In the middle of a rescue

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Lewisburg man in the U.S. Navy was in the thick of it when the Navy rescued a cargo-ship captain from Somali pirates two weeks ago.

Jacob Andrew Watkins, 20, a petty officer 3rd Class on the USS Bainbridge, the first Navy ship to reach the scene, guarded the one pirate captured during the conflict on the high seas about 300 miles off the Somali coast.

"When the one pirate surrendered I stood watch over him," Watkins told the Marshall County Tribune in an e-mail last week.

In Lewisburg, the Marshall County High School graduate's parents knew he was involved.

"When they announced which ship was closest we knew," said Jacob's mother, Lucie Watkins. "We support him as much as we can without letting him know we're worried."

But for Jacob, it seems to have been business as usual since he's a firefighter, damage control man and a member of the ship's Vessel Board Search and Seizure Team.

"We actually see suspected pirates often: one or two times a week," he said.

Watkins and his shipmates board suspect pirate ships and search for drugs, weapons, or people who are being smuggled, he explained. If anything is found, they go to the appropriate authorities; otherwise a normal day of maintenance, cleaning and watch work could last 14 hours.

His parents, Lucie and Tony Watkins moved to Lewisburg from Columbia 11 years ago because they liked the small town atmosphere.

"Everybody helps you worry about your children," Lucie says.

Jacob's grandparents, Buddy and Dolly England, live just a few blocks from his parents, and his grandmother, Dolly, took care of him a lot when he was a baby.

"It seemed like he was half ours," she said. All her grandchildren are special, Dolly says, but "Jacob's our first, and the bad part is he knows it."

Grandfather Buddy calls the sailor his "pride and joy."

The petty officer has apparently reached some of his goals as his grandfather explained, "He wants to be a paramedic and a firefighter. He's interested in everything, and doesn't forget anything; he wants to be involved."

Jacob met his wife, Kayla LeAnne, 19, when they were both working at Domino's Pizza. They were married in November 2007, and found out just before he was deployed that they are expecting a baby this summer. Kayla divides her time between her parents' home in Cornersville and her in-laws' home in Lewisburg.

In an e-mail to the Marshall County Tribune, Jacob says he "went to Westhills, Lewisburg Middle School, and Marshall County High School. I played football all the way through. To tell you the truth I didn't do much with boats growing up. I went fishing quite a bit on Bass boats, but that had nothing to do with me going to the Navy."

He joined the Navy the summer before his senior year through the Delayed Entry Program and then went to boot camp on June 19, 2007.

"The real reason I joined, ironically, was to be a SEAL," he said. "I knew people who were SEALs and always watched movies on them and wanted to do it since I was little."

Ship life is "sometimes fun, also sometimes boring - sometimes easy, but also sometimes hard."

Sailors live in "very, very close quarters, he said. "But the people become your family because you eat, sleep, work, play, and maybe even die with them.

"I am a damage control man. Basically a Navy firefighter. We take care of everything that has to do with firefighting. We do maintenance on all of it and teach everyone on board how to use it. We also take care of ventilation, de-flooding equipment, de-smoking equipment, and hull and pipe patching also. We do various repairs on many different pieces of equipment that has nothing to do with us. I am also on the VBSS (Vessel Board Search and Seizure) Team. We board suspect pirate ships for drugs, weapons, or personnel smugglers. [We] search the whole thing and [provide] escort to proper authorities if anything is found. On a normal day of just maintenance and cleaning and watch we work 14 hours a day. We actually see suspected pirates often: one or two times a week.

"We found out about the Alabama when we were doing our routine roving around the coast and the captain came over the intercom and told us what had happened and that we were en route to their position. Our VBSS team was mustered and briefed on the situation and what we would have to do. Once on station we stayed alongside them. Some of our guys went over to the Alabama to escort them into port. Our VBSS team was on 24-hour stand-by and when the other guys got here we were on stand-by to back them up. When the one pirate surrendered I stood watch over him. The weather was really hot and sunny and calm waters. I seen the guys (the SEALs) come on board and talked to them quite a bit because of my childhood dream.

"A few days after the Alabama, there was another merchant ship that was attacked. I went over with some of the people that were on board and cleared the ship and escorted it into port."

Many of the details about the USS Bainbridge's part in the Maersk Alabama incident remain confidential, and so does the length of Jacob's deployment, but he hopes to get home to see his son not too long after the baby is born.