The next greatest generation?

Six Navy SEALS form an integral part of the joint forces supporting Operations Iraqi Freedom/Enduring Freedom, according to Rear Adm. Thomas Cropper, who spoke at the ANA meeting Tuesday at NAS Whidbey Island. U.S. Navy Photo

When you hear the term “Navy Warfighter,” some people might think that’s a term that refers exclusively to Navy jet fighter aircraft and the crews who man them. However,  Rear Adm. Thomas Cropper, commanding officer of Strike Force Training Pacific and guest speaker at the Association of Naval Aviation Squadron 40’s Tuesday meeting at the Officers’ Club on Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, proved just how all-encompassing a “Navy Warfighter” really is.

Rear Adm. Thomas Cropper

“I’m a naval aviator, and I love it,” said Cropper, whose career spans eight extended deployments aboard five different aircraft carriers. “But today, I’d like to switch gears on you a bit and remind us all of the importance of all the maritime services — Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard — especially in Southwest Asia where we’ve been for a number of years now.”

Cropper’s slide presentation depicted a map of that region, stretching from Egypt to Kazakhstan, where he said those forces were now serving in a far-flung geographical sweep not seen since World War II. His audience had no doubt Cropper believed they were making a difference.

“We have had successes there,” he said, pointing to a picture of six U.S. Navy SEALS decked out in desert camouflage, one of whom he described as a medal-of-honor winner. “Sometimes, we can’t always talk about them until much later after the fact.”

Multi-purpose force

In a previous tour, Cropper served as deputy commander, U.S. Naval Forces, U.S. Central Command. During his time there, he had the opportunity to interact with many sailors serving in a wide spectrum of capacities in the Middle East.

Navy crew members put their backs into it as they prepare to load an Air Intercept Missile 120 (AIM-120)on the flight deck of the USS Nimitz (CVN 68) in 2003. U.S. Navy Photo

Audience members viewed photo after photo of Navy personnel performing their unique jobs in Operations Iraqi Freedom/Enduring Freedom. Their duties included everything from mine-sweeping operations to shepherding supply shipments through the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz.

Amphibious ships have ferried food and vital medical supplies to areas in Pakistan stricken by natural disasters.

“Exactly one year has passed now since the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Remember who was first on the scene there as well,” Cropper said, referencing the Navy. “As time goes by, these international aid efforts will take on more and more significance.”

Other types of rescues are performed by skilled Navy divers, said Cropper. Whenever international airline mishaps occur, the call goes out for Navy divers.

“You’ll find Hospital Corpsmen in the fray as well,” he said, saying the estimated 97 percent survival rate on the battlefield is largely due to the heroic efforts of skilled medical personnel. Navy EOD units do their part to save lives by helping make roadways safe in Afghanistan.

But Naval aviation is well represented, too. Cropper said U.S. aircraft carriers have been on the scene from the start, delivering critical air support for the international forces during OIF/OEF.

“And the list just goes on and on,” said Cropper, citing the importance of anti-piracy operations, and “chaplains who both honor the dead, and comfort the living.”

Individual Augmentees

But it doesn’t end even there, he reminded the audience. “It’s not just gray ships anymore, and it’s not just boots on steel,” Cropper said. “Thousands of these sailors,  from avionics technicians to yeomen, are called up as Individual Augmentees. Their boots are firmly planted on the sand there, and they are doing an incredibly heroic job with the international forces.”

Cropper said he had met with IA’s serving as headquarters staff, manning security gates, running chow halls, or engaged in reconstruction and stability projects in a very different culture.

Two F-18Cs conduct combat missions over Afghanistan in 2002 as seen from the cockpit. U.S. Navy Photo

“We really are a Navy at war,” he said. “Your sailors are not fighting the war they wanted to fight, but the one that’s been handed to them.”

He said he believes the whole experience will one day prove greatly beneficial for the Navy.

“In the future, we will reap a very rich reward from these sailors’ work and expertise with the joint forces,” he said, describing the current generation as “fabulous.”

Future in question

During the question-and-answer which followed, someone asked Cropper what issues the sailors brought up during his visit to the war zones.

“Their number-one concern was the Enlisted Retention Board (ERB), and its ramifications for them,” said Cropper. “And right up there with that is the uncertainty surrounding their benefits as a service member,” he said.

Audience member, Bob Papadakis, asked Cropper if there were particular sailors who stood out in his mind as he reflected back on his visits with Naval forces.

“There are actually three I particularly remember,” answered Cropper. “One was an E-5 teaching English to a group of Iraqis in an area with a 95 percent illiteracy rate; one taught carpentry skills that resulted in the construction of 10,000 wooden school desks; and the third, a first-class petty officer from Iowa, was showing them how to grow plants in the desert in 120-degree desert temperatures,” he said.

As Cropper ended his presentation, he requested that audience members not forget these sailors’ sacrifices.

“They deserve our full support: And not just them, but their family members as well. Will we make sure someone’s there to soothe a mother, or a spouse?” he asked.

This could not be a Pentagon solution, Cropper said; it must come from the local community.

“There’s another greatest generation out there,” he said. “This new generation is every bit as good as my own.”

Dave Weisbrod, a long-standing member of ANA, delivered the intelligence briefing to the group. Both Weisbrod and Scott Hornung, ANA president, encouraged the audience to mark their calendars for the next ANA meeting — April 10 at 11:30 a.m. at the NAS Whidbey Island Officers’ Club.