for another hitch.

There also will be the added treat of allowing the sailors to call home via a commercial satellite at reduced rates on Christmas as the Russell maneuvers in the Pacific 10,000 miles away from Hawaii. "They will only be paying a penny a minute," said Manetzke, who played a key role in efforts to rescue four Air Force crewmen from a B-1B bomber that crashed Dec. 12.

The B-1B, participating in Operation Enduring Freedom, had reported an in-flight emergency roughly 100 miles north of the British air base at Diego Garcia after it had departed the island and was trying to return. Diego Garcia is about 2,500 miles from Afghanistan.

Manetzke and a team of Navy divers from the Russell pulled the crewmen, who had to eject when their aircraft's systems malfunctioned, from the ocean.

As the O'Kane completes its first deployment as one of the Navy's newest destroyers, Duquette noted that "there's been a lot of interesting events at home that have made this a little bit different than what we expected at the outset."

Skardon also said his crew was overwhelmed by "the support we've received from people all over the United States. From the elementary school in New Jersey to the elderly care facility in Washington, to KayKay Brock, a 9-year-old girl who put together over 50 care packages for the O'Kane, the support from our fellow citizens has been incredible. If anyone ever feels down, they only have to walk around the ship and read some of the cards we have taped up on the bulkheads to get their sprits back up. It's another reason to be proud to be a American."

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