Weekend exploring

Over the Fathers Day weekend and newly minted Juneteenth federal holiday we were able to get out and explore the island some more. We took a drive around Senaga Island, a very small island accessible from Okinawa by bridge from Naha, one of the larger cities on the island’s south end. One can drive around the perimeter of Senaga Island in less than 5 minutes. Covid is still very much a thing here on Okinawa, so many of the shops and eateries on the island were closed. However, it has some nice beaches and a crab-themed park that the kids enjoyed.

In the central region of the island we visited the location where the U.S. Marines and Navy made their initial landfall on April 1, 1945 to start the battle of Okinawa during World War II. This small memorial marker overlooks the beachhead and river wash where the amphibious vessels delivered their soldiers and loaded casualties to be returned to the ships off the coast for treatment.

Heading north on the island we found the Cape Zanpa lighthouse, some pretty impressive cliffs along the ocean, and the self-proclaimed largest Shisa on the island. A Shisa is a traditional Ryukyuan decoration which is a cross between a lion and a dog and is supposed to ward off and protect from evil. They can be found on the rooftops or flanking the entrances to homes and businesses all across the island. Even the military commissary has a pair of Shisa out front. Typically the one with an open mouth is on the right while the closed-mouth creature is on the left. While I am not so sure about their protective powers, I did purchase a set to place above my desk as a decoration and keepsake from the island.

Speaking of these Shisa figures, I found my set at a local pottery village. This grouping of pottery shops and storefronts feature handmade dishes, tea sets, Shisa figures, and other items for sale. We liked that they are all locally-made and not commercially manufactured. We spent about 2 hours looking through all the shops. Along the way we also found a steel-roofed shelter where we found local glass tradesmen at work. We watched them start by extracting molten glass from a blast furnace and then shaping, blowing in the end of the metal rod to expand the center of the glass bulb, and re-firing and re-working the hot glass for almost 30 minutes until they had completed a multi-colored glass vase. The final step was to place it in a special kiln for annealing over an extended timeframe. The kids (and adults) were entertained and impressed by the skill of the tradesmen in the shop. While it may not be on the tourist bucket list, we were very happy we got the opportunity to watch them work.

Our last stop along our journey for the weekend was to visit the Zakimi castle ruins. This green space and park contains the ruins of castle walls which was once a great castle. It was impressive to see how tightly the stones of the wall were fitted together, even without the use of mortar to form a tight, flat wall to protect the castle. The view from atop the castle walls was equally impressive and the breeze was a welcome change to the hot and humid weather of the day.

Aspects of Living abroad

Living in a foreign country has been an adjustment for all of us. We knew it would be an adjustment when I chose orders to Japan, but we wanted to meet the challenge. Here is a little of what we have learned and/or experienced so far during our past two months on island.

Driving

Driving is different than in the United States. First off, the driver is on the right side of the vehicle, and one drives on the left side of the road, like in England. This is opposite what we have been used to in the states. I will admit I did pull out from a stop sign once during my first week behind the wheel and automatically went to the right side of the road…oops! Luckily it was on base and there wasn’t any traffic, so I was able to correct myself without any additional issues. In addition to the steering wheel on the “wrong” side, the levers for the turn signals and windshield wipers are on opposite sides. This has been a harder adjustment for us and both Heather and I have given the “Okinawa wave” as fellow service members call it by hitting the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal lever. This apparently is a classic American mistake. On the bright side, the pedals are on the same side as in the states, so the right foot is still the gas pedal, so at least we don’t have to learn to drive entirely backwards. The final major difference in the vehicles here is that the speedometer is in kilometers per hour instead of miles per hour. The speed limits on island top out at 60kph unless on the toll freeway. This equates to a whopping 37mph. If you have a “need for speed” Okinawa is not really the place for you unless you happen to fly a jet. However, it does allow for some leeway since everything occurs at a slower speed. Instead of trying to figure out which lever to use for turn signals at 80mph, it’s a lower 37 mph.

            In order to drive in Japan as U.S. service members we were required to pass a written exam on Japanese road laws and signs. We had a study guide to prepare, and both Heather and I passed on our first attempt. Once out on the open road one must decode the local road signs. The major signs are primarily in picture form along with Japanese and English text. This not to say that all signs are bilingual however, so there are plenty of signs and pavement markings that we have no idea what they mean. It has not caused a problem yet, but has made me more aware of the struggles foreigners living in the U.S. must go through if they are not proficient in the English language.

            Another aspect of driving that is different is the use of emergency lighting by the police. In America if a police car behind you has its red flashing lights on, you had best pull over. In Japan flashing lights simply means the police are on patrol and can be completely disregarded unless they activate their siren which means to stop. One interesting note is that the lightbar on top of American police cruisers are typically mounted very close to the roof of the car. Sometimes this is for aerodynamics, sometimes to try and blend in with other traffic. In Japan the lightbar is mounted high above the roof on a fiberglass pedestal to raise the lights above the height of other vehicles for increased visibility. When stopped these pedestals extend upward with a scissor-type lift to further raise the lights for visibility. With these features it is probably apparent that the police do not really “hide” much. Another thing they don’t do much here is run speed traps. There are numerous speed cameras mounted over the roadway on metal pole structures which control motorists’ speed. The cameras are, according to multiple online sources, set to trigger around 30kph over the limit. While I do not have any first-hand experience with it, it is said that the fine if caught by these cameras is pretty steep. With these cameras positioned all over the place most drivers keep it within 10-15kph over the limit, which seems to be the normal speed of traffic in town. Those that choose to zoom around will receive a ticket in the mail as these cameras snap pictures of their joy ride.

