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Take Five: Lt. Gregory Cissell, from aboard the USS Ashland

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 8, 2010 - It's not every day that you get a satellite phone call from a U.S. Naval officer who's chasing pirates off the coast of Africa.

Well, that may be a bit of an overstatement, but it was fun to hear from Lt. Gregory Cissell, 33, a Webster Groves native who was calling from aboard the USS Ashland last week as part of a Navy outreach program.

The Ashland, a 16,000-ton dock landing ship with 22 officers, 391 enlisted and more than 400 Marines aboard, is currently in the thick of the Navy's anti-piracy campaign, part of the Nassau Amphibious Ready Group operating off the coast of Somalia.

On April 10, the Ashland apprehended six suspected pirates in the Gulf of Aden, about 300 miles off the coast of Djibouti, a republic bordered by Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. According to Naval reports, the Ashland fired two rounds at the pirate skiff after taking small arms fire. The Ashland reported no damage or injuries and brought the suspects aboard after the skiff caught fire.

Cissell, who said he joined the Navy in search of adventure, acknowledges that fighting pirates is part of the Navy's heritage, dating back to the early 1800s.

"I think it's always been a mission, but you wouldn't think in the 21st century that you'd be out here looking for pirates,'' he said. "It's sort of an antiquated notion, but that's where we find ourselves now.''

The ships left homeport in Norfolk, Va., on Jan. 18 for a seven-month deployment, but were redirected to Haiti to deliver food and medical supplies after the Jan. 12 earthquake.

"We were part of a unified response which included humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in Haiti,'' Cissell said. "We deployed mid-January and before we even got under way we got orders to head down to Haiti. This ship delivered disaster relief supplies, and we took Marines ashore to provide security for Haitians."

The Ashland is part of the Fifth Fleet, which is currently patrolling 2.5 million square miles of water, including the Red Sea, the Arabian Gulf, the Arabian Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean.

Cissell graduated from Webster Groves High School in 1995 and was a member of the Navy Reserve Officer Training Command program while attending Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., where he majored in math. In addition to his service on Naval vessels, Cissell was an associate professor of naval science at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. His wife Rebecca and three children are living in Zion, Ill., during his current deployment.

Cissell, a lifelong Cardinals and Blues fan, said he wears his Cardinals cap on Wednesdays aboard the Ashland. That's "crazy hat day" when the crew is allowed to wear non-military headgear as a morale booster. He keeps up with the Redbirds by reading Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper.

St. Louis, by the way, is one of 20 cities chosen as Navy Week sites this year. Among the highlights of this year's local Navy Week, Sept. 6-12, will be performances by the Blue Angels at the annual Scott Air Force Base Air Show on Sept. 11 and 12. 

Here are more excerpts from the Beacon's ship-to-shore interview with Lt. Cissell:

According to the Navy's bio, you're still searching for pirates along the coast of East Africa?

Cissell: That's one of the things we're doing. We're patrolling the area for suspected pirates and getting to know some of the local fishermen. We try to go out and do meet-and-greets and let them know we're out here, and if they see suspicious activities they can call us.

Pirates are very trendy now in pop culture, but your work is nothing like the romantic images in the movies. Are these pirates tough to find?

Cissell: They're not hard to find. Piracy is pretty prevalent in this part of the world, but I think we're doing an effective job in reducing it. Typically, you'll see several people in skiffs -- small motorboats no more than 14 feet long. They go out and they wait for unsuspecting vessels to pass by and then try to take advantage of them.

In addition to the pre-emptive meet-and-greets with the fishermen, we respond to mayday calls -- distress calls at sea -- and that's our indication of a pirate attack. We do check on suspected pirate vessels. And we just keep patrolling. Just being out there on the water, is our most effective deterrent. There are a lot of us out here.

How do the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan affect your mission?

Cissell: We're much more sensitive in this part of the world than maybe we had been in decades past.

The Navy has always had a strong presence in the Middle East. Off the Barbary Coast is where the Navy first held its own fighting pirates.

I think we've always had a strong presence in this region from the Navy's standpoint, but now we're joined by our brothers and sisters in the Army and the Air Force. And I think we're just much more sensitive to the region.

We also try to do a lot more cooperation exercises -- coalition-based exercises. It's not just America alone. We're out here with Japanese ships. French ships. German ships. Even Jordanian ships and other Middle-Eastern countries are patrolling the waters. I'm not off the coast of Iraq or Afghanistan, but there is a very strong coalition presence here for anti-piracy.

What should Americans know about their Navy?

Cissell: Just that we're out here 24/7, three-hundred-sixty-five. We don't take breaks.

The Army's been going through a pretty rough patch with the last seven to eight years of deployment, but the Navy is always deployed. Since 1775, the Navy has been deployed. It's something we're used to and other services are starting to get used to.

Any messages for the folks back home?

Go Cardinals. And hello to my mom and dad.

(That would be Carol Diaz in Everett, Wash., and Steve Cissell in Millstadt, Ill.)

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