13 July 2014

Keep Calm and Carrier On


I've never been too shy about the fact that I think I have one of the coolest jobs in the world. I am blessed to meet such awesome individuals and lucky enough to have them share their psychological, emotional, and medical struggles with me. However, the specific setting in which I practice this delicate interpersonal science/art is almost as intriguing... and downright cool! You know what they say, "Join the Navy--see the world!"

Last week, my adventures as a US Navy Medical Service Corps Officer took me and my comrades aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) aircraft carrier out of Norfolk, Virginia. Our commander believes that this evolution is important to introducing new psychologists to the operational environment and where we may be serving in the future. 

Our job is quite different than most of  our civilian counterparts. Traditional therapy is about 40% of our work maximum, even in an outpatient behavioral health setting in a traditional military hospital. Other positions, such as the one available for a psychologist on each aircraft carrier, involve much less clinical work and much more interventions aimed at the organizations/systems. On an aircraft carrier (or in a Marine Battalion), the Psych-O (psychology officer) serves as a consultant to the Commanding Officer in regards to the active duty staff's general psychological health and how that contributes to mission objectives. Operational psychologists often serve as expert consultants in how to reward and punish service members for good/bad behavior, giving briefs on resiliency and leadership, aiding in organizational disposition (how service members are discharged out of the service), and observing general unit morale. Needless to say, this is a big job, but exciting nonetheless!

Enough of the boring stuff... Although we were technically "working" this week, it sure didn't feel like it, as we had no contact with patients. Instead, we toured the ship, received briefs from every department, and acclimated to ship-life. The ship went underway for a work-up and qualifications, where it meets certain mission objectives out-at-sea prior to being deployed. We met some really great people and they offered us some very cool opportunities to see some sweet stuff.

I learned a ton! Even before the Navy, I had an interest in nautical ships and aircraft, as I've taken way too many cruises (I think I compared the carrier to a Carnival ship about 100 times), and worked on my single-engine pilot's license a bit. Though an aircraft carrier is technically a naval ship, it's real mission is air warfare--to "forward deploy" (put into a really close fighting position before crap hits the fan) fighter jets and "project power" (basically, protect our national interests by leaving open the possibility that we could attack/retaliate at any time). Suffice it to say, the coolest thing we saw all week was the ship recovering (called "trapping") and launching (via the catapult) these jets.

Trapping involves the jet pilots finding the perfect sweet spot on the moving aircraft carrier so the tale of their aircraft grabs the arresting gear (one of four really thick cables). They don't want to  come up too short, lest they smash into the aircraft carrier, causing millions of dollars in damage. They also don't want to overshoot the line, as they would have to power the jet back up and touch-and-go. They practice this latter skill hundreds of times so they are prepared.

Launching an aircraft is also specialized to the carrier. There's no way to build a carrier long enough to simultaneously launch and recover aircraft naturally (it would take several hundred yards to take-off and land). Instead, steam catapults get the jets moving at full speed instantly. Yes, zero to 350 in one second. This is a ton of power, and the whole ship shakes when the aircraft land and are launched. Needless to say, the carrier environment is a very large and loud industrial zone.

We were fortunate enough to be right on the deck for the launch of some! Not going to lie, I had to take a knee when the aircraft took off, because I was actually concerned the power would throw me overboard. Hey, it could happen! 

Finally, it was time to return back to land. The ship was staying out for a couple more weeks, but we needed to return to the hospital in DC for work. The only way to get us back to land from the middle of the ocean--aircraft, of course! I knew prior to the trip that we would be taking a C2/A Greyhound, the standard double-turbo-prop the Navy uses to carry personnel. What I didn't know was that this aircraft, too, is launched via the catapult. Also, the seats face backward, and there are no windows. This is one totally messed-up roller coaster, but it was actually fun!

Can't wait to do it again! Lance was probably happy to get rid of me for a week and live his never-before-lived bachelor life. But between you-and-me, he was probably sick of eating cereal for every meal. :)

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