World politics intruded into this close-knit military community this week when it was reported that North Korea had threatened to sink the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier.
The news hit particularly hard here because so many people have loved ones on the ship. About 700 sailors from the naval air station Lemoore are aboard the Vinson, serving with three Super Hornet jet fighter squadrons.
It was reported Sunday that an editorial in a state-run newspaper said North Korea’s military could sink “a nuclear powered aircraft carrier with a single strike,” a statement viewed as referring to the Vinson, which was reportedly heading to the North Pacific.
That kind of news rocks families at home, said Allison Bratton, whose husband is a sailor on the Vinson.
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“I have three children, 11, 6 and 2. I’m trying to shield them from as much of the news media as I can,” she said.
Deployments are invariably stressful for families because of the separation that lasts six months or longer, but heightened international tensions add to the burden, said Justin Thomas, director of the Fleet & Family Support Center, where counselors specialize in deployment issues.
“I know it stresses families out,” Thomas said. “I know there are moms and dads on this base who are very careful about what comes through their TV. But you can’t control everything that the kids hear about. They hear about it from other people at school.”
To help children adjust to a parent being away for long stretches, deployment clubs at two schools on base meet monthly, he said. Children make care packages, for instance.
The threat to the carrier by North Korea is also being felt in nearby Lemoore, where a number of retired Navy personnel live.
“I hate to say it, it seems like we’re getting pretty close to World War III,” said Ike Payne, a retired petty officer first class who was stationed in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War and is now president of the Fleet Reserve Association Branch 216 in Lemoore, for retired Navy personnel.
Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, seems to be asking for trouble, Payne said.
“I’m hoping he’ll understand if he makes an aggressive move toward us, he’ll have to deal with us and Japan and South Korea, and he knows that he has no way to win,” Payne said.
The mood aboard an aircraft carrier is often tense, especially on the flight deck, but the bold North Korean threat is certain to make it more so, said Robert Walecki, a retired aviation ordnance warrant officer who has served on six aircraft carriers, including off the coast of Vietnam when Saigon fell.
Adding to the tension is that North Korea has nuclear weapons. “A conventional weapons threat is not that big of a deal,” he said.
Undoubtedly aboard ship, “some of the planes are fully loaded and ready to go,” he said. Under heightened circumstances, squadrons are often placed on “alert 15,” meaning the planes must be ready to fly within 15 minutes, he said.
The crews know what’s happening and are mentally ready because that’s part of the job, he said.
“They’re not scared,” he said. “They’re thinking about the North Koreans. They’re pretty much ready for anything.”
The latest tensions started about three weeks ago when the Vinson announced it was canceling a port call in Australia and would be heading to the North Pacific, a move interpreted as a show of force to North Korea.
About a week later, North Korea launched a missile test that failed when it blew up, news reports said.
The story of the Vinson heading toward the Korean peninsula became muddled – some commentators suggested that the story had spun out of control unnecessarily – when it was reported that the Vinson actually went in the opposite direction to engage in joint sea exercises with other countries.
The exact location at sea of the Vinson is a secret, but Foreign Policy magazine reported Wednesday that the Vinson is still working its way north from the Philippine Sea.
Meanwhile, senators went Wednesday to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House for a closed-door briefing on North Korea.
And this week, President Donald Trump told Reuters news agency, “There’s a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea, absolutely.”
The families on the base are proud of their loved ones and praying for them to return home safely, Bratton said.
“Every deployment is different,” said Bratton, who is completing her master’s degree in counseling and has a part-time job helping sailors write resumés for civilian jobs.
She had planned to meet her husband at a port call but canceled the plane ticket when the Vinson changed plans. Other families that had made travel plans experienced the same disappointment, she said.
“It impacts everybody,” she said.
Bratton said she and other spouses keep their spirits up by sending supportive messages to their loved ones via email.
“You try and send happy messages, and make sure they’re doing their job and that they’re doing the best that they can do,” she said, dabbing at tears with a tissue.
In her most recent message to her husband, “I told him that I’m proud of him and I love him,” she said. “I try to keep things positive so he can focus on the mission, so we can focus on what needs to done at home, that the kids love him and we’re taking care of everything.”