By Robin Jones & Ben Meyerson, special to USTA.com
The USTA joined forces with the Adopt-A-Solider Platoon aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier April 1-3 as part of the USTA Military Outreach effort to support U.S. military personnel in 2012. The effort is composed of eight project teams that have a goal of impacting over 100,000 service members, veterans and their families through a variety of tennis initiatives providing fitness, family togetherness, stress reduction, local access and skill appropriate programming in the lifetime sport of tennis.
Representing the USTA were Ben Meyerson, National Coordinator, Community Development & Facilities and Justin Street, National Manager of Product Strategy, Advanced Media Group, as well as Military Outreach National Consultant Robin Jones. The tennis contingent was joined by Lee Sponaugle of Connor Sport Court. They chronicled their journey out to sea to bring tennis to the troops for USTA.com:
As part of the USTA Military Outreach team, we were truly excited to attend the event representing the organization.
In addition to hosting our tennis tournament aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier, we were part of a greater entertainment event organized by USTA partner "Adopt-a-Soldier Platoon, consisting of: Six members of the NFL’s Washington Redskins cheerleaders, a concert by Brother Gravity – a rock band from North Carolina – a TRX competition and an Xbox Madden tournament. The event was planned to give the sailors a break and something to show the appreciation we have for their efforts as they are set to deploy to the Middle East for nine months starting this summer.
We flew down to Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia last Saturday night and departed Sunday morning for the two-hour flight across the Atlantic Ocean, 100 miles due east of Jacksonville, Fla. and the carrier. The group of 21 boarded two COD (Carrier Onboard Delivery) planes, along with members of the United States Navy. In our party were two former commanding officers of the ship, including the first Admiral of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, who advised us to strap in; that we were about to experience something cool. The seats on the COD are facing backwards, designed for the abrupt stop upon arrested landing by tailhook – a device fitted to the rear of most military fighter jets for rapid deceleration - onto the carrier. As we go from 140 miles per hour to a dead stop in two seconds flat, it’s a thrilling sensation after all the suspense and anticipation.
The first day on the aircraft we were taken to the flight deck to watch planes as they were "cat shot" – or a takeoff assisted by a steam-powered catapult - off the deck and tailhooked back on as part of their training. The average age of sailors on board the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower is 22 years, and these sailors carry more responsibility on their shoulders than most hold in a lifetime. From personnel safety to aircraft safety, they are responsible for millions of dollars in aviation equipment – and hundreds of lives - during their 12-16 hour days and we were honored to take the time to get to know them. Each sailor enjoyed talking about where they were from, and the job they hold on the carrier. They all thanked us just for caring and for being there. We spent the remainder of Sunday seeing many different areas of the command and control centers.
On Monday, the second day aboard, it was our turn to give back to them as we setup a 36-foot modular tennis court made possible by our partners at Sport Court . We held an open tennis session that afternoon for the sailors where we did a variety of open play, including "king of the court" doubles. In all, we distributed 400 USTA Military Outreach t-shirts and hats to the sailors as they came by the court to try their hand at tennis, many for the first time in their lives. The sailors loved the apparel as many were quick to put on the shirts and hats before they went back on the tennis court.
We offered and signed up over 20 teams of sailors for a doubles tournament later that afternoon, with special US Open-themed prizes awarded to the winners. It was great to see the spirit and competitiveness they brought out in each other on the court during the tournament. Many of the sailors expressed to us how much fun they were having and loved our set-up. Some, like Lt. Commander J.T. Taylor, an F-18 pilot and avid tennis player, were thrilled to see a court before their eyes on the ship.
After the tournament was over, we donated the racquets, balls, and nets to the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, along with drop-down lines to the ship's "fun boss", Sara Dowell, who coordinates all recreation activities for the 4,000-plus sailors aboard. Dowell plans on taking this equipment with the ship on a nine-month deployment to the Gulf beginning this June, incorporating tennis as part of their weekly exercise/activity for the sailors. We were humbled by this gracious promise, and reminded her of how grateful we were to be a part of their fun.
On Tuesday morning, we toured the bridge with Captain Marcus Hitchcock before experiencing our very own cat shot off the deck, back to Norfolk. It was the same exhilarating sensation, only in reverse. We all left with a new sense of admiration and pride in the U.S. Navy and the sailors who protect our homeland at sea.
After we returned home, a letter arrived from Captain Hitchcock, reaffirming it all.
"Thanks for being wonderful Americans and supporting the troops - we could ask for no more, and appreciate it above all else. Just knowing that people appreciate and care means the world to the sailors on 'Ike.'"