Purchasing fuel on Okinawa is a little different than in the States. First, one must decide to purchase gas on-base or off-base. If buying on-base there is one gasoline option: 85 octane gasoline sold by the gallon. They also sell diesel on base, but none of our vehicles use it. The vehicles and our lawn mower all seem to run just fine on 85 octane fuel here. If purchasing fuel off-base there are two gasoline octane options, 90 and 98, however it is sold by the liter not the gallon. When compared in equivalent measures, off-base fuel costs around three times the amount of on-base fuel. Noting this, we make it a point to fuel up on base as much as possible. This has been fairly easy since the island is only about 7 miles wide and 70 miles long, so we can make it from our home in the central region of the island to anywhere on the island and back without refueling.

After watching such movies as “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” one may have the impression that all the cars here are “rice” cars with loud mufflers, sit low to the ground, and are wide in stance. That is certainly not the case, at least on Okinawa. I have actually seen this style of car the most ON base and not driven by locals. Largely the vast majority of cars are small and narrow. We have one of the largest vans on the island and it could be described as a roomy minivan by American standards. Large SUVs and pickup trucks are simply not a thing here. We are glad we did not attempt to bring our Ford Transit van as it would not have fit well here. The roadway lanes are more narrow and parking is a significant problem here. In fact, to purchase a car in Japan one must provide proof they have a place to park it before being allowed to purchase the vehicle. The malls and larger businesses have plenty of parking (mostly on the roof and in parking garages) but visiting small businesses can be a challenge because there really is nowhere to park in the immediate area. When we were looking for a church to attend on island, one of the things we looked for was if they have a parking lot or not.

Operational Security

Those who have been around the military know that keeping a low profile and blending in can be of benefit to limit risks while overseas. While this may be the case, since US military bases occupy 25% of the island paired with the fact that our license plates actually denote that we are Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) personnel, this has proven more difficult on Okinawa. This of course, is in addition to the fact that I am taller than every native citizen I have come across so far. Luckily Japan is pretty U.S.-friendly and this is less of an issue than some other countries that come to mind.

Broadcast Media

Living on base we have cable internet that is provided through a vendor for the Armed Forces Network. We have 8 free channels along with our desired (paid) internet access package. The free channels offer a good mix of sports, entertainment, and news. I have actually been pleasantly surprised with the amount of baseball I have been able to watch this season. We could purchase an additional cable TV package, but we stream a lot via other media services so we do not have a large need for cable channels. I will say that watching TV here is not really the typical American experience though. As the programming is provided in conjunction with the military, there are not typical commercials. Instead the commercial breaks are filled with advertisements for on-base services such as the Officer’s club, the various pools on base, and infomercials related to water safety, Covid-19 vaccines, weather, and typhoon preparedness. On a related note, we have found exactly one radio station that is broadcast in English, and you know what? You guessed it, it is broadcast by the U.S. military from a station on one of the local bases. As far as media goes, even though we are living in a foreign country, we are firmly rooted in American media. If flashbacks to “Good morning Vietnam” with Robin Williams come to mind, you are probably not too far off track.

Money

Another aspect of life we have had to adjust to is the money system. The Japanese use the Yen, which is roughly equal to a penny. Paper notes consist of 1000, 5000, and 10000 yen bills and coins for 500, 100, 50, 10, 5, and 1 yen. When calculating the rough cost in US dollars one just mentally moves the decimal two spaces, so 1200 yen is approximately $12.00. It is kind of fun going to the ATM though, because you feel really rich when withdrawing 40,000 yen (Approximately $400). For anyone coming to Japan in the near future, I would advise you to use ATMs off-base for acquiring Yen instead of on-base ATMs. Even with the 1% international fee my bank assesses the conversion rate between dollars and Yen is much better off base. We have found that we need to keep both dollars and yen on hand because on base transactions use dollars and off base transactions require yen. Yen is also important to carry as many businesses do not accept American credit or debit cards.

Vending machines

Vending machines are literally everywhere! As long as you have some yen in your pocket you will never be hungry or thirsty due to non-availability of refreshments. Leaving the pool after a refreshing swim? 3 vending machines along the sidewalk. Inside the military health clinic? 4 vending machines. Taking a walk around the abandoned old Navy hospital? You guessed it, 2 glowing vending machines positioned along the chain-link fence. Taking a drive through the sugarcane fields? Yes, even here one will find an operational vending machine on a pallet to keep it up off the dirt. These vending machines are packed full, but not full of just soda. They offer multiple coffees, teas, waters, juices, and a few select sodas. Other vending machines offer ice cream cones, eggs, hot food, beer (Japanese ID required), umbrellas, batteries, or facemasks should you have the need. While I have not seen one in person, Japan even boasts that they offer covid-19 testing swabs via vending machines, although I am not sure how the swabs get processed once obtained.

