This week marks 25 years since the start of the Persian Gulf War and Operation Desert Storm, the series of airstrikes that paved the way for a ground offensive. For Jon Thompson, Retired Fleet Master Chief and current director of GEICO’s Military Department, his deployment in Desert Storm was both “the fastest and longest six months of my life.”
Thompson joined the Navy in 1976 and deployed several times, including on helicopter carriers and for a 12-month stint on the USS La Salle in the Persian Gulf. Desert Storm was the first and only combat deployment in his 30-year career, but he was prepared. “For weeks before deployment, you train with live ordnance,” he explains.
Thompson spent Desert Storm as flight deck Leading Chief Petty Officer aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt. The aircraft carrier flew more than 4,000 missions during Desert Storm, and as the Chief Petty Officer responsible for the flight deck, Thompson was in the middle of the action. “Those 3½ acres of steel were my responsibility,” he says. “I was like the traffic cop for all the takeoffs and landings and parking of aircraft, and in charge of the firefighting department.”
The carrier set off for the Persian Gulf at full speed in December 1990, and the pace didn’t let up until its return 185 days later. “We went as fast as we could to the Suez Canal, so every night we changed time zones and lost an hour of sleep,” Thompson recalls. “You’re trying to eat when you’re not hungry and sleep when you’re not tired.”
Once the carrier arrived and its combat operations began in mid-January, Thompson’s days ramped up. He rose at 4:30 a.m., split his time between managing the flight deck and taking care of administrative responsibilities, and ate boxed meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner before turning in at 11 p.m. “No two days are alike on the flight deck. Planes break, missions change: it’s the nature of the beast,” he says. “But it becomes repetitious. It’s the same pattern of launch-recover airplanes all day every day, so the days don’t mean anything to you. You lose track of time.”
One break in the routine, however, was the presence of live ordnance on deck. The pace of the war was so fast that the Theodore Roosevelt had to get a fresh supply of fuel and ammunition from replenishment ships every few days. “Normally, you get ammo and it goes below decks and gets assembled,” Thompson explains. “But at that time, it just got assembled on the deck, so we had big stacks of bombs all over the flight deck.” Still, he’s proud that no one from the flight deck was lost on that cruise. (In the 1970s and ’80s it was still common to lose one or two people on deployments, he says.)
The carrier returned from the Gulf in June 1991, and Thompson served for 15 more years before retiring in 2006 as Fleet Master Chief for the U.S. Fleet Forces Command. But a friendship he made during Desert Storm eventually led to his role at GEICO. Out of the nearly 5,000 people on board the Theodore Roosevelt, Thompson had the chance to work closely with Mike Baker, who was the ship’s Command Master Chief at the time. “Every once in a while, I’d let him come out on my flight deck and direct airