Wednesday, July 25, 2007

All hands on deck for cooperation overseas

Damascus Navy man leads multinational training exercise in the Black Sea

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U.S. Navy Capt. Chip Walter of Damascus, commanding sea, air and ground forces from 13 nations in a naval exercise on the Black Sea last week, was reminded of the youngsters he coached in lacrosse back home.

In one respect, coaching lacrosse is easier because everyone understands the same language, but sometimes the 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds also speak in a language of their own, Walter said.

As deputy commander of what Navy officials called the largest exercise on the Black Sea, he communicated through many interpreters, as his counterparts from the Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Canada, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Latvia, Republic of Macedonia, Moldavia, Romania and Turkey spoke rudimentary English.

Walter also learned a few key words in their languages.

‘‘Your hands become important,” he said. ‘‘Everybody is patient.”

Walter, 46, commanded some 800 Army, Navy and Marine servicemen and servicewomen aboard the USS Donald Cook.

He spoke by cell phone last Thursday from Odessa, Ukraine, nine days into the two-week exercise.

The exercise, called Sea Breeze 2007, was the 10th year these nations have worked together to practice for joint peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance missions, said Rear Adm. Robert Clark, director of maritime partnership programs for the U.S. Naval Forces in Europe.

The exercise ‘‘provides an opportunity in a multinational environment for 13 countries to work together in an area of the world that’s still emerging,” Walter said. ‘‘Our goal in this area is to build partnerships, to help emerging countries see and use the Black Sea.”

By working together in a training exercise, the countries will find working together during a crisis easier, Walter said.

The countries practiced search and rescue operations, live fire exercises, sea security and humanitarian relief activities.

The exercise was also an opportunity for the Ukraine to test out new equipment. It had recently received an American-bought Automated Information System that allows it to see 30-40 miles out to sea from the shore.

‘‘We allow them to see all the different ships around so they know if anything illegal is going on,” Walter said. ‘‘It used to be the sea was a place to hide. Now, if you do that and somebody’s looking, you bring attention to yourself.”

The 2,500 men and women involved in the exercise got to test their skills in a real mission the night before when a Liberian ship made a distress call to report a female sailor overboard.

The USS Donald Cook, a Turkish ship and a Greek ship were en route to search for the sailor within minutes of the call, Walter said. They searched for the next 15 hours.

‘‘Unfortunately, we didn’t find the young girl overboard, but we worked together in a positive way,” Walter said.

Since last summer, Walter has been the Navy’s regional coordinator of the Black and Caspian seas. He and his family have moved to Sicily during this assignment.

While Walter was out to sea, his wife and children were back in Montgomery Village visiting family.

Walter, his wife, Kim, and children Griffin, 12, Bethany, 16, and Kristyn, 19, hope to return to Damascus next summer when his tour is over.

‘‘Damascus is one of those secrets — a small town, lot of fun,” Walter said.