Weather

            I think I could sum the weather up in two words: hot and humid. While Japan mainland has more changing of the seasons, Okinawa is pretty much hot and humid most of the year with winter lows only dipping into the 50s. Just yesterday by 10am it was 92 degrees with a heat index of 119. Needless to say during the summer many people spend the heat of the day indoors or engaged in water activities. The housing community is pretty empty during the day but in the evenings as the sun is less intense there is a flurry of activity. With this much humidity hanging in the air the chance for rain is ever-present so the daily forecast is pretty much the same: hot and humid with a 50% chance of rain.

Food

            Living abroad can be a fun experience trying new foods. The ramen here is fabulous! Even the pre-packaged ramen bowls are better than in the states. They come with multiple packets of both dry and wet ingredients that get mixed into the bowl. Heather has taken a liking to the Japanese curry. It is a more mild curry than Indian curry as it is based on the late 1800s British curry. It is served with some sort of protein, sauce, and white rice. It is simple, but pretty good. Out in town meat is more expensive and less available on island than in the states, with the exception of seafood which can be obtained locally and in quantity. Luckily, the military commissary tends to do a decent job of keeping us hungry Americans supplied with all the normal meats from the states, although it mostly arrives frozen due to the long transit time from the states. Due to things being deep frozen for transit there are signs on the freezer doors stating that the expiration date on food packages can be extended by 6 months due to being frozen.

So there is a small taste of the differences one may experience while living abroad. Stay tuned for more posts about our explorations around the island and beyond.

Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters

By: Kevin

This weekend we ventured to the southern end of Okinawa to tour the Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters. It is here where Vice Admiral Minoru Ota made his last stand and ultimately committed suicide so he would not be captured. It now stands as a monument to peace and remembrance.

The battle of Okinawa was among the bloodiest of World War II, lasting 82 days from when American forces first landed on the beaches on April 1, 1945 until June 13, 1945 when Admiral Ota died an “honorable death” for Japan. The total death toll for the battle of Okinawa stands at 12,520 Americans and 188,136 Japanese over the course of the battle. In the tunnels of the headquarters, according to the Sixth Marine Division, 175 Japanese deceased soldiers were found.

The outdoor monument and green spaces are free to tour, but there is a small admission fee for the tunnels and indoor museum. The museum features the timeline of the battle as well as Japanese uniforms and artifacts recovered from within the underground headquarters. Few weapons remain as the Japanese intentionally destroyed them so they could not be used against the Japanese later in the war. While some areas of the museum were in Japanese as well as English, some exhibits are only in Japanese, so the Google translate app on our phones proved very useful. As one starts down the stairs into the tunnels the walls are adorned with Japanese Senbazuru. These hanging paper sculptures are each made from 1,000 tiny origami cranes threaded together into strands of 100. They are gifted for the purpose of conveying prayers for healing and peace.

The headquarters consisted of multiple interconnected tunnels and rooms complete with ventilation shafts and emergency exits. The core of the headquarters lies 20 meters (65 ft.) below the surface to protect it from enemy attack. We were able to view the operations room, Commanding Officer’s room, 3 generator rooms, the code room, a staff room, as well as 3 rooms for soldiers. These rooms of soldiers were so tightly packed at times it was said one could sleep standing up. As many as 2,000 soldiers and officers occupied the headquarters during the battle of Okinawa. In one room of the headquarters the walls are riddled with shrapnel scars from the hand grenade that Admiral Ota used to commit suicide.

Touring the headquarters was very interesting from an exploration point of view, but it also holds additional significance to my family because my grandfather was stationed aboard the USS Edgecombe, a Haskell-class attack transport ship that landed assault troops on the Okinawa beach on April 1, 1945: the first day of the battle of Okinawa. His job as a navy corpsman was to accept the dead and wounded from the beach and provide medical care to them. Of course while he was rendering aid to American soldiers the Japanese kamikaze pilots were strafing the decks of the American ships with gunfire. I remember my grandfather telling me when he heard the planes swooping down he would tuck himself into the side of an I-beam and watch the hot rounds ricochet off the steel ship deck. As I pause in reflection some 76 years later I am an American Naval officer stationed on Okinawa standing in the Japanese Naval headquarters that was so fiercely defended from my grandfather and the Americans who came before me. It really is thought-provoking.

On a lighter note, once we finished our tour the kids played at a near-by park and we tried Japanese curry, which is based on British curry, with a milder spice than Indian curry. Heather and the kids had various beef or chicken dishes while I tried the shrimp & clam curry. It later occurred to me as I was looking at our receipt that mine was the least expensive dish. In the states I would think it would have been the most expensive. I guess that’s what you get when living on a sub-tropical island.

