Commander Uncertain What's Next for Him, Too; He Would like Carrier to Remain Part of Force So He Can Finish His Tour

Article excerpt

Byline: GREGORY PIATT, The Times-Union

Navy Capt. Dennis FitzPatrick hoped he could serve a normal tour as the commander of USS John F. Kennedy. But fate, which hasn't been kind to Kennedy skippers in recent years, wouldn't cooperate.

Taking over the Jacksonville-based aircraft carrier during mid-deployment after its commander was fired, FitzPatrick led the ship into supporting the battle of Fallujah, Iraq, in November and still wanted more. He told reporters when the JFK returned home in December from six months in the Persian Gulf that he wanted to head out to sea again.

Just a few weeks later, however, FitzPatrick was stunned. The headlines said his ship was going to be decommissioned as a result of cuts in the 2006 budget.

"My first thought was, obviously, there is a mistake," FitzPatrick said last week about his reaction to the news. "It wasn't something I expected.

"I wish I knew more."

FitzPatrick knows he wants the JFK to stay a part of the carrier force so he can fulfill his tour.

"Strictly on a personal level, I'd like the JFK to stick around for two more years," he said while discussing his ship in a cabin that houses President John F. Kennedy memorabilia. "But I am not part of that debate, and nobody is calling me saying 'What do you think about JFK or the force structure?' That debate is taking place at a higher level, well above my pay grade."

Since December, when a leaked Pentagon document revealed the Navy was planning to reduce its 12-carrier force to 11, there has been a national debate between Congress and Navy leaders about keeping the JFK. Florida and Virginia lawmakers have introduced legislation in Congress requiring the Navy to keep 12 carriers. The debate and pending legislation has slowed any moves by the Pentagon to decommission the oil-fired Kennedy.

After its deployment and staying combat ready for the first few months of this year, the JFK was expected to head to a Norfolk, Va., shipyard in June to begin a 15-month overhaul that will cost $378 million. Now, the Navy plans to mothball the carrier this year. This places the carrier in an inactive fleet that can be recalled in case of emergency.

A Navy official said last week the JFK will deactivate in June, but the Navy said an official decision hasn't been made on canceling the overhaul. That decision could come as early as this week.

That state of limbo has the carrier's leadership and crew preparing for both the overhaul and mothballing process. Uncertainty has permeated the crew like gray skies on a rough day at sea. …


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