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Week of Valor: Jacksonville-area sailors serving the nation

3 sailors, 3 different jobs, 3 levels of training, 1 connection: Jacksonville


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Three sailors with three different jobs in the U.S. Navy and three different levels of training and experience have one common connection: Jacksonville.

During the Week of Valor leading up to Veterans Day, News4Jax wants to honor all veterans by showing you these three sailors with an affection for Northeast Florida.

A sailor named Rion Johnson, from Ponte Vedra Beach, saves people from aboard a helicopter. 

“I'm a rescue swimmer in the United States Navy, so an air crewman some people like to call it," Johnson said.

Another sailor used to fly helicopters. He now guides a 100,000-ton ship that can move at speeds of more than 30 knots. 

“I am a commander and my job description is -- I am the ship’s navigator,” Cmdr. Jeffrey Ketcham said.

News4Jax videographer Jud Hulon and I met those men during a trip to Norfolk, Virginia, as part of a program organized by Naval Air Force Atlantic. The program is called "Sailor for a Day." In actuality, it was a three-day experience that included a trip out to the ocean and time board a nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS Harry S. Truman. 

One of the goals with the “Sailor for a Day” program that brought us aboard the Truman is to meet sailors from Northeast Florida who are doing amazing things. 

A man who went to Jacksonville University is a part of a crew aboard a lane with a radar dish on top, an E2D Advanced Hawkeye.

PHOTOS: News4Jax on board USS Harry S. Truman

“So we’re on the hangar bay deck of the USS Harry S. Truman. This is where we store aircraft that aren't necessarily going to be flying this day," said Brian Ferdon Jr., who has multiple connections to Northeast Florida.

Ferdon went to grade school in Jacksonville and then got a full-ride scholarship to Jacksonville University, where he spent four years and earned a degree. 

It was not on an Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarship, but as a trumpet player and music major. Ferdon interned with the Jacksonville Symphony just before he graduated in 2013.

I asked, "How do you go from music business major to being flying for our Navy off an aircraft carrier?”

“In 2013, the market wasn't looking very good for symphonies,” Ferdon said. “The Jacksonville Symphony was having a hard time and there were a lot of symphonies all around the country that were either on blackout or on strike for various reasons, mostly economic.”

Ferdon applied to the Navy for multiple positions, including flight officer. He's now an air control officer in an aircraft.

He showed his "office," saying, “This is an E2D Advanced Hawkeye. It does airborne early-warning command-and-control."

That plane has another Florida connection. It was built at the Northrop Grumman facility at the airport in St. Augustine.

Ferdon tries to play music when he can, but with his squadron aboard the carrier, he’s focused on an incredibly important role.

“I'm an air control officer. So I'm responsible for maintaining situational awareness to our operation area and what we’re responsible for, and then directing our assets to carry out the mission as assigned by the chain of command,” Ferdon said. “A lot of times, that comes in the form of doing air-to-air intercept control, directing F/A 18s to defend the carrier.”

Ketcham manages a team to guide the ship, but his role is bigger than that.

“So the ship’s navigator it encompasses quite a bit. I mean, most people would think navigation ... is getting us from point A to point B. There’s a lot of coordination that goes into that," Ketcham said. ”I am also in charge of all the bridge team. So all the watchstanders you see out here are actually driving the ship, I am responsible for their standardization and training and making sure that they have the tools and resources necessary to function and do what they need to do safely and effectively."

Ketcham said he calls Jacksonville a second-home, spending about 8 and a half years of his time in the Navy either at Naval Station Mayport or Naval Air Station Jacksonville. 

”Flying helicopters off the beach at Jacksonville Beach, up-and-down. Certainly all the operational areas there as an instructor pilot for both teaching new students how to fly an H 60 as well as operational tours out of there during my time,” Ketcham said. “It’s great. I love Jacksonville.”

And while his helicopter doesn't operate off an aircraft carrier, Johnson has been as busy as any sailor in the past few months. Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28 saved lives in Texas and Florida. 

”It was around-the-clock rescues. You had crews getting 50 rescues in the day. Around the clock literally, from 6 that morning and I was flying sometimes until 3 at night," Johnson said. 

Helicopters, such as the ones Johnson works in, were deployed to help people. They rescued people when it came to recovery from events, such as Hurricane Harvey in Texas. They provided supplies and support when it came to Hurricane Irma throughout Florida. 

Johnson is the crew chief aboard a helicopter in this Squadron 28 based out of Norfolk. When asked about lives being saved, he and his teammates refuse to be called heroes -- even though they are. 

Texas was the kind of mission any rescue swimmer wants to accomplish. It was also an indication of the character for the sailor, and the men and women who serve the country.

I asked Johnson, “Especially with what you and your teammates have done during Harvey and Irma, are you and the people around you -- are you heroes?” 

“I wouldn't say that. No,” Johnson said. “I mean, we did our job. I wouldn't call us heroes.”

Johnson added, ”Being humble is the No. 1 thing about being a rescue swimmer. If you want reward and you want other things, this isn't the job for you."

The helicopter squadron also responded to the Florida Keys after Hurricane Irma, deployed aboard the USS Iwo Jima, a Mayport-based amphibious assault ship.


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