PCS Travel

By: Kevin

March 31st was our last morning in San Diego and thus started our marathon of travel. We awoke before sunrise and piled 4 sleepy children into the van. Our first stop was to drop off our dog, Dixie, at my coworker’s home where she would stay until she traveled to Japan in late April. Next was a final stop at the Navy hospital to officially check out of the command. My orders were stamped and we were all loaded in the van by 6:45am. From there we hit the road! We spent the next almost 24 hours driving across California, Arizona, New Mexico, and into Texas. Our first destination was the Silos at Magnolia in Waco, Texas. As we traveled across west Texas in the dark we did hit an unidentifiable pile of road kill with the left front tire. Usually when one hits an animal the driver can identify the animal, whether or not one can avoid it or not. In this case, neither Heather nor I were quite sure what it was we hit. We didn’t think it was a coon, skunk, or opossum. It wasn’t until we stopped for a few-hour nap at a truck stop several hours later that I discovered there were porcupine spines sticking out of our left front tire!! I spent almost 10 minutes picking spines out of the tread and the sidewall of the tire. This was painful to me, not because I got poked, but because the tire was only about two days old. Some of the spines were in a little deep, and I was really hoping that the tire would remain inflated and not be a loss of $180 as I doubt a tire shop would put that many plugs in the tire, and they won’t plug the sidewall at all. Luckily, the tire made it the rest of the trip without losing pressure, so I think we dodged the bullet of buying a new tire.

The Silos

On arrival to the Silos we first visited the Magnolia Press for some coffee and breakfast. We ate it on the outdoor patio as we watched the live entertainer getting set up for the day. The atmosphere was very pleasant. We then wandered through the shops at the Silos. We last visited the Silos and Waco, TX three years ago on our way to San Diego. Much has changed in the past three years with the addition of the coffee shop, a wiffle ball field, a church, and two rows of small shops that border a green space to name a few. Last time we visited it was right in the middle of a huge festival at the Silos, so this visit was welcomed with less people to contend with for space. If you happen to be a Fixer Upper fan and are in the area, I would suggest you make a stop at the silos.

Louisiana

            Our next two stops along our journey were to visit some good friends of ours in Louisiana. The first stop was at the house of a nurse who I worked with in Ohio prior to starting travel nursing, who now lives in Louisiana. We visited, had dinner, and spent the night; and awoke to Mickey Mouse waffles, bacon, and fruit in the morning. After a delicious breakfast and a round of goodbye hugs we traveled about an hour down the road to another family who we knew from our time at Ohio State University well before either family had children. Now some 16+ years later our friendship continues and we had a wonderful multi-day visit with this family before bidding farewell and pressing north toward Ohio.

O-H-I-O

            Our last stop before heading overseas was to visit the homestead in Ohio. Not only were we all excited to see parents, grandparents, and friends, I do believe that at least one of them would have tracked us down had we omitted the visit. This visit was full of visiting, feasting, and just spending quality time with loved ones. But of course, this too came to an end too quickly and it was time to prepare to leave. Heather and I spent a day and half organizing, preparing, and cramming military seabags full of our remaining items that had not already been shipped ahead. We joked about dragging four children, 2 carseats, 6 carry-ons, and 10 pieces of checked luggage through the airport. However, there was a degree of truth to that joke and we were cautiously optimistic it would go well for us.

Time to Fly

            Before dawn we all piled into the van one last time to head for the airport. All 4 kids fell back asleep during the 1 hour ride, awaking only once we were preparing to drive up the departure drop-off ramp. As we began to unload all the baggage onto the curb a very nice airport attendant brought a large luggage cart and assisted us all the way to the airport check-in counter as our airline did not have curbside baggage check. His assistance was well worth the tip we gave him. Next was TSA security, but being so early in the morning there was literally no line. We walked right up to the checkpoint and we were through pretty quickly and without incident. Our first flight was to Georgia so we were only in the air about an hour.

In Georgia the kids had fun riding the underground train that connected the terminals with each other and had some lunch while watching the flurry of activity on the tarmac and waiting for our next flight. The second flight was longer and aboard a much larger aircraft enroute to Washington state, but this was made more manageable by video screens in the headrests in front of us and our laptops for the older two kids to play Minecraft on for a few hours.

On arrival in Washington we got all our luggage off the baggage claim, rolled it via 2 rental carts to the curb and loaded it onto a shuttle bus that took us to the rental car facility where we had to load it back onto rolling carts to take to our rental vehicle. I’m sure we were quite the spectacle for those traveling with a single backpack slung over their shoulder, but with 6 people moving overseas packing light was very challenging. We could have skipped the rental car, but the thought of loading all our stuff into multiple Toyota Prius taxi cabs was just not a process I was willing to entertain. As it was we packed a Toyota Sienna to the gills with a seabag occupying the middle seat in the second and third rows of the van seats. I’m glad we didn’t have to travel long distance like that. We obtained dinner from the Wendy’s drive-thru and proceeded to our hotel for the night where, you guessed it, we unloaded all the luggage into our room. While it was fairly early according to Pacific Time our bodies were still on Eastern time, and we knew we would again be up before the sun, so we hit the sack shortly after dinner.

