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Editor's Note: Jennifer McDermott is on a special assignment aboard the USS Missouri, one of the newest Virginia-class submarines to join the fleet. She will provide updates during her four-day transit with the crew of this advanced submarine.
Under way on the USS Missouri - At the Catholic Mass on board the USS Missouri Sunday, Lt. Anthony Roa said he wanted to pray that the families of the crew stayed safe while the submarine was at sea.
Sunday is the one day that the tempo slows on the Missouri (SSN 780) so the crew can relax and recharge.
Many were thinking about their families.
"That one hour in the ward room together, we can set aside the military aspect of our lives and be able to pray together," said Roa, 27, of Maryland.
The service was the first Mass held on a submarine at sea in more than a decade and was most likely the first on a Virginia-class boat. Roa usually leads the Catholic members of the crew in a few readings each Sunday, but this week the Rev. Thomas Hoar, Catholic chaplain for the Naval Submarine Base in Groton and president of St. Edmund's Retreat in Mystic, was riding as a guest.
Joseph Cefaratti, a first-class machinist's mate, carried his wife's sonogram photo in his pocket. Chief Joseph Johns, a logistics specialist, kept a picture he took with his wife as a screensaver on his iPod.
It helps a little, Chief Brian Paugh said, to watch the videos of his seven kids on his cell phone.
These men said that what drives them to leave their families, sunlight and the comforts of home for months at a time is their love for the job and the camaraderie on board their sub.
"I know whoever earned these has the ability to save my life," said Cefaratti, 31, of Texas, pointing to the dolphins on his chest that signify he's qualified in submarines. "It makes it more of a brotherhood. We're like a family out to sea.
"I love what I do. It's hard, it's strenuous and it's a lot of long hours. But in the long run, I really do love what I do."
There was still plenty of work to be done. Chief Nicholas Harr, the assistant navigator, gathered about 20 people together to go over the plans for pulling into Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia the next day.
Entering or leaving a port is risky because submarines are built to be submerged and don't maneuver as well on the surface. Kings Bay has challenging currents and a narrow channel, said Harr, who worked on the plans for two weeks.
"My sole purpose in life is the safe navigation of the ship," Harr said after the meeting. "A lot of people call me strange. I enjoy my job. I thrive on the stress of it. It'll probably make me an old man very fast, but I enjoy what I do."
Walking by, Chief Jay Carson teased Harr good-naturedly.
"You're turning 19 today, right?" Carson quipped.
"I know, I know, you could be my father," Harr joked back. "'Just For Men' really worked for you."
Harr, of Ohio, celebrated his 29th birthday Sunday. He gets teased about his age because he has risen through the ranks quickly and is young for his position.
The sailors are sarcastic, Harr said, because it helps relieve stress. Many are also Type A personalities - analytical, resourceful and flexible.
"After you've been a submariner for a certain period of time, you become a specific person," said Senior Chief Ronald Clark, the chief of the boat. "You still have unique qualities and things like that, but I can walk into a room and pick out a submariner quickly."
A sudden shift
The announcement rang out over the PA system shortly before dinner, and the Missouri dove deep. It was part of the training for a junior officer who was conning, or driving, the submarine.
The shower is one of the worst places to be when this happens. Shampoo bottles go flying and the water on the floor rushes to one side. The stall is built like a metal telephone booth, and hitting the side of it hurts.
The Missouri had been at varying angles all day because the crew was testing the submarine's rudder and control planes. When it was angled down, some sailors leaned back and took baby steps to walk forward. Others stood still and held on to pipes overhead.
Dinner and dolphins
Sunday's dinner, the best of the week because the culinary specialists can splurge a little, was prime rib and scampi.
After dinner, Cmdr. Timothy Rexrode, the commanding officer, held a special ceremony to pin dolphins on five crew members and commend others for various accomplishments. Earning dolphins is a major milestone and signifies that the men have Rexrode's full confidence to operate the submarine.
"It's a really big day for me," said Lt. j.g. Joe Innerst, 24, of Pennsylvania, who was pinned. "Receiving them means a whole lot, but we need to earn them every day."
The mood shifted after the ceremony as the crew began getting ready for the final push to get the Missouri into port.
They set up the equipment in the sail they would need the next day and took the submarine nearly to the surface. The Missouri rocked back and forth with the waves all night. When the submarine is deeper, only the ship's movements can be felt.
No one was sleeping when the Missouri headed into Kings Bay; all had assignments. The torpedo room was filled with sailors and their firefighting equipment, just in case. The control room was tense.
The Missouri and its crew arrived safely.
The sailors, especially those with Irish roots, were looking forward to St. Patrick's Day. Others wanted to celebrate their birthdays and promotions on shore. But it wouldn't be long before they were back at work. There was maintenance to be done before returning to Groton and there were more trials planned.
When the Missouri arrives at the Groton base in April, the testing phase that all new submarines have to go through will be over. The seventh member of the Virginia class, the sub was commissioned in 2010.
Rexrode said the submarine has performed "superbly" so far. This summer it will begin the yearlong preparation process for its first six-month deployment.
The Missouri is so "awesome and impressive," Rexrode said, "it makes you want to do nothing more than go to sea."