(NEW YORK POST MAY 29, 2006) … Opinion - Bob McManus
ABOARD USS KEARSARGE -- It's been 56 months since the onset of the Long War. Time for a break.
So this most modern of the Navy's warships - recently back from the Mideast and in training for a return trip - turns her bow toward New York City and Fleet Week liberty for her 1,800 sailors and Marines.
What sort of a ship is she?
"Forty-thousand tons of twisted steel and sex-appeal," says Rear Adm. Garry Hall, with a broad smile. "There's no beach beyond our reach."
It's a time-tested trope, no doubt about that, but no less true for the re-telling - certainly not the beach part. Kearsarge can put 2,000 Marines and their equipment across a contested coastline in a matter of hours and sustain them for as long as it takes to get the job done.
And there have been many jobs since 9/11. Kearsarge has ferried Marines to combat in the Mideast. Its helicopters flew combat resupply missions during the early weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
There have been two additional months-long deployments to the Mideast since then, the most recent ending last September - but not before Kearsarge came under terrorist rocket attack while pierside in Aqaba, Jordan, on Aug. 19. (The ship was undamaged, but a Jordanian sentry was killed.)
Soon Kearsarge, refreshed and replenished, will return to the region - as it must for as long as it is necessary for the Navy to project power in service of American security interests.
But how is the crew holding up?
Amazingly well, says Hall, given the stress. "More than 70 percent of the youngsters [aboard ship] enlisted after 9/11," he adds proudly.
A Naval Academy graduate from upstate Buffalo, he commands the Navy's Amphibious Group Two, a 27-ship flotilla served by thousands of sailors, aircrewmen, pilots and Marines - the latter a singular group indeed.
Meet Maj. Chris Curtin of the 10th Marine Regiment, a 35-year-old out of Bridgewater, Conn., Norwich University and - most recently - the Syrian-Iraq frontier.
That on-again, off-again hotspot doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves. Once upon a time it was a sieve; al Qaeda fighters and other terrorists entered Iraq with virtual impunity and then set about their deadly tasks.
Lately the traffic has been choked down - not eliminated, but perhaps brought under control. That's a critical step in controlling the Iraqi insurgency.
For this, thank Curtin and his comrades.
Pressed for details, the major smiles wryly, a hint of amusement in his eyes, and just keeps his counsel. It wasn't his first trip to Iraq, nor is it likely to be his last - and if not Iraq, then somewhere equally as demanding, equally as dangerous.
Such is life for a major of Marines as the Long War proceeds. He has a wife and three children, but America must come first. They know it, he knows it - and that raises a fundamental question.
"I love my country," Curtin says.
"The adventure," he adds. "And I like the people."
The twinkle leaves his eyes.
"I am part of something larger than myself. I am part of an organization that stands for something."
Indeed it does, and thank God for that.
Thank God for men like Maj. Curtin and the thousands upon thousands of young Americans now under arms - men and women equally dedicated to faithful service to America, never mind the challenge and never mind the danger.
And, of course, for all those who have fallen - and who will fall - to maintain America as an exemplar of peace and freedom in a too-often brutal, benighted world.
The sailors and Marines of Kearsarge get it.
As the ship entered New York Harbor last week, the topside chatter stopped twice: When she passed the Statue of Liberty and, again, when she rendered honors to Ground Zero, they stood proudly to parade-rest.
And then they, too, smiled.
For they, too, are part of something larger than themselves, and they know it. Good for them.
It's getting harder and harder not to raise my hand. -Al