Military Flight

            It has been said that the military accomplishes more before breakfast than others accomplish all day. Therefore, in true military fashion our alarm clocks started making noise at 3:17am. We were all loaded up and on the road back to the airport by 4am, and were filling out military paperwork for our departure by 4:30am. The military flight, with some administrative/paperwork exceptions, operated very similarly to commercial flight including passing through TSA security and everything. Our baggage was counted, weighed, and tagged. One new aspect of travel was the airline agent weighing all our carry-on luggage and asking how much each PERSON weighed to account for the total weight of the aircraft. While it makes sense to account for how much fuel the plane will use, it is the first time I have been asked how much I weigh before boarding a flight. I can only imagine how well that question would be tolerated in civilian air travel.

            Once we were boarded and in the air we enjoyed full meals and plenty of snacks and bottles of water. We all packed our own water bottles, but I think I only drank from mine once or twice the whole trip due to the quantity of refreshments offered by the airline. Compared to some civilian airlines that barely give you 6 crackers during the flight, it was a welcomed change, especially on such a long flight. The aircraft itself was operated by a contracted airline, not the military, so the plane was comparable to commercial flight. We seemed to have a few more inches of knee room and the TVs in the back of headrests had a limited number of movies on them, but otherwise was a typical commercial plane. The kids watched Toy Story 4 on repeat for around 12 hours straight since there were only around three children movies on the system. If we were to do it again, I would have purchased regular headphones for the youngest two kids as the airline-provided earbuds kept falling out of their little ears. The plane traveled from Washington state to mainland Japan where it made two enroute stops before landing on Okinawa. While I am sure it is regulation the airline provides the safety speech before take-off every time, after hearing the same information five times in a 24-hour period I think I could present the safety speech myself without a script.

On the Ground

            Upon landing in Okinawa we were shuttled to the terminal via bus where we went through the military version of customs and collected our baggage. If I didn’t mention it earlier we knew there would be an overwhelming number of green military seabags on the flight, so prior to leaving San Diego Heather sewed a matching wide colorful stip of fabric around each of our  seabags for easy identification. This was immensely helpful in picking them out. In fact, being close to the back of the plane our luggage actually beat us to the baggage claim and other military members had started a pile of our seabags for us since they inferred that they were all from the same group. We again managed to lug all our baggage out the doors of the terminal and met our command sponsors who helped us load our gear into their vehicle and transported us to our base housing. We received a warm welcome from the neighborhood on arrival including cupcakes, flowers, care packages, and welcome posters taped to the front of our unit. Once inside our housing we took a quick look around, flopped mattresses and sleeping bags on the floor and slept the sleep of the dead, until 4:00 am when we were all awake and hungry due to the time difference/jet lag. We were lucky enough to have our household goods delivered prior to our arrival so at 4am we started unpacking stacks of boxes while slurping down instant ramen bowls. It was time to get moved in.

Pack it up!

It is no secret that those in the military move many times throughout their career. Our first military move was from Florida to California shortly after joining the military. We moved our own belongings in our RV and the military reimbursed us for our moving expenses. Except for having to weigh the RV at a truck stop, this was a pretty simple process since we were already living in our RV full-time, so not much really needed to be packed in order to move it. We are now quickly approaching our second military move, however this time we are having the military move us as the logistics of moving overseas is a lot more intensive than just moving across the continental United States. When the military moves you they hire a moving company to come to your location, pack all your belongings, inventory all the boxes, load it into large wooden crates, and ship it to your next location across the globe. When your things arrive at your new location the contracted company will even unpack all your items from the boxes and dispose of/recycle all the packing material and boxes. It really is door-to-door service and a rather amazing process. Our situation was slightly different from this pathway as we moved out of our RV prior to the moving company coming, so we did box a large portion of our things and put them in a storage unit until our pack-out date. On the day we “moved” the movers came to the storage unit, packed any remaining items that we had not already packed, inspected and adjusted anything that we had already packed, and organized them for packing into crates. Anything of significant value was inventoried on a specific form and serial numbers were recorded both on the form and the side of the box. This entire process took 2 guys less than 6 hours to pack, inventory, label, and load all of our household items, which totaled around 8,000 pounds. The packing of the wooden crates is done in such a way as to minimize the number of crates used, so these guys played Tetris: Master Edition with our boxes making sure to account for fragile items. It was actually rather impressive just how much they could Tetris into each wooden crate. Once they were done they nailed the last side on the crate and strapped it down. Since sending our goods we have received updates and tracking data on our crates even down to the vessel name they were loaded on and when they are expected to arrive in port at the destination. So far I am really pleased with the process and hopefully won’t find any broken items on arrival. Stay tuned for more updates as we arrive at our new duty station.

Covid-19 Deployment

By: Kevin

The last week of March 2020 was the beginning of a new era for many Americans as they went into lock-down mode as businesses closed and travel became restricted throughout the United States due to the outbreak of Covid-19. However, for me and about 500 of my peers, a new journey was just beginning. I had been called upon to serve aboard the USNS Mercy, a huge white floating hospital ship operated by the U. S. Navy. I was asked to prepare for deployment in about 3 days while businesses and even travel around the city of San Diego was being halted. That added an extra degree of difficulty as I prepared due to stores being closed that I wanted items from! We were able to find some work-arounds such as doing curbside pickup of boot socks from Dick’s Sporting Goods, where you drive up after ordering online, roll down the window, and they pitch your purchases to you through the open window from a “safe distance”. Talk about abnormal shopping!

