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Creating Conversations Aboard the USS Boxer

When the pre-trip instructions recommended taking Dramamine, and stressed wearing jeans and comfortable shoes because we will be “climbing down ladder wells” on Naval Base Coronado’s most recent Leaders to Sea (LTS) embarkation, I knew I was in for a memorable tour.

LTS is a program designed to give civilians an inside look at the workings of the Navy’s air, sea and shore operations. LTS is not a classroom-based program designed to teach attendees about the Navy. Instead, the program provides an unforgettable tour of a Navy ship at sea and reconfirms why the Navy is such a major asset to San Diego and our country.

Prior to the tour, I began thinking about the basics of the public relations/public affairs professions and how it can relate to military operations. At Nuffer, Smith, Tucker, we stress the importance of creating conversations and getting our clients’ stories told. We constantly shape conversations, and when all the layers are peeled away, we are communicators.

Navy operations run in a parallel universe of communication and creating conversations. It was impressive to witness the vast amount of communication that took place over significant mediums in order to successfully co-operate a Navy base encompassing eight military facilities, an HSC-15, the AV-8B Harrier II jet fighter and a large-deck multipurpose amphibious assault ship, the USS Boxer.

Conversations are critical to operations aboard the USS Boxer, which can carry as many as 2,000 troops and 1,200 sailors. Operations demand a sense of urgency from the flight deck, well deck, the bridge and even the kitchen, which serves the dual purpose of boosting the morale of sailors and preparing 7,000 meals each day. Communication mediums included highly sophisticated radar and sonar equipment in the “combat room” – the brain trust of the ship, wireless hand-held phones for leadership to stay in contact with each other and the combat room, and non-verbal communication such as color-coded flags to deploy Marines in well deck operations and hand signals to safely guide Harrier jet fighters to their staging areas.

There was no dead time with communication on board the USS Boxer. Even bringing up a 40,000-lbs anchor in the fo’c’s’le required frenzied communication between 15 sailors. The sense of urgency could not be ignored as the sailors closely monitored the anchor pull from three angles to ensure the chain didn’t go around the stem of the ship. With the anchor clanking noisily up the shoot, sailors were limited to hand signals (and some loud yelling) for most of their communication.

I asked one sailor, a 20-year veteran who prefers working the well deck to being a desk jockey any day of the week, what the most dangerous situation he found himself in during his career. “Too many to count. I’ve had a lot of them. Our eyes and ears keep us safe. Our safety depends on communication,” he replied.

I also had a chance to briefly discuss the impacts of rapidly changing communications technology on ships that are often times 15-20 years old and halfway through their careers. I was told it’s a constant battle between the slow pace of government bureaucracy and the furious pace of improving technology. As one high-ranking officer on the USS Boxer claimed, “…it takes 5-7 years from design/build to actually getting it in the water and much of the technology is already outdated.” I felt his frustration as I gripped my first-generation iPad – only three years old, but in technology years, that’s three decades.

Overall, I gained a deeper appreciation for the day-to-day operations from the Navy’s Leaders to Sea program. Bullets and mortar rounds aren’t the only operations that present dangerous scenarios for the men and women overseas. Training operations on ships like the USS Boxer are never taken lightly and, just like in the public relations/public affairs fields, conversations are the keys to success.

Photo of USS Boxer at sea from the HSC-15 helicopter.


Photo of Harrier jet fighter taking off from the USS Boxer. You can also watch it take off on YouTube.


Photo of Harrier jet fighter performing a vertical landing on the USS Boxer. You can also watch the vertical landing on YouTube.


Photo of HSC-15 landing on the USS Boxer.


In the kitchen aboard the USS Boxer learning what it takes to prepare 7,000 meals per day from the most important sailor on the ship – the head chef.


Photo of well deck operations on the USS Boxer. Green and red flags are used to for communication between the Marine transport boats entering and exiting the well deck. Note the sailor with the flag in the top right corner of the picture.


Sailors communicating in the Fo’c’s’le room and utilizing the chain cable jack to bring up the 40,000-lbs anchor. The sailor on the far right uses hand signals to communicate with the sailors working the chain cable jack.

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