A soldier at sea: Great appreciation for America’s Navy

As Published In: The Hill

As a former soldier in the Iowa National Guard, I often reflect upon my time in uniform, particularly around Veterans Day. Understandably, my past thoughts focused primarily on the selfless service of the men and women in our United States Army – soldiers up and down the chain of command who influenced my life and played a critical role in our nation’s defense.

My duties as a senator on the Armed Services Committee, however, necessarily expanded those thoughts to include all branches of the Joint Force. I take seriously my obligation to understand the capabilities, contributions, and challenges faced by each military service. That is why I recently visited Naval Station Norfolk to strengthen my sea legs by gaining firsthand experience on the waterfront – experience that better informs my policies affecting Navy equities, such as combatting physiological episodes in tactical fighter jets, growing our fleet, and addressing readiness shortfalls in ships and aircraft.  At each engagement, I was repeatedly impressed by the professionalism, dedication, and expertise of our sailors.

I discussed the strategic value of Carrier Strike Groups in global security operations with Rear Admiral Roy “Trigger” Kelley, a career fighter pilot and Commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic.  We agreed that maritime power projection plays a critical role in joint operations and that responsibly resourcing our Navy is vital to our nation’s defense. We discussed the importance of properly managing taxpayer dollars spent on major acquisitions, such as the USS Ford class aircraft carrier, as well as the need to repeal the defense sequester and put an end to Congress’ short-term and short-sighted budgeting– which is imperative for military readiness and acquisitions planning.

Next, I had the opportunity to visit with our Navy SEALS and tour the Naval Special Warfare Development Group complex at Dam Neck Naval Base.  As Chair of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, I oversee Special Operations Forces, and it is important that Congress continue to hear more about their efforts to capitalize on, and to defend against, new technologies like autonomous systems. More importantly, I was grateful for the opportunity to personally thank these warriors for their dedicated service, and to honor the fallen at the Navy SEAL memorial.

Finally, I underwent aviation physiology training, culminating in an orientation flight in an F/A-18 Super Hornet, to put myself in the boots of naval aviators experiencing debilitating physiological episodes. After a series of briefings from the Navy on potential dangers while flying, like hypoxia or potential loss of consciousness, I experienced the “Reduced Oxygen Breathing Device.” This device is one of the many resources the Navy’s Physiological Episode Team (PET) is using in an effort to combat physiological episodes in jets under their leadership’s “resource-unconstrained” approach. More specifically, the device helps pilots recognize oxygen deprivation in a controlled environment so they can properly execute emergency procedures if a situation develops while airborne.

The Navy also detailed that it is providing aircrew with wearable technologies that monitor cockpit environmental conditions, and elaborated on how the PET is collaborating across service branches, federal agencies, and with industry to determine a cause and find a solution.  I remain committed to working with the Navy to identify that solution through better communication and regular updates, something my provision on physiological episodes in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act would help facilitate.

When my trip ended, I left Norfolk to the well wishes of sailors who offered “fair winds and following seas,” and this Senator Soldier, who has always identified as “Army strong,” was indeed, “Navy proud.”  My respect for the men and women of our United States Navy, who stand watch on, above, beneath, and from the sea could not be greater. This trip stands as a reminder to all Americans, particularly on Veterans Day, to be grateful for our freedoms and to recognize the soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, coast guardsmen, national guardsmen, reservists and families – past and present – who sacrifice to preserve our way of life.

Ernst is a member of the Armed Services Committee. She is retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard.

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