Well, I was able to get everything I needed in those few short days of scrambling around, jammed all of it into a seabag, a backpack, and a garment bag, and boarded the huge white ship which pulled out of port heading North, but with no official destination. It was determined a few days later that we would be heading to Los Angeles to help ease the load of local hospitals by taking non-Covid patients and caring for them aboard the ship. This was done because infection control is hard to battle onboard a ship in normal times, let alone with a tenacious virus like Covid-19 of concern.

Ship life was not too bad once one figured out how to navigate around the ship. Due to the large number of officers onboard the vessel I spent part of my time sleeping in an enlisted rack and part of the time in an Officer Stateroom. I will have to say I preferred the spacious Stateroom, but the enlisted rack was tolerable. I found the rocking of the ship at sea soothing as I was rocked to sleep at night, and it only took me about a day to get used to walking down a passageway while compensating for the shifting deck. Once we arrived in Los Angeles harbor the rocking of the ship stopped and we only noticed the tide when comparing our height to the cruise ship terminal at which we were docked.

There were other perks of being an officer onboard such as having a separate (shorter) line for food from the enlisted and we ate in the Wardroom instead of the common galley. However, due to social distancing requirements both officers and enlisted were detoured to the flight deck to eat under a large white tent when the galley and Wardroom were too full.

After 6 weeks aboard the USNS Mercy, while most of my peers were preparing to head home, I was re-tasked to a land-based mission in the Los Angeles area aiding local nursing homes who had requested assistance and had been identified by the state as being in distress. I was honored to be named the Officer in Charge of this mission, reporting directly to the Fleet instead of the USNS Mercy. Multiple small Medical Strike Teams were formed and we headed out to various nursing homes to assess, provide staffing, and teach infection prevention and control measures to mitigate Covid-19 transmission. We obtained vans and they were loaded down with personal protective equipment for each Strike Team. If there is one thing the military is good at, it is providing needed gear for its personnel.

For this phase of the mission we were based out of a hotel, as the USNS Mercy had pulled out of Los Angeles Harbor and was headed back to San Diego. After 4 weeks of assisting over 500 nursing home patients, the military made the decision we were no longer needed and we handed off our mission to the National Guard (a state asset) and the California Medical Assistance Team for continued work. While I have really enjoyed the 70 day mission and the experiences I have taken part in and learned from, I will be happy to return to the Navy Hospital and see my teammates of the Emergency Department again.

Starting College Degree #3

Upon completing my Associates of Nursing I kind of knew at some point I would need to return to school for a Bachelors of Science of Nursing. I took a year off and then started back to school to obtain my BSN. In the middle of my degree program we launched on our Full-time RV adventures with travel nursing. Much time was spent at the homemade desk that was fashioned in our bedroom of the RV working on school assignments. I completed my BSN capstone project in Daytona Beach at the hospital where I was a contracted travel RN. The administrators were blown away that I was doing a capstone project in their hospital but was not even an employee. They offered me permanent employment multiple times over my remaining contracted time there. At the completion of my BSN I figured I was done with school. I was a well-educated bedside RN with no aspirations to become an advance-practice nurse.

Well, let me tell you, things change…..

After joining the US Navy I learned that while it is a number of years off, if I desire to obtain the rank of O-5 or above, I will need to have a Masters Degree. Add to this that the Navy offers tuition assistance (TA) to those taking classes, and the thought and cost of a Masters Degree became very attainable. I researched schools and started the process. I was once again back in school. Of course, anyone who knows the military knows that EVERYTHING is subject to change. Part way through my degree plan I learned that I was temporarily not eligible for tuition assistance because of a rule change made at the national level. This meant that at least one class would have to be paid for out of pocket instead of receiving tuition assistance. Heather and I decided that while this would be a minor inconvenience, the military tuition rate was still pretty darn good and that I would continue working on my degree until I became eligible once again for TA. After a single class being paid for out of pocket I fell back within the criteria for TA and I happily accepted additional money for school. My degree was then once again put on hold due to deploying on the USNS Mercy, one of two Navy hospital ships. Upon returning from my deployment I will restart my courses and with any luck I will complete my Masters Degree at my next duty station.

I guess it just stands to reason that wherever I start my degree is not necessarily where I will complete it. My BSN was completed over three geographic living locations, and my MSN will be completed over at least 3 geographic living locations as well, more if you count each campground separately.

Temporary Duty in Florida

By: Kevin

IMG_9215Upon returning from our Ohio trip, I was fully anticipating to settle back into my work schedule at the hospital. However, the Navy had different plans. I worked a whole two shifts before I was placed on administrative hours so I could prepare for departure again.

