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Small crews mean big jobs - and career benefits - for junior sailors

May. 11, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
The coastal patrol ship Hurricane makes a high-speed run in the Atlantic Ocean during April 28 crew proficiency operations off Norfolk, Va. The Hurricane and another PC will begin patrolling the Persian Gulf this summer, joining the eight PCs already in the region.
The coastal patrol ship Hurricane makes a high-speed run in the Atlantic Ocean during April 28 crew proficiency operations off Norfolk, Va. The Hurricane and another PC will begin patrolling the Persian Gulf this summer, joining the eight PCs already in the region. (Mark Faram / Staff)
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Electronics Technician 3rd Class (SW) Mario Hernandez stands watch, helping with navigation and lookout duties, during sea and anchor details aboard the Hurricane. (Mark Faram / Staff)

ABOARD THE COASTAL PATROL SHIP HURRICANE — Stealthy and small, they can slip in close to take the fight to the enemy’s shores just as readily as the newer littoral combat ships.

That’s right, the Navy’s coastal patrol ships are alive and well. If you want a challenge that could supercharge your career, these boats are the place to be.

“We are the original hybrid sailors,” said Engineman 2nd Class (SW) Greg Hermann, who has been a PC sailor his entire five-year career. “Everyone talks about LCS ships and LCS sailors,” he added, saying that the hybrid “concept started with PCs, and we’re still out here, doing it every day.”

With LCS the latest and greatest shallow-water ship, some PC crews have a chip on their shoulder — a mentality that helps keep them running. Much of a PC sailor’s work is outside his rating, while holding down multiple collateral duties.

At 179 feet long, the Navy’s 13 PCs are the fleet’s smallest surface combatants and are getting older. The Hurricane, for instance, is older than all but two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers — which it can outrun. Most PCs are expected to keep operating well into the 2020s, past 30 years of service.

“PC duty definitely will take you out of your comfort zone,” said Hospital Corpsman 1st Class (AW) Ben Husinecky, the ship’s independent duty corpsman. “IDCs on other surface ships with larger crews have their hands full with medical full time. Here, there’s also the chance to work outside your rate, learn new skills and get quals you’d not even get to sniff at elsewhere.”

'Higher level'

The PCs are in high demand: Eight are forward-based in the Persian Gulf, and two more — the Hurricane and Monsoon — will join them this summer. These 10 are slated to stay in the Gulf until LCS vessels replace them and they return to Mayport, Fla.

Three of the ships moved there last year from Little Creek, Va. But none are operating because they need the life-extending overalls the other 10 already have.

The Shamal, EN2 Hermann’s command, is back in Norfolk, Va., for rework; soon it could be running down drug go-fast boats in the Caribbean.

For most of the last decade, these ships have rotated between crews — an arrangement only recently jettisoned. Each crew is now assigned to a specific hull — a fact the Hurricane’s skipper said is crucial to keeping the ships going.

“It goes to ownership — this boat is their home and workplace,” said Lt. Cmdr. John Meise. “It’s an attitude and a way of thinking that’s at the heart of what it means to be a PC sailor.”

Meise served as a division officer on a rotating PC crew in the Persian Gulf and said it played a critical role in his career.

“Frankly, it was the reason I stayed in the Navy,” he said. “It’s a challenging tour. But for all, from the most junior sailor on up, everyone is operating at a level of responsibility they just don’t get elsewhere in the fleet.

“It’s a tour that rewards you while here, but can take your career to an even higher level.”

Everything is stepped up in the PC Navy. Officers on division officer tours serve as department heads. That upped responsibility goes for many chiefs and first classes, too — which doesn’t hurt when you’re up for a promotion.

It’s open to most of the traditional surface ratings but is closed to female sailors and junior officers because of berthing issues. The ships can have female COs, who get their own staterooms. And it’s not a special program — chances are your detailer can tell you if you can go.

Officials will decide sometime this year whether they’ll open PCs to female sailors.

One warning: Male or female, if you’re prone to seasickness, think twice.

'Expected to step up'

When HM1 Husinecky first set foot on Hurricane six months ago, the 10-year Navy veteran had never served on a ship at sea.

He will get his first look by the chief’s board next year, and he said his time on Hurricane could make or break his chances. He is the senior medical officer onboard and also coordinates all watch bills and qualifications — duties that typically fall to officers.

It’s not unusual to see HM1 down in the engine room, standing watch. He’s learning the plan toward his ultimate goal on Hurricane — qualifying as officer of the deck underway.

“It’s a qualification I wouldn’t have a chance in obtaining anywhere else,” he said. “But here, it’s something that I can work toward, it’s within my reach.”

For Quartermaster 2nd Class (SW) Cory Kennedy, being a QM wasn’t his first choice of duty; he’d trained to be a special warfare combatant crewman until an injury forced him from his career field of choice.

“I got reclassified as a QM and coming here, they asked if I wanted to be a [search-and-rescue] swimmer, so it seemed like a good fit for me to come to PCs,” he said. “Sure I miss being a SWCC, but there’s a lot to PC duty that keeps me excited about the Navy.”

On Hurricane, Kennedy is a small-arms weapons instructor and duty armorer. He said he’s learned time management — and patience.

“What this duty has taught me is flexibility in my job, but also in the command mission, both of which can change pretty quickly,” he said. “You might be going 100 miles an hour in one direction and get new tasking and head off at the same speed 180 degrees in another — you are expected to step up and get things done around here, and that keeps you constantly challenged.”

'A family'

Electrician’s Mate Fireman Justin Fowler enjoys a challenge.

In the six months he’s spent onboard, he’s gotten just that. An electrician on the outside, the 24-year-old joined the Navy to expand his career and knowledge — and he said his time on Hurricane offered more than he expected.

“From what I hear from my buddies on other ships, E-3s on most larger ships don’t get to work on anything — they carry tool bags for the more senior guys,” he said. “Not here. I’m into everything on a daily basis. My buddies are jealous that I actually get to work on things here.”

On LCSs, most sailors train into their positions. But on PCs, sailors often have out-of-rate responsibilities and step up to tasks based on experience and interest.

“We try to homegrow sailors into as many positions here as possible,” Meise said. “We really have the opportunity to fit the sailor into a job we see they have the ability to do.”

But one thing everybody says they enjoy about PC duty is the fact they’re part of a small crew. Everyone is important. They spend a lot of time razzing each other, but when the chips are down, they have each others’ backs.

“We are a family,” Meise explained.

That keeps Fowler charged up. He never feels lost in the crowd as so many sailors feel on big decks.

“ It’s not about rank here,” he said. “It’s just about seeing something that needs to be done and doing it.”

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