CDR Carl B. Forkner, Ph.D., USN(Ret)
This article was posted on 9-11-2016 on my main Blog site, www.carlforknerconsulting.net and I am sharing here so that it is among fellow Veterans.
It was a mission among many for which we had trained. We navigated around the tip of the Indian peninsula westbound on our way to what was expected to be a routine Operation Southern Watch deployment in the Persian Gulf. With a day ahead of preparing the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) Battle Group to transit the Strait of Hormuz, it was time to get some sleep. My TAO and watch officers were well-trained and highly competent–they had my complete trust and confidence–so a few hours of sleep was not beyond reach.
Early in the morning, the ship’s Intel Officer was pounding on my stateroom door. He told me to turn on the TV. My initial impression was that I was seeing another iteration of the “Die Hard” movie series. It soon became evident that I was viewing live news reports from New York…and, later, the Pentagon. It would take some time, however, before the realization hit that the area of the Pentagon that was attacked was where I worked three mornings each week.
Within the hour, though, we had a meeting of all the principal leadership to discuss the way ahead and what the potential options might be. The next many hours were spent with contingency planning, synchronizing planning with COMFIFTHFLEET, and devising specialized training. Over the next few weeks, we did highly realistic live training of many kinds, providing heightened readiness for both the ships’ personnel and our air wing. It was intense, but we all realized the terror to which we were the planned response–the devastation of 9-11 in New York, the Pentagon, and the heroic efforts of the passengers of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania who likely saved the White House.
To take a step back in time, our Captain and Ship’s Chaplain included what, at the time, was a controversial new segment to pre-deployment training. There was a day when the various religions came together and provided opportunities for ship’s company to explore the basic tenets and beliefs of those they wanted to approach. It was made clear that the training was informational and that no one was being forced to join a church or exercise a particular faith. It was a cultural opportunity because the ship would be travelling to many locations where the indigenous peoples were different from mainstream America. Interestingly, religious service attendance aboard ship tripled after the attacks on 9-11…and cooperation & understanding among crew members improved greatly…we truly became a team focusing on the mission and our fellow Americans back home.
Fast forward, now, back to the first week in October. Briefings, final planning and coordination, lots of Intel analysis, and daily exercises and wargaming. During this time, USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) transited from Japan to become a platform for our Special Forces. And then, at 6:13pm Kabul time on October 7th, America struck back. I was standing on the bridge of USS Carl Vinson with the Captain, XO, and other department heads observing our Cruisers (USS Princeton and USS Antietam) and guided missile destroyer (USS O’Kane) launching the first Tomahawk missiles into Afghanistan. It was a pretty amazing sight, even in the twilight hours of darkness. It was also the beginning of my longest workday…
A few hours later I was down in Combat coordinating the outbound transit of our strike fighters and other tactical aircraft of Air Wing 11 (CVW 11) as they headed into Afghanistan to deliver the first tactical air strikes against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. We observed them during their missions and then, much like the movie “Midway,” we not only watched the electronic indications of returning jets but actually visually verified that each of our CVW 11 teammates returned back safely to the carrier. Fortunately that day–and every other day–every one of our air wing brothers and sisters returned back safely. Sometimes the jets had bullet holes in them from anti-aircraft artillery, but everyone made it back safe and sound.
On the carrier, most of the mess areas (areas for eating) are located on the third deck (two decks below the carrier’s hangar bay, where aircraft maintenance is performed). The corridors were lined with drawing, posters, cards and well-wishes from school children across America, whose teachers had developed projects about 9-11. We also had schools who became pen pals with us–something that many crew members enjoyed greatly, even buying and sending the children patches, ball caps, challenge coins, and other ship memorabilia in addition to their letters. It was a great way to stay in touch with our fellow Americans back home and give them a connection to what was going on at the front line. It brought us closer to home…
Our response to 9-11 aboard USS Carl Vinson provided some great lessons in developing effective teams. Our Captain had a requirement for the senior officers at the daily Tactics Board meetings–“Leave your rice bowls at the door;” in other words, it is not your individual budget or people–we will work together to use all our resources as best we can in order to do our best to accomplish the mission. That leadership from the top–setting the tone for the other senior leaders on the ship–was the single most important quote that I can remember about building the team. And that focus flowed downhill into every function of the ship and crew. We took care of our Sailors–their physical, psychological, and professional needs–everyone was a valued member of the team, regardless of rank, position, or career specialty. I can honestly state that I had never before, and never since, been part of a team building process as effective and successful as that experience… and I doubt that I ever will.
The reminder pictured above hangs in a place of honor in my study. It is a reminder of the superb team of which I had the honor of being a part, the leadership lessons learned, and a constant reminder–not only of what happened on 9-11 but the resilience and resolve of America in the face of an evil adversary. Threats persist–there will always be threats to an open and democratic society. But we will always have Americans who are willing to stand up for America, in schools, in communities, in sports, in every segment of American society–and those 1% who will raise their right hand and take an oath to serve and protect this country and its citizens from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
In closing, I want to express my gratitude to all those people who reach out a thankful hand to our Veterans. I am especially thankful for those who care for our critically injured Veterans, whether the challenges are physical, psychological, emotional, or a combination. In nearly three decades of service, I have relatively few physical scars and few emotional scars. There are many among us–Veterans, family members, close friends–who struggle each day with their challenges. on average, 22 Veterans or active duty personnel take their life through suicide–a challenge we all must take on for those who sacrificed for our country. I am thankful for those who step up and work toward solving the challenge.