It turns out I had been selected to be an instructor for Navy Corpsmen who were preparing to go to an operational job with a ship, the US Marines, or other forward-deployed medical facilities that would be dealing with trauma patients. I would be helping to train the Corpsmen of the future.

So what did this mean for me? Well, for starters, I would be living in a hotel for 8 weeks. This in itself was an interesting experience. I was given a daily allowance for food and incidentals. I could eat out all three meals a day for the entire trip. However, my waistline would have doubled if I had done that, so I opted to eat out some and make food in my hotel room part of the time. Now, cooking in a hotel room which only has a microwave and mini-fridge was a bit of a challenge. I could not get food that needed to stay frozen (no freezer, just a fridge), nothing that required a pan to cook, and nothing to go in the oven. I looked into a meal-prep service, but many of them required at least some stove-top prep, and the ones that were fully prepared were delivered once a week. That means I would have to play Tetris with a week’s worth of food in the mini-fridge. Instead, I simply went to the commissary/grocery store and cruised the aisles for food I could easily store and prep.

The training included classroom and skills practice, followed by 5 weeks in a local Level-1 trauma center to care for actual trauma patients. The Corpsmen who were selected for this training had not been involved in patient care for the past few years, so a good dust-off of skills was needed, but they were eager to learn and the classroom portion went well. Next the Corpsmen actually performed direct patient care at a local Level 1 trauma center which opened their eyes to patients they may actually encounter. They started IVs, dressed wounds, inserted Foleys, and help set broken bones among other tasks. Everyone agreed that the training was invaluable to them at the conclusion of the course. It is my understanding that the program is intended to be expanded around the US over the coming years to benefit even more Navy Corpsmen.

Of course I didn’t pass up the opportunity to enjoy Florida on my days off. I visited Daytona Beach and the Ponce Inlet lighthouse, toured the St. Augustine distillery and the Angell & Phelps chocolate factory, as well as various restaurants around Jacksonville. I spent a decent amount of time soaking in the Atlantic, which is considerably warmer than the Pacific at San Diego. I met up with a retired Navy officer and her husband to check out the Central Florida Zoo followed by lunch.

The instructor assignment was considered unaccompanied and I flew to Florida by myself. However, Heather being the strong independent person that she is, decided that if I wasn’t in San Diego then she did not need to be either. With 4 kids and a dog jammed into the cab of my truck she hitched up the fifth wheel RV and towed it from California to Ohio to visit her family (who we just got done visiting about a week prior). She spent a few weeks there before hitching up again and driving to Jacksonville, FL to visit me as well. After a few weeks in Florida she hitched up once more to start the journey back to California so she would beat me back to San Diego as I flew back at the completion of the course. All in all it was a great experience and would do it again if given the opportunity to teach the course to future classes.

Road-trip back to Ohio

By: Kevin

DSC_0357aWhen Chipmunk was born the US Navy awarded me with 14 days of free leave. However, with Heather’s mom in town and the support of our church, I did not feel the need to take leave immediately after Chipmunk’s birth. We had meals being delivered to us and an extra set of hands to care for the other kids. Instead, I decided to save my leave and use it for a trip back to visit friends and family in Ohio after Chipmunk was old enough to really travel.

We decided to make the trip in June, so the weather would be nice during our visit. This would make Chipmunk 4 months old. While he would still need stops to eat and have his diaper changed, this would be much easier than when he was younger.

We packed the van and were ready to go the night before leaving, which we did for a number of reasons. One of these reasons was that I worked the night before we left. Luckily for me, the flow of patients was not horrible and I was able to head home early, which allowed us to pull out of the campground right at 2:00 am Sunday morning instead of around 7:00 am if I had worked my entire shift. We were officially in for the long haul! The kids were excited to be on the road and were very energetic, but after we made it out onto the freeway they all went back to sleep until after daybreak. It was a little over 2,200 miles from California to Ohio. We were prepared with snacks, activities, and 5 gallons of drinking water.

We settled into a routine when we would make stops along the way. I would fill the van with fuel and wash the bug cemetery off the windshield. Heather would tend to Chipmunk. Pie would help with Miss Kicky Feet, and Bug would potty the dog and refill Dixie’s water bowl. This kept our stops short as possible to reduce any unnecessary additional time being added to the trip. Our system must have worked, as we pulled into the driveway in Ohio at 5:30pm Monday. When you account for the 3-hour time zone difference, this put us right about 36 hours for the whole trip including stops.

We were asked by some why we didn’t fly to Ohio. The first was simply cost. We would have needed 5 round-trip tickets, and once we arrived we would not have a vehicle, so we would most likely need a rental car. Comparing this cost to the fuel expense to drive the van to Ohio and back, the choice was clear. We also were planning (and did) bring back a 30-gallon cooler of frozen beef. I don’t think the airlines could have accommodated that.

The next two weeks seemed to fly by as we relaxed, visited with family and special friends, and enjoyed watching our kids play with their cousins. Each of Heather’s sisters had given birth to a new baby that we had not actually met yet, so it was nice to seeing the babies in person instead of just pictures. Additionally, none of the extended family had ever met Chipmunk either, so all three new babies got passed around quite a bit.

