Daily Breeze

March 18, 2003

South Bay sailors face war’s risks
DEPLOYMENT: Navy personnel say they are well-trained and ready for battle in the Middle East.


ABOARD USS CONSTELLATION — Maurice Castro could have avoided this aircraft carrier’s voyage to an expected war with Iraq. But he fought his way back from a painful injury, and a bit of fear, to deploy with his squadron and return to work on the flight deck, considered one of the most dangerous work environments in the world.

Castro, 29, is an aviation structural mechanic third class with Sea Control Squadron 38 and is only one of many sailors from the South Bay who are on the Constellation in the northern Persian Gulf as it prepares for war.

Richard Valencia, 19, of Torrance is an Information Systems Technician 3rd Class assigned to the carrier.

Scott Lekavich, 22, of Lomita and Marcus Roberts, 24, of Harbor City are both aviation electronics technicians with Fighter Attack Squadron 151, one of the three F/A-18 Hornet squadrons on the Constellation.

And Lt. j.g. James Kline, 31, who lives with his sister in Redondo Beach, is a naval flight officer flying in the E-2C Hawkeyes of Airborne Early Warning Squadron 116.

A graduate of Gardena Community Adult School, Castro enlisted in the Navy three years ago after working as a travel agent.

“I wanted to get into the business of fixing airplanes, not booking flights on them,” he said.

Now he works on many of the major components of VS-38’s S-3B Viking twin-engine jets. Those include the landing gear, flight controls and other hydraulic systems — “everything that moves on the airplanes,” he said.

That job frequently takes Castro up to the flight deck, a place of intense noise, nearly constant motion and considerable danger.

He learned the truth of that last year when he slipped and fell off the Constellation’s flight deck into the Pacific Ocean off San Diego in the dark of night.

Stunned and injured in the 60-foot fall, Castro’s training, his survival equipment and the commitment the Navy makes to rescue men overboard saved his life.

But his injuries would have allowed him to stay in California when the San Diego-based carrier deployed Nov. 2, heading almost certainly to war.

“Personally, I wanted to be here,” he said.

After recovering from his physical injuries, Castro conceded he had to overcome the psychological effects of his accident and did not return to the flight deck for a few weeks.

“Inch by inch I came back,” he said. “I love working on the flight deck.”

As far as going to war, “we always train for this kind of thing. We’re trained for the job. If called on, we’ll do the job,” he said.

Valencia, a Torrance High School graduate, works on the Constellation’s hundreds of computers, which handle everything from personal e-mails to managing the complex operations of the air wing’s 72 aircraft.

He provides technical assistance by telephone or in person, he said.

Computers are “something I’ve always had an interest in,” he said.

Valencia said he is in the Navy because his mother wanted him to join the service. She wanted him to join the Air Force but he said he chose the Navy because he had been in Navy Junior ROTC in high school.

Valencia said he was not surprised by the prospect of going to war.

“I was still in boot camp when 9-11 happened. I expected pretty much anything.”

He said he tries to stop his family from worrying.

“Out here there’s always a sense of danger,” but the carrier is “probably safer than anywhere else.”

Whether they go to war or not, Valencia said, “I’m here. I’ll do what I can.”

Lekavich, a graduate of Narbonne High School, said he joined the Navy for “the adventure and school money.”

In describing his job as an electronics technician, he said, “They basically say the F/A-18 is all ours. We own all the systems,” including the radars, radios and navigation systems.

Married with no children, Lekavich said the folks at home are worried. “They know more than we do.”

But for him and his comrades, “no matter what the situation is, we’re always ready. . . . It’s nothing big.”

Roberts, a Downey High School graduate, joined the Navy after years of selling electronics in retail stores. But he said he really learned about electronics in his Navy schools.

Married with two little girls, Roberts’ attitude toward a possible war is matter of fact.

“We came to work. . . . As far as a war situation, it doesn’t matter. We’re always ready.”

But, because he had lived on the East Coast, he said, the events of 9-11 “bothered me.”

“To actually know we’d be out here, taking care of business, I feel better,” Roberts said.

While the others perform their duties aboard the Constellation, Kline flies regularly toward Iraq, helping to direct U.S. aircraft conducting “No Fly” patrols and watching out for any Iraqi fighter that might oppose them.

He joined the Navy at age 28, leaving a career in special events lighting in the Washington, D.C., area because he was disturbed by the “complacency” of many Americans who do not even bother to vote, let alone serve their country.

He contrasted that with the Founding Fathers, who “left something valuable to serve our country.”

“It’s a privilege to serve our country,” he said.

Kline said the prospect of war started having an effect during the trip from San Diego to the Persian Gulf, when he noticed “a lot of emphasis on what we have to do” if war breaks out.

“Nobody would take war over diplomacy,” he said.

But, as far as their ability to go to war is concerned, he added: “We could go today.”