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Wednesday, March 26

Sense of mission helps keep morale high on Navy ship

By William H. McMichael | Navy Times

ABOARD THE AMPHIBIOUS TRANSPORT DOCK PONCE - A steady rain pelted the bridge of the Ponce as the Navy ship steamed through the northern Persian Gulf on Wednesday.

Several hundred yards off the starboard bow, a Sea Hawk helicopter rose off the aft deck of the USNS Sirius, lifting another of the 56 pallets of supplies its crew was delivering to the Ponce. Floating in the distance was the hospital ship USNS Comfort, where doctors were treating 20 wounded coalition troops and Iraqis.

The Norfolk, Va.-based Ponce arrived in the region in late January with about 700 Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based Marines who were put ashore in Kuwait.

It promised to be slow going until the war began. But that was before the Ponce was called into action as the flagship of a task force overseeing mine-clearing in the port at Umm Qasr and the Khawr Abd Allah waterway, a critical avenue for delivering humanitarian supplies to Iraq. Already, some 1.7 million people in Basra are reported to be without clean water or electricity.

The waterway has been a challenge to examine.

"It is very tedious, with all the sediment,'' said Commodore Michael O'Moore, the group commander, who said the area was "systematically and heavily'' mined during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Despite the tedium, morale aboard the Ponce remains high.

"Time's going by pretty fast,'' said Signalman 3rd Class B.J. Southern, 25, of Cincinnati, Ohio.

The countermine effort is headed by a task force that includes U.S. and British countermine ships, U.S. helicopters and U.S., British and Australian dive teams. Coalition forces have found more than 100 mines stored on Iraqi tugboats, barges, dhows and in a warehouse, but helicopters towing countermine sleds have not found any mines in the water.

On Wednesday, a fierce sandstorm and rough seas bucked efforts to identify the last suspicious minelike objects found and send the first of the relief ships, the Sir Galahad, up the river.

The 32-year-old Ponce, skippered by Cmdr. Anthony Pachuta of Virginia Beach, Va., has been at sea since Jan. 10 and at one point spent enough consecutive days under way - 45 - to warrant a beer day for the crew. Not long afterward, the ship made a port call in Bahrain to pick up O'Moore and his staff, along with Helicopter Mine Countermeasure Squadron 14.

Staff members say they feel at home here.

"This is a great ship,'' said Master Chief Operations Specialist James Lawrence of Flower Bluff, Texas, the squadron's senior enlisted adviser and operations chief. ``I've been on five or six ships, and this one is really super.''

Pachuta agreed.

"I think when we first came over, nobody knew what to expect,'' he said. "Everyone was a little jittery. It was the unknown. But once you get over here, you just fall into it. You just kind of hit your battle rhythm.''