Springfield State Journal Register

April 4, 2003

Local sailors help keep Constellation on mission
Responsible for fuel, bombs for fighters' missions against Iraq

By OTTO KREISHER
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

ABOARD THE USS CONSTELLATION - Christopher Sokolis and Eric Cowan are in what could be called the service industry.

The central Illinois natives supply two of the products essential to the intensive air war against Iraq - fuel and bombs.

Sokolis, from Springfield, is a petty officer third class. More specifically, he is an aviation boatswain's mate-fuels, one of the sailors responsible for ensuring that the 70 planes on this aircraft carrier get the high-quality jet fuel they need to fly their combat missions.

Cowan, of Mount Pulaski, is an airman with an aviation ordnanceman designation with Fighter Attack Squadron 151. He helps prepare and load the bombs and missiles the squadron's F/A-18 Hornets carry on their strikes against Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime.

Both have responsible jobs now and ambitious plans for their futures.

Sokolis, 22, enlisted in the Navy after graduating from Lanphier High School in 1997. He was assigned to the Constellation after completing boot camp and a school at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center north of Chicago.

His "office" deep within the ship's hull features a large gray panel covered with glowing red digital numbers reporting the status of the warren of 70 jet fuel tanks farther down. The tanks hold 2 million gallons of jet fuel.

Sokolis' job is to monitor the fuel tanks and to send fuel up to the flight deck to refuel aircraft. A key responsibility, he said, is to make sure that before the fuel is sent to the refueling stations it goes through a filtering process to remove impurities that can damage a jet engine.

Sokolis usually works a 12-hour shift, but when the carrier takes on jet fuel from a supply ship, his department could work 14 to 15 hours, he said.

Cowan graduated from Mount Pulaski High School in 1996 and attended Lincoln Land Community College and Southern Illinois University.

He was at SIU on Sept. 11, 2001, and watched the terrorist attacks on television.

As soon as that semester ended, he joined the Navy. He was assigned to VFA-151, the "Vigilantes," at Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif., after boot camp at Great Lakes and an ordnance school in Pensacola, Fla.

Cowan said he selected the ordnance field because he wants to become a Navy SEAL and that was one of the military skills the elite unit seeks. He was attracted to the physically demanding SEALs because, "I've always been athletic, physical, seeing how far you can push yourself."

On the Constellation, Cowan and his fellow squadron "ordies" receive bombs and missiles from the ship's ordnance department, complete the assembly and then load them on the fighters getting ready for strike missions.

They work 12 or more hours a shift - mostly at night when the carrier's planes are flying. The pace gets hectic during the launch and recovery cycles when they must hurry to complete their work so the Hornets can make another strike.

At times, he said, the ordies may have only half an hour to load up to four 1,000- or 2,000-pound bombs each on three jets.

"Everyone has his job. If they don't do it right, it's trouble for everyone," Cowan said.

Keeping up with the pace of the war "is the most intense thing I've ever been through," he said. "It pushes your brain, pushes your body."

But, he said with a smile, "I love what I'm doing."

Cowan "celebrated" his 25th birthday doing what he "loves" on Thursday.

He said his supervisor has recommended him for an officer program, and he will have to take the tests after this deployment. If he does not get into the SEALs or the officer program, Cowan said he will work to win promotion to chief petty officer and then become a warrant officer.

Sokolis also has bold ambitions. He has re-enlisted for four more years on his way to a full Navy career with the goal: "One day I want to be a master chief" - the top Navy enlisted rank.

To help his advancement, Sokolis recently earned an air warfare badge - pewter-colored wings with an anchor inside a shield - through a demanding process requiring completion of a list of qualifications, an intensive written test and oral grilling.

"It's not an easy thing," he said.

He is thinking about trying to become a naval special warfare combat crewmen, the sailors who operate the high-speed vessels that transport the SEALs.

Cowan is single, while Sokolis is married. His wife, Tanya, and their two sons, Brandon and Caleb, have moved back to Springfield during the deployment.

Because the Constellation is slated for retirement after this cruise, Sokolis will transfer to Naval Air Station Oceania, in Virginia Beach, Va. He's expected to return to Springfield this weekend.

Although he has enjoyed his Navy service, Sokolis admits that his wife "is not fond of" the separations and the moves.

Both men concede that this has not been a particularly fun deployment. Since arriving in the Gulf Jan. 19, the Constellation has been at sea with only two short visits to Bahrain, the last more than 50 days ago.

But both men believe what they are doing is worth the sacrifices.

Asked if he supports the war, Cowan said: "wholeheartedly."

The first time a bomb he loaded did not come back from a mission over Iraq was such a thrill, he said, "I haven't had that experience since basketball in high school."

"I'm out here doing my part to help beat Saddam Hussein," Sokolis said. "Hopefully we'll get rid of him soon. But, like the president said, we'll get home when the job is done."