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USS Mount Whitney Returns to Norfolk

June 13, 2003

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) _ Seaman Reveigh Gautier had no one to greet him Friday when the amphibious command ship USS Mount Whitney returned from searching for terrorists in the Horn of Africa region.

While many sailors are hugged by ecstatic relatives and friends during ship homecomings, there are always some who are alone. Often, like Gautier, they are young and single and don’t know anyone because they’re new to the area.

Gautier’s father, Gregory, had to work and couldn’t make the drive down from their home in Palisades Park, N.J. So the 19-year-old information systems technician had to make do with calling his family on his cell phone as the ship pulled into Norfolk Naval Station.

``I know my father is proud of me and I know if he were able to be here he would definitely be here,″ Gautier said.

Gautier said he was happy just to see his shipmates surrounded by loved ones after the seven-month deployment.

``It’s enough for me for now, until I get to see my family,″ said Gautier, who will visit his father and stepmother when he goes on leave at the end of the month.

The Mount Whitney, which the Navy calls the world’s most sophisticated command and control ship, deployed Nov. 12, picking up about 400 Marines from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

The 32-year-old ship’s Navy crew of 560 officers and enlisted personnel had short notice to leave.

As the flagship of the U.S. 2nd Fleet, the Mount Whitney trains and prepares aircraft carrier battle groups to deploy but doesn’t deploy often itself, earning it the nickname ``Building 20.″

The Mount Whitney acted as a mobile command and control center for the U.S.-led Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa while a permanent command center was being built at Camp Lemonier in the tiny country of Djibouti.

``We helped the United States and coalition partners get a jumpstart on terrorism in the Horn of Africa region,″ said Capt. David Prothero, the Mount Whitney’s commanding officer. ``We became a six-month gap fill.″

The region _ particularly Somalia, Yemen and Sudan _ has been cited as a possible haven for terrorists since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Sudan was home to Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, while Yemen is his ancestral home. Somalia has been torn by clan-based violence for the past decade.

Navy officials declined to give many details of the Mount Whitney’s mission, saying certain aspects were classified. Maj. Gen. John F. Sattler, the task force commander, told the crew last month that several terrorist operatives had been brought to justice during the deployment.

The ship helped to establish a presence in the Horn of Africa ``as we work to stabilize that region so we can prevent terrorists from using it as a platform to attack us in other parts of the world,″ Vice Adm. Cutler Dawson, commander of the U.S. 2nd Fleet, said Friday.

The ship must be prepared for similar future missions, Dawson said, adding: ``‘Underway 20’ is going to be the new name of the Mount Whitney.″

Before the ship arrived, several hundred family members and friends waited in a parking lot near the pier. A clown wearing a pink gingham dress and a pink wig entertained children by twisting balloons into animal shapes, while a cosmetics saleswoman offered free makeovers.

``My mom is really excited,″ Bonnie Schanck, the 15-year-old stepdaughter of Petty Officer 1st Class David Robins, said as she waited for her nails, newly painted ``Very Cherry,″ to dry. ``It’s been quiet around the house. He’s always loud and funny at home. It just hasn’t been upbeat around the house.″

Bonnie’s mother, Teresa Robins, tried not to cry as she talked about how her husband learned he had to deploy shortly after the family moved to the Norfolk area from Brunswick, Maine. And how her husband was at sea on their first anniversary but persuaded Christian singer Michael W. Smith to send her a note; Smith also sent flowers. The couple had played Smith’s song ``Love of My Life″ at their wedding.

``I swore I would never marry a military man″ because service members move frequently, Teresa Robins said. ``But he’s amazing. I’m very proud of him.″

David Robins said phone calls and e-mail made the deployment bearable but that he was glad to be home.

``I took orders for this ship primarily because it doesn’t go anywhere,″ Robins said. ``I’m hoping to go back to ‘Building 20.’ ``


On the Net:

USS Mount Whitney: http://www.mtwhitney.navy.mil/index.htm

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