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The parted curtain.

Sailors often join the Navy to see the world, but there are only a select few who get to visit ports in the Black Sea, the isolated body of water that sits north of Turkey. It was only during the last decade that the United States Navy has been able to conduct routine port visits in the Black Sea.

Even now, after the Iron Curtain has been pushed aside, Black Sea port visits are rare opportunities for Sailors of the 6th Fleet. Once inside, they see a world that isn't quite European, yet not Asian either.

We now take you to lands that have only recently discovered freedom, as we look through the Parted Curtain.

THE BLACK SEA IS SO NAMED BECAUSE the lack of oxygen in the water prevents the development of microorganisms, making it appear black. The only way in or out of the Black Sea is to sail from the Mediterranean, north through the Aegean Sea past Greece, then through the Dardanelles Strait into the Sea of Marmara. Finally, you enter Turkey's Bosporus Strait, which separates Europe and Asia.

Gargantuan tankers weave their way along the strait, which is 700 yards across at it narrowest point, near Istanbul, Turkey, while packed ferries cross from one bank to the other. The 6th Fleet flagship, USS La Salle (AGF 3), and the embarked 6th Fleet staff, transited the narrow strait to emerge into the Black Sea for a five-country deployment last summer. Few Sailors knew what to expect.

"We are here to show our presence, be ambassadors of goodwill and show people that we are interested in fostering stronger ties with them," said Intelligence Specialist 3rd Class Jaime Martinez during La Salle's first port call to the region since 1998. "People will remember Americans favorably if we leave a good impression."

That mission of diplomacy was repeated throughout the entire 17-day, five-country deployment to the Black Sea. U.S. Sailors brought messages of peace, friendship and an opportunity to find common ground. Stops included: Istanbul, Turkey; Novorossiysk, Russia; Sevastopol, Ukraine; Constanta, Romania; and Varna, Bulgaria.

One global area of common ground was a shared devotion to family. One way that La Salle and 6th Fleet Sailors found to express that shared devotion, was to volunteer liberty time, offering assistance with community projects that routinely centered around family and children in every country they visited.

"It's the best birthday present I can get -- spending time with children," said Machinist Mate 3rd Class Najm Lewis, who spent her 19th birthday with several other Sailors, distributing arts and crafts supplies to an orphanage and playing with the children living there on the outskirts of Novorossiysk, Russia.

"Anything to help out the kids is worth the effort," said La Salle Intelligence Specialist 1st Class Tony Morgano. He was one of several volunteers who took part in every Black Sea community relations project conducted. "I think it also presents a positive image for America."

Another group of Sailors who presented a positive image for America and the U.S. Navy was the 6th Fleet Band. These musical ambassadors spoke in the international language of music, and entertained thousands during their 27-concert itinerary.

"It feels great to represent the Navy and the United States through music," said tenor sax player Musician Seaman Chris Sams, who was on his first deployment away from the 6th Fleet Band's home base in Naples, Italy. "The crowds were very receptive and treated us like celebrities. All of us tried to return the gesture by giving them the best performance we could."

"They are great musicians," said Zhleyazko Nicolov, a Bulgarian naval communications officer. "We don't see Sailors from the American Navy very often -- it was nice to see them here. Maybe we can get to know each other better and become better friends."

"I like jazz very much," added Krasimir Kostov, a sergeant in the Bulgarian navy, following his first interaction with American Sailors. "The band sounded great. The visit of the American Navy here is important -- both sides can learn from the exchange of experiences and learn from each other."

Sixth Fleet also actively initiated cooperation between the U.S. Navy and the navies of the Black Sea, to promote a new era of regional stability.

"The last decade has been one of tremendous change in the Black Sea region," said VADM Gregory Johnson, then the 6th Fleet commander, during a reception held in the Bulgarian port city of Varna. "But, we must ensure that the past informs and instructs us and does not obstruct our vision of the future."

While 6th Fleet diplomacy primarily emphasized commonality, another effective tool of diplomacy was engagement through operational exercises. During their deployment, staff talks between 6th Fleet and representative navies were conducted in each country visited.

"These meetings in each port are very important," said 6th Fleet Operations Officer CAPT Jason Leaver. "Being able to meet face to face lets us better understand what kinds of operational naval exercises they'd like to do with the United States."

"We discussed issues dealing with our Partnership for Peace," said 6th Fleet Policy and Strategy Officer, LCDR Mike Hill. "We also discussed issues dealing with different aspects of junior officer training and the possibility of joint exercises down the road."

U.S. and Black Sea region Sailors came together in Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria for wreath-laying ceremonies at various war memorials.

"It was a very dignified and respectful ceremony that acknowledged the sacrifices of the Ukrainian people, and honored their memory and past struggles," said 6th Fleet's LCDR Stanley Keeve, who attended the ceremony honoring those who fell to recapture Sevastopol from the Nazis.

"I enjoyed the opportunity to witness first hand a very sacred and time-honored tradition of honoring the sacrifices of others," said Operations Specialist 1st Class (SW) Lawrence Nichols, who participated in a Bulgarian ceremony. "I believe that it helps to strengthen the ties between the United States and these various countries, by showing that Americans are compassionate and sympathetic to their losses, as well as respectful of their customs."

Between staff talks, receptions, community relations projects, wreath laying ceremonies and band performances, 6th Fleet Sailors were also able to enjoy liberty in a region rarely accessible.

From Istanbul's sixth century Hagia Sofia church and Blue Mosque, to memorials of times of struggle, Sailors had ample opportunity to taste the culture of the region. 6th Fleet and La Salle Morale, Welfare and Recreation coordinated tours in every country.

"It's important that Romanians and Americans learn about each other's history and culture so we can understand each other better," said Mihaela Dumitrescu, the Contantan tour guide on a trip to the Romanian capital, Bucharest. "The best way to learn about people is to meet them face to face -- not from a textbook."

"Our rich history belongs to everyone," said tour guide Beken Guray, a retired Turkish military officer who now makes a living showing Istanbul's art, culture and history to foreign tourists. "I want to tell the story of my country to the whole world. The best way to learn about the Turkish people is to come and see them firsthand."

"The history here is unbelievable," said Martinez, who enjoyed his first port visit to Turkey and a tour that included the Byzantine-era Hippodrome and the Grand Bazaar. "I took this tour because I might never get another opportunity to see this place."

"I feel like I now understand more about the region's history, culture and society," said 6th Fleet's Legalman 1st Class (SW) Steve Crowston, one of approximately 40 Sailors who signed up for an all-day tour to Bucharest. "The people seem friendly, helpful and receptive to Americans. They are so friendly, in fact, it's almost as if a curtain never existed."
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Title Annotation:US sailors make Black Sea port visits
Publication:All Hands
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Feb 1, 2002
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