By Lisa Shrewsberry
The Durhams (Dr. Richard and Linda) qualify in many regards as distinguished residents of Greenbrier County. Originally from Hurricane, the Greenbrier Valley Medical Center physician and his wife, a Realtor and active civic and community volunteer, describe themselves modestly as “home bodies.”
Neither had served in the armed forces, although son Gregory Richmond, a West Virginia Army National Guard sergeant, served two tours of duty in Iraq. (Their second son, Jonathan Durham, is a junior at Berklee College of Music, Boston, Mass.)
So it took them by surprise when they were recently invited to acquire a new distinction — as special guests aboard United States Navy aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush.
At a girls’ night out with friends, Linda’s pal had mentioned discovering one of their former classmates through Facebook, now United States Navy Vice Admiral Kenneth E. Floyd, Commander of the U.S. Third Fleet, headquartered in San Diego, Calif. Vice Admiral Floyd, a Lewisburg native, referenced a civilian program known as the Distinguished Visitor (DV) Embark Program.
“I told (the friend) to mention to Admiral Floyd that we’d like to go. I thought we would just be going to look at a ship,” says Linda, remembering that she really didn’t know what lay in store should she and Richard be selected.
Admiral Floyd did nominate the Durhams. After supplying the required information for a background check ... they waited. After a year and a half, their request nearly forgotten, an e-mail came from the United States Department of Defense.
“It told us we were invited to embark,” Richard recalls.
He and Linda then had two weeks to plan for heading to Norfolk Naval Base Aug. 8, where they would take off to coordinates unknown to spend a night and the better part of two days aboard the USS George H.W. Bush.
Once in Norfolk, the Durhams found they would be joining seven others — two couples from Cleveland, Ohio, and a lady traveling by herself from Abingdon, Va. All in the group, themselves excepting, were in the field of education, Richard noted.
“We had to wear headgear, earmuffs, goggles and life preservers. We were briefed and put on a Navy transport plane,” he describes. Flying seated backward on the C-2 Greyhound plane, there was a distinct element of mystery from the start.
The flight to the undisclosed location of the USS George H.W. Bush took two hours, the invited guests excited to get to their insider’s view of the workings of the mammoth, floating city — 4.5 acres of American pride. The group would later learn they had been transported about 300 miles off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla. Midway into the flight, each visitor was invited to go into the cockpit, meet and talk to the pilots and take pictures.
Landing on the carrier, says Richard, was literally breathtaking for him and the others aboard. “It’s not like a landing where you come in smoothly and touch down,” he explains. “The airplane is moving, the ship is moving. It was almost like you were in really heavy turbulence the entire time, so (the pilots) are constantly adjusting things.”
When the visitors did emerge onto the carrier deck, they encountered a world many only see depicted in movies — of jets taking off and helicopters hovering, of technical activity practiced to perfection.
The deck was alive, colored by a rainbow of crew shirts assigned by role: Ones in yellow directed movement, in white ensured safety, greens hooked planes to catapult launchers, purples fueled the planes. Brown-shirted plane captains, blue-shirted elevator operators, red-dressed weaponry experts and silvers reserved for handling crashes and fires, all rounded out the bevy.
Richard recalls standing in awe at the powerful catapults zooming aircraft from 0 to 184 mph in two seconds before him.
“With our gear on, we got to stand within 20 feet of F-18s blasting off. It was amazing seeing these young sailors performing their duties out there,” he comments. The average age of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier crew is less than 24.
Beneath the bustle of landings and takeoffs, the visitors were ushered through a network of corridors to enter a large, luxurious room — not what they’d expected to encounter on a military base at sea. There was a dining room table and fancy furniture with nice couches and chairs. Pictures of the Bush family lined the perimeter of the room. It was a replica of President George H.W. Bush’s Kennebunkport dining and sitting rooms.
The nuclear-powered ship named after the 41st president of the United States is the only one of her kind whose namesake is still alive. A guestbook awaited the new arrivals to take their place in history by signing. One day, they were told, signatures would go to the Smithsonian to commemorate the carrier, commissioned in 2009.
The guests met members of the crew and the ship’s commander, Rear Admiral John C. Aquilino, as they dined on chicken with buerre blanc, roasted potatoes and a red and green pepper confit. The 5,000 people on the ship, Richard learned between bites, demanded a mighty galley, serving more than 19,000 meals a day on a $55,000 per day budget.
“After dinner, we went to the bridge and watched the sunset just as they were launching an aircraft. The admiral explained how difficult it is to land a plane on an aircraft in the middle of the night when you can’t see anything. He was a Top Gun pilot himself and still flies.”
The next morning and their final day, the Durhams visited a room the size of a football field bearing the chains of the ship’s two gargantuan anchors, one link of which weighs about 450 pounds.
“It’s like a city, self-sufficient in its own right.” Richard and the group were allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum of aircraft carriers — the defense and missile systems operations room. “How amazing to be able to see that,” he declares.
Upon ending their whirlwind tour to board the plane back to Norfolk, Linda met Captain La Salle, who apologized for her return accommodations not being First Class.
“I told him, ‘Everything you’ve done for us has been first class. Thank you!’”
In retrospect, the Durhams describe being deeply stirred by the patriotic experience, walking away with a true once-in-a-lifetime civilian opportunity and with the highest regard for the United States Navy.
“I see a lot of things differently now. I’ve worried about our youth and some of their work ethic. Let me tell you, those sailors who were 18, 19, 20, they are to be commended. They were right on cue and I never heard any of them say anything derogatory,” Richard notes. “They seemed privileged and happy to be doing what they were doing. It was humbling.”
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