USS Constellation crew prepares for departure to Persian Gulf

Friday, November 1, 2002

ABOARD THE USS CONSTELLATION -- As he prepared again for a voyage that would put his aircraft unit within striking distance of Iraq, Capt. Mark Fox wrote a letter to the wife of a shipmate from the Gulf War.

On the first night of Desert Storm nearly 12 years ago, Fox's friend and fellow Navy pilot, Michael Scott Speicher, became the first American lost in the war.

Today, Speicher is the only American still unaccounted for. This month, the Navy declared he was captured by Iraq after his plane went down. Intelligence reports suggest Speicher may still be alive.

"I just pray that Scott will either come home to live among friends or to rest among them," Fox wrote to Speicher's wife, Joanne.

Nearly 9,000 sailors and aviators on the USS Constellation and its battle group are set to depart Saturday on a six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf that commanders say is likely to put them in harm's way.

The 46-year-old Fox, commander of the carrier's 72 aircraft and the ship's top pilot, said the mission is a personal one.

"I've never had closure from his loss," said Fox, his eyes brimming with tears. "I keep him in my prayers."

President Bush has not ordered an attack on Iraq, but the USS Constellation is preparing for the possibility that he will. The ship returned Tuesday from war games off the coast of Southern California.

On the flight deck, $38 million fighters are shot into the night skies by steam-powered catapults that take them to 150 mph in three seconds. The planes, trailing twin cones of burning red fuel, fly in squadrons with names like Bounty Hunters and Death Rattlers.

Marines practice martial arts in a hangar packed with F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets.

A mural with an eagle filing its talons calls the ship a "Terrorist Cancellation Unit."

Constant reminder

Iraq is on everyone's mind.

"Everybody's talking 2 1/2 months down the road: What's going to be going on?" said Lt. Spence Savoy, a 32-year-old intelligence officer from New Iberia, La.

"We have to be ready to go to Iraq or support operations in Afghanistan."

John Lambert, 28, is responsible for assembling weapons that could help force Saddam Hussein from power.

"That government over there has to be taken out," he said.

Since the last Gulf War, technology has made the bombs Lambert assembles more accurate and more deadly.

Strike planners talk about the number of targets a single plane can hit instead of the number of planes required to hit a single target.

Many Navy aviators have flown over Iraq while enforcing the no-fly zone, where U.S. warplanes are often fired upon. Still, Fox said, many wonder how they will perform in war.

Twelve hours after Speicher left the carrier deck of the USS Saratoga, Fox took off in his F/A-18 Hornet.

He returned a hero -- the first Navy pilot to shoot down an Iraqi MIG-21 and one of two Navy pilots to do so in the Gulf War. But questions about Speicher's fate sapped his happiness.

"Even when we are superior and well-prepared, we lost Scott Speicher as a prisoner of war," Fox said.

As he remembers Speicher, whose children played in the same Florida playground as his own, Fox is reminded of the Biblical story of Joseph, the forsaken slave who rose to power in Egypt and became a force for good.

"It's the only way I can handle that," he said. "God will use this for good. I don't know how. I really don't."

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