Sunday, March 1, 2015

U.S. AT WAR: Bakersfield ‘Cooks’ Witness Importance of Navy in Trip to Bahrain


Admirals Bill Gortney, left, and Mark Fox answer reporters' questions.

A news junkie, I consider myself at least moderately informed about international events and the nation’s interests in such “hot spots” as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and east Africa. But reading news stories and watching television reports just isn’t the same as putting your boots on the ground.

Next year will be the 10th anniversary of the start of U.S. fighting in Afghanistan. It has become our nation’s most protracted war, now exceeding the duration of the Vietnam War. And June was its most deadly month. No one is predicting when the fight will be “over” and what “over” really means.

Earlier this month, I traveled with the Bakersfield-based Cooks From The Valley to Bahrain, the headquarters of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and Fifth Fleet, which oversees Middle East operations.

Headed by attorney Tom Anton, about 60 volunteers, most from Bakersfield, flew to the Persian Gulf to barbecue steaks for the troops on July 4. Since the terrorists’ attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the “cooks” have barbecued around 130,000 juicy Harris Ranch steaks to show their appreciation for U.S. soldiers and sailors on ships, on domestic and overseas bases, and in hospitals.

This month’s trip sent volunteer cook teams and steaks to four locations – to the Naval Support Activity, Bahrain; Shaikh Isa Air Base, Bahrain; aboard the amphibious assault carrier USS Nassau at sea; and at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, near the Somalia border.

It was hot – real hot. Temperatures were around 120 degrees, with the humidity pushing the heat index maybe 20 degrees above that.

But that’s not what I will remember most about the trip. Maybe it’s what I whined about the most. The most memorable thing was the realization that we are – really – at war. And our nation’s finest are out there fighting it so we can go about our business at home not giving it much thought.

Anton hits the nail on the head when he observes that our troops are sacrificing every day so that we can live as though it was Sept. 10, 2001 – so that we can forget terrorists attacked New York and the Pentagon, and forget more terrorists want to inflict more harm today. Regardless of Americans’ legitimate disagreements over sending U.S. troops to the Middle East, thousands of our young military men and women are serving in some of the world’s most dangerous places.

To say thanks for that, Anton has enlisted “cooks,” who buy thousands of pounds of fresh steaks and haul them around the world, grilling up a taste of home for those who may sometimes feel forgotten.

In addition to being a U.S. Navy headquarters, Bahrain is a “support activity,” where ships – aircraft carriers, mine sweepers, submarines, etc. – come into port for supplies and other “activities.” A few miles away at Shaikh Isa Air Base, additional multi-national forces, including U.S. units, are stationed.

Both Isa and NSA Bahrain are on the Persian Gulf, east of Saudi Arabia, giving them “strategic locations” to support troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, to keep a watch over Somali pirates who infest the waters off the East African coast and to counter terrorism throughout the region.

America doesn’t flaunt its presence in Bahrain. No big Stars and Stripes fly overhead; military uniforms are not worn into town; and high security is posted at gates, with bomb-sniffing dogs checking vehicles that enter.

Homesick sailors and soldiers are anxious to talk to visitors – especially those grilling 12-ounce steaks. But their talk is general. The “when and where” of their activities are mostly secret.

About 1,000 miles away, on July 4, Gen. David Petraeus took command of the war in Afghanistan. In a roar of controversy, Petraeus replaced Gen. Stanley McCrystal, who resigned after publication of an embarrassing Rolling Stones magazine article.

The next day in Bahrain, less media attention was given to another important change of command. Vice Admiral Mark Fox relieved Vice Admiral William Gortney as commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. Gortney will become director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In prepared remarks and to reporters after the ceremony, which the Bakersfield cooks attended, Fox stressed the importance of the Navy’s presence in the Gulf. He pointed out that the “amazing growth” of the global economy makes protecting trade routes and stabilizing the region a priority for all nations. He likened the sea lanes to the body’s life-giving circulatory system and Navy forces to “doctors” who must keep the veins from clotting.

Gortney noted in an earlier interview that the U.S. reliance on a global economy requires the free movement of oil, natural gas and goods. “Buying and maintaining a Navy is vital to our interests.”

As evidence that U.S. allies in the Gulf have “come closer together, growing stronger together,” Gortney told reporters after the ceremony, “We are working very closely with the Iraqi Navy and within two years we will be ready to turn over the entire mission of protecting their two offshore oil terminals to them.”

Fox addressed the threat posed by Iran, which is located less than 300 miles away and directly across from Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. Saber-rattling Iran has been sanctioned by the U.N. over its nuclear program.

“I certainly do not expect a clash. We are not in the business of looking for trouble, but if trouble appears, we know how to deal with it,” he told reporters.

After spending a few days with my boots on the ground in Bahrain, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Navy knows how to deal with trouble. I’ve seen some of the might they will bring to the fight.

Dianne Hardisty retired as The Californian’s editorial page editor last year. She and her husband, John Hardisty, traveled with the “Cooks from the Valley” to Bahrain this month. This article written by Dianne Hardisty appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian on July 18, 2010.

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