ON BOARD THE USS JOHN F. KENNEDY - From the waters of the Arabian Gulf, 700 miles south of Afghanistan, aircraft from Carrier Air Wing Seven embarked on USS John F. Kennedy launched into darkness just after midnight March 11 to deliver their first strikes in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
For people serving on board the aircraft carrier and other ships in the JFK battle group, this was the moment they had been waiting for.
Navy Airman James Nathan Kay, son of Nancy Hill Kay of Harlem, Ga., is an airman on board the Kennedy. The carrier, nicknamed "Big John," first left its home port of Mayport, Fla., in February to relieve the USS Theodore Roosevelt battle group. This floating city, 23 stories high and more than three football fields long, returned home Aug. 18 after a six-month combat deployment in support of America's war on terrorism.
As one of nearly 5,000 sailors on board, Kay played a vital role in the day-to-day operation of the ship.
"My job consists of handling aircraft on the flight deck. I am also responsible for aiding in the launch and recovery of all aircraft on board," said Kay, a graduate of Thomson High School. "If needed, I am also part of the emergency response team for the flight deck."
Deploying in support of the war on terrorism was a unique experience for every sailor on board JFK.
"When we relieved USS Theodore Roosevelt and took over the watch as the only U.S. aircraft carrier in the region, I was filled with excitement," said Kay. "I knew all the missions being run on shore were being covered by our own jets."
While under way, the crew also had many opportunities for personal and professional growth.
"During this deployment, I have earned both of my enlisted warfare qualifications, surface and aviation," said the 20-year-old sailor. "I also received a letter of commendation from the commanding officer of the ship for my hard work and dedication on this deployment."
The embarked air wing, which included F/A-18 Hornets and F-14 Tomcats, dropped more than 64,000 pounds of ordnance on Taliban and al Qaeda targets in almost 2,600 missions during the deployment. The crew safely navigated a total of 160 days at sea covering nearly 70,000 miles of water.
During their time at sea, nearly 260 sailors re-enlisted for another tour of duty in the Navy, and more than 70 percent of the crew earned qualifications as enlisted surface and air warfare specialists. When USS John F. Kennedy arrived pierside in Mayport, 51 sailors greeted their newborn babies for the first time.
Upon return to his homeport, Kay had much to look forward to.
"I have to say I have missed my wife and family the most. It has been a long six months and a lot has changed since we left," said the husband to the former Katiucia Lenkler. "I look forward to enjoying the little things of life, the comforts of home."
Former President Kennedy, for whom the carrier is named, was referring to sailors like Airman Kay when he said, "Any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: I serve in the United States Navy."
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