While I have been away from the Fire Department for a few years now, our visit to Ohio coincided with Chief Henry’s retirement from STFD, the second department I was on while in Ohio. It was great to see my coworkers again and catch up with what was going on around the department. I am very happy with my current occupation and location, however I am truly thankful for the time I got to spend on the department.

Since I was thinking about the Fire Department I opted to make a visit to the Mansfield Fire Museum, a small museum that I had heard about but had not made it a point to visit while actually living in Ohio. Miss Kicky Feet came along with me and she enjoyed seeing all the retired trucks and equipment. She even got to try on some junior-sized fire gear.

I think we each gained about 10 pounds while we were in Ohio thanks to “Grandma cooking”. Make no mistake, the feasting was glorious! It was like a full-fledged family reunion at each night’s dinner. I even got to enjoy my favorite homemade pie, Apple Rhubarb.

I was promised by Heather’s mom that during this trip I would not have to take on any home improvement projects like the prior visit when I ripped up and re-tiled the bathroom floor. While she did not ask me to do any projects, I did do a few little jobs like moving the Wifi router, changing the bathtub spigot, chainsawing 2 trees, and adding a vent valve under the kitchen sink to name a few. I also hopped on the zero-turn lawnmower, although I’m not sure if that really qualifies as work or play. For reference, it had been 5 years since I last mowed a yard.

Once our two weeks had come to an end, we loaded up the van and headed back West. This time the anticipation and excitement were not the same, and we knew exactly what we were in for over the next 36 hours. That made the return trip seem longer than the trip heading East. We also started out first thing in the morning, which means the kids did not sleep the first few hours like on the way to Ohio. Regardless, we made good time and pulled back into the California campground around dinner time the next day, approximately 36 hours after leaving Ohio.

It was great to see our family and some special friends during this trip. As we pulled out, we were not sure when the next time we would be back in Ohio so the hugs were long and there were even a few tears shed.

USS Midway

By: Kevin

One of the most highly ranked attractions around San Diego, the USS Midway, also known as CVN-41, is one of the first slant-deck aircraft carriers in the US Navy. Since its decommissioning in 1992 it has been moored in the San Diego Bay. The ship offers daily tours to the public which are sure to give the visitor a glimpse into the life aboard an aircraft carrier. This floating city was home to around 4,500 personnel while underway. While we were not rushing through it, it still took us around 3.5 hours to complete the majority of the tour. We opted not to stand in line for the superstructure tour because Miss Kicky Feet is not tall enough to attend that portion of the tour, and there was a line waiting to get in that portion of the ship. The tour led us through the hanger deck, flight deck, mess deck, berthing spaces, engineering, laundry, portions of Officer Country, and the brig just to name a few. There were mannequins positioned around some of the spaces acting as crew members, and one moving & talking mannequin who explained part of the Midway story. The tour is self-paced and self-guided, however there is a free audio tour that is initiated in the different areas of the ship by tapping the loaned audio device on pads located around the ship. This method allows the visitor to visit compartments of the ship in any order they wish without disrupting the audio tour play list.

How much soup does it take to feed a floating city? These kettles may give you some idea of the scale on which food was prepared aboard the carrier.

This is part of Officer Country, specifically the berthing spaces for officers. Had this been an enlisted berthing compartment there would have been 3-4 racks in the same space as these two. While there are certain luxuries that are extended to officers, it doesn’t mean that the officers don’t take part in their fair share of work.

The senior officers’ mess or dining room. While enlisted typically ate off metal trays and drank from plastic or metal cups, officers had the luxury of real china plates and true glassware for their meals.

Sick Bay onboard. Comparing this with what I saw onboard an active vessel I recently toured, there are some things that really have not changed much since WW2. The stokes basket in the center of the picture could very easily be taken down and used today without anyone even questioning it, as ones like that are still in service today.

Miss Kicky Feet enjoyed playing with the “spinner” on the front of the bombs located under the wing of an aircraft on the flight deck. The “spinner” is actually part of the arming device on that type of bomb.

This is Bug in the TCC (I believe it stood for Tactical Combat Center) sitting in front of one of the radar stations. When underway this space would be secured by a Marine guard to ensure only authorized personnel were allowed access due to the sensitive information within. Notice the overhead lighting is shaded blue instead of white.

This is just one view of the massive panel of radios aboard the ship. While as a tech nerd I was in my element, there were a LOT of knobs and buttons, and keeping them all running properly would have been a daunting task.

This is topside on the flight deck. One can see a few of the planes on display on the far end of the ship, and the city skyline behind them. The day we visited it was sunny and warm, which is pretty typical for San Diego, but made the day all the more enjoyable. We sat and listened to a lecture by a volunteer which detailed the challenges of landing on a carrier at sea, including the unique challenges of landing at night.

The staff and volunteers aboard the ship are comprised in part by veterans who served aboard the Midway or other comparable vessels/aircraft. This added an extra element of expertise to their talks and explanations of how things worked aboard the ship.

If you are in the San Diego area, I would recommend making a visit to the USS Midway, and if you have active duty ID, your ticket is free.