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Aircraft carrier captain keeps ship on `razor's edge' of readiness

ABOARD THE USS HARRY S. TRUMAN—He's flown off the decks of 14 aircraft carriers.

He drinks 22 to 26 cups of coffee a day.

He swears he still wears the same size uniform as when he entered the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in 1971, "although maybe the pants have to be let out a bit."

Now, when Capt. Michael R. Groothousen, commanding officer of the country's newest aircraft carrier, the USS Harry S. Truman, bounds up to the bridge, a dozen crew members jerk to attention.

From a chair with "Groot" embroidered in gold on the back of the blue cover, Groothousen rides atop 97,000 tons of ship with a vista of 4.5 acres of flight deck and the horizon—and Iraq—beyond.

"Five knots," he mutters to himself, looking at a weather screen. The F-14 Tomcat strike fighters ready to shoot off into the sky this morning need 26 knots over the flight deck to take off safely. He'd like to have 30. "More wind is safer," Groothousen said.

So what Mother Nature denies, the Truman creates by revving the engines.

A native of Houston, Groothousen jokes and teases the crew. The folks on the bridge have various bets going, and the big one at the moment is whether they'll get home in June as they planned. Groothousen doesn't say what his bet is, but he has told the crew to prepare for the possibility of an extra month.

Meanwhile, he said the 5,500-person crew is on a "razor's edge" of readiness. The ship was on a routine six-month deployment in the eastern Mediterranean before the war buildup began. Groothousen said they continue to work as they normally would. They fly 70 to 100 flights a day, practice bombing, practice aircraft systems, program various devices and keep the flight deck ready.

Groothousen likens the ship's current operations to being in the middle of a marathon, when the pace is steady. "We are ready to surge and give it everything we've got," he said.

He makes a point of going on at least two of each day's "FOD walks"—searching the flight deck for "foreign objects and debris." Hundreds of crew members line up at the bow and, in loose formation, walk steadily to the stern, looking for anything that could be sucked into a jet engine and ruin it.

It's one way to make himself available to the crew. "They know they've got a wide open shot at asking questions," he said.

Before the ship's last call into port, a member of the fuel crew told him it looked as if all the tasks they needed to finish were about a day ahead of schedule, so why couldn't they go in early?

Groothousen was convinced. He got on the intercom to tell the rest of the ship they could "thank a purple," referring to the uniform color worn by fuelers, for their extra day ashore.

Just days ago, Groothousen hopped aboard an F/18 Hornet, the one with "Groot" painted on the side, for a quick jaunt in the sky.

He does this whenever he can, and not just for the pure joy. It gives him "an opportunity to see, from the pilot's side, how the crew is working. There are certain things they can see from the cockpit that I can't see from this seat," he said, gesturing toward his chair on the bridge.

Groothousen addresses the crew every morning. He describes the day's plans, tells them news and gives a weather forecast, since few can see outside.

And he always ends with the same parting words and the infamous quote from President Truman that is the motto of the ship. "Keep it safe," he says. "Keep your head on a swivel. And continue to give `em hell."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+GROOT