In support of the evacuation of Americans from Lebanon this summer, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Sharon Walters was notified one morning and got on a plane later that same day for Cyprus. As an electronics technician first class, she leads a mobile communications unit. Establishing communication is essential to accomplishing military objectives, and communications teams are often the first to arrive and the last to leave. With 15 years in service, Walters is on her third deployment in the last year.
Walters, who grew up in Orlando and has family in Tampa, called from Bahrain recently and spoke with Tribune correspondent MyLinh Shattan.
What is your assignment? We’re an all-inclusive, self-sustaining global command and control communication unit. There are 12 of us and we provide services through satellite connections, secure and unsecure computer networks, phones, actual land lines that are based out of Bahrain, video teleconferencing, secure and unsecure voice radio communications. We have a system that we can pull down the different news stations, like CNN and Fox.
We go where we’re needed, when we’re needed, and we don’t find out until we get there.
My first deployment was six months long for the Pakistani earthquake. My unit provided the communication for the Disaster Assistance Center – Pakistan, which was set up to support the humanitarian effort.
I came back for a couple months and we got deployed again for the Lebanon evacuation. We set up in Cyprus for 40 days until relieved by our sister unit in the Mediterranean. We came back home for a couple months then deployed to Bahrain in the middle of October.
How do you communicate on the battlefield today? We have a lot of different ways of communication. Everything’s a backup for everything else. Not all units have the same capabilities; a smaller unit is not going to have what [an aircraft] carrier has. We work side by side with our coalition partners. I work with Brits, Germans, Australians, French, Pakistanis and Iraqis.
Tell me about Bahrain. I love it. The people are really nice. They’ll do anything for you. The living is phenomenal; I’m living like a king. I have a villa out in town. When I’m deployed with my unit, I live in tents on cots in a sleeping bag.
How’s the American relationship with the Bahrainis? I haven’t had any problems with anybody here. I get a lot of weird looks; it’s a novelty because I’m a woman in the military. I’m driving a purple jeep over here. Women drive over here, but it’s relatively new – last 10 years or so, I think.
Bahrain’s very Westernized and very open. We’ve got BK, Chili’s, Applebee’s, McDonald’s, Ponderosa. But they’re still very traditional. It’s like America in that it’s a melting pot of different nationalities. You have Bahraini, Kuwaiti, Saudi, Brit, Filipino. There are a lot of Brits because Bahrain used to be a British territory.
What are your impressions of American progress on your deployments? I have a positive feeling, especially in Pakistan. It was a very fulfilling deployment to me and everyone else I worked with to be out there helping all these people. They were very, very appreciative.
What’s a day in your life like? The big work is at the beginning of the deployment. We come in, set up, make sure everyone has computers, all radios are set up, computer accounts. The first week of a deployment is insane. We literally got the word about the earthquake on the 8th of October [last year] and we were on a plane on the 10th. For Cyprus, we got a call at 11-ish in the morning; we loaded at 7 o’clock that night. Everything in our unit is modularized, mounted in transit cases and ready to go. We’ve done it so many times back to back that we could do it in our sleep.
How do you like these deployments vs. being on a ship? I like being at sea. It’s some of the best sleep I’ve had in my life. I’m serious. It’s like sleeping in a big cradle; it rocks you to sleep. I grew up on and around the water. It’s kind of fitting that I ended up joining the Navy.
What’s the best part of your job? The best is definitely the people I’ve worked with, the different nationalities, cultures, experiences. And knowing that we made a difference: in Cyprus, getting people out of Lebanon; in Pakistan, I was volunteer aircrew. Almost everyone in my unit went up, dropping off supplies, getting the wounded and deceased into the valley for medical care.
What’s the worst? There’s lots of stress. The beginning of deployments is hardest. I work for the first three weeks 20-hour days. The main bulk of everything we do rides on my equipment. When we get there, we’re setting up tents, for where we work and live, set up equipment, working out bugs. When staff comes in, I get them all set up, teach them to use the equipment. At the beginning of deployment, people are getting snippy; we’re stressed out and tired. Everyone gets run down. Once that’s worked out, then it’s smooth sailing. It’s everyday maintenance.
Why did you join the Navy? I was dating a guy in the Navy and I’d been thinking about joining. I set records signing up at my recruiting station. I went in to get information on a Wednesday afternoon and ended up staying there till 10 that night, completely filled out my package. Friday morning they put me on a bus to Tampa and I came home Sunday night in the Navy.
Anything else you wish to share? It surprises me that I’m still in the military. In high school, the military was the furthest thing from my mind. I played tuba in the band and was into music. I left Florida State to go back to Orlando and join the Navy. At Florida State, I was in the band there and showed up at a game in uniform. I wore my uniform whites and shocked people. People asked, “Oh, my God, what have you done?”
MyLinh Shattan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.