'Heavy lifting in Iraq, Afghanistan' Flexible Navy adjusts course in War on Terror

January 12, 2009

WAUCONDA -- Master Chief Aloysius "Ali" Nelson, whose 27-year career now finds him at Naval Station Great Lakes, said it is true that recruits "joined the Navy to sail ships, not put boots on the ground."

But in a speech Sunday at the Lake County Discovery Museum about the Navy's role in the Global War on Terror, Nelson pointed out that literally thousands of sailors are serving as ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"There are 8,347 'individual augmentees' (who) work side-by-side with Marines and carry weapons just like Marines and soldiers," Nelson said. "They were re-missioned to something they weren't trained to do, but being U.S. sailors, they do their job well."

Nelson's appearance was the first of three scheduled talks to coincide with the final month of "The American Soldier: A Photographic Tribute From The Civil War to Iraq." Each session is offered free to veterans and active military, with admission to the museum and exhibit included.

Museum educator Seleena Kuester said Staff Sgt. Justin Gullion, an Iraq War veteran, will speak Jan. 18 about the Army National Guard's role in the conflict, and Sgt. 1st Class Leo A. Levesque III will describe life for 21st century Army recruits on Feb. 15.

Also on that final day, Kuester said a tribute party will be held featuring live music and children's crafts, and visitors will be invited to purchase phone cards for donation to U.S. service personnel.

Nelson pointed out that the men and women in the Navy are literally stationed all over the globe, from service in the Middle East to patrolling "chokepoints" like the Horn of Africa, which has been plagued by piracy.

He added that "about 50 percent of the U.S. Navy is at sea on any given day," with sailors sometimes living for "six months at a time in the middle of the ocean."

The post-9/11 Navy also serves on multiple task forces in different seas and gulfs, and delivers humanitarian aid to sites like the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

For those who have been deployed into Iraq and Afghanistan, Nelson said about two months of additional training is required to certify them in the added duties and handling of weapons. As recently as two months ago, he added, there were 15,000 such augmentees on the ground.

"They're doing a heck of a lot of heavy lifting in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said, praising the "18- and 19-year-old sailors" who come out of Great Lakes and form the backbone of the Navy.

"Our Navy is strong and capable today because there are volunteers (willing) to put their lives on the line. Their defense of our country makes me sleep a lot better at night, and I hope it helps you sleep as well.

"I've been doing this job for 27 years, and I love it," added the Florida native, who was deployed in various duties, including on a destroyer patrolling against Somali pirates, from 2003 through 2006. "I see these young sailors coming through Great Lakes, and it motivates me."