Vermonters serve on USS Constellation

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(Host) Seven thousand miles away from home, a half dozen Vermonters serve on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. They’re stationed on the USS Constellation, a ship that plays a key role in the war with Iraq. The Constellation leads a battle group that’s under the command of Rear Admiral Barry Costello, who’s from Rutland.

Costello and two of his sailors talked to VPR’s John Dillon about life aboard the ship.

(Dillon) The normal working day on an aircraft carrier in wartime begins at sundown and extends another 18 hours. That’s when the floating city of 5,500 people is the busiest and fighter jets and support aircraft take off and land from the deck.

(Jessica Huffman) “It’s a dynamic environment, always changing, moving, nothing really ever stays the same.”

(Dillon) Twenty-three year old Petty Officer Jessica Huffman is from South Hero. She’s one of about 40 women on board:

(Huffman) “The women I live with are wonderful. We get along, it’s like a big family. It’s a big team, especially now where we rely on each other immensely for strength and guidance.”

(Dillon) Bosun Mate William Hill is from Winooski and graduated from Essex Junction High School three years ago. His days on the Constellation are spent on maintenance jobs, standing watch and in refueling operations. Like his shipmate Jessica Huffman, Hill says he’s part of a tight crew who watch out for each other.

(Hill) “The people that I work with, we’re a very close knit group. If someone has any problems, there’s always someone there to help them out. We’re mainly all really good friends.”

(Dillon) The Constellation has been in the Persian Gulf since December. And if there weren’t a war on, the crew would have completed its tour at sea last month. But Hill and Huffman say they’ll be on board for as long as it takes. Their boss, Admiral Barry Costello, says the Vermonters on board are typical of his crew.

(Costello) “The way I like to describe these youngsters is that they are ordinary Americans, represent every state in the union. And they do extraordinary things every day. And they do it such a professional way that they make it appear routine, which it for sure is not. But that’s what they do, and they do it with great pride. And they understand their place here in this pivotal point in history.”

(Dillon) Costello is a Rutland native who leads a battle group of nine warships. The force has been extremely busy in the early days of the war. They’ve launched about 700 Tomahawk cruise missiles against Iraq. Navy fighters from the Constellation have flown dozens of missions to support the ground troops. Mine sweepers have disabled underwater explosives. And in the first days of the way, Navy commandos from the battle group rescued oil workers and removed explosives from Iraqi oil platforms in the Gulf.

All the missions were completed successfully. But early Tuesday morning, a Navy jet was lost when its hydraulic system failed and it slipped off the carrier deck after landing. The expensive aircraft sank in the ocean, but Costello says that the crew was able to eject and was quickly rescued.

(Costello) “Because of their good training, they punched out at the right time, chutes worked, helicopter worked quickly to go over them, be on top of them. We had a boat in the water from our rescue ship very quickly, picked them up. They’re back, they’re fine. And we were back, as soon as they got back 11 minutes later, flying airplanes again. So the system worked, the training works.”

(Dillon) The march to Baghdad has slowed in recent days, and the pace of the war has come under some criticism at home. Costello tries to put things in perspective. He notes that in the first Gulf War, ground troops didn’t move forward until the Iraqis were weakened by more than 30 days of constant bombing.

(Costello) “The advance to this point has been extraordinary and I suspect that it will continue to be. It is militarily prudent to make sure those people are well supplied, well rested before we make the final push.”

(Dillon) There are at least three other Vermonter on board the Constellation. Like everyone in the service, their thoughts often turn to home. Petty Officer Jessica Huffman had this message for her family.

(Huffman) “To my dad, who has supported me through everything, that I love him. And my mom and my two brothers and my sister, that I love them too. And that I’m all right.”

(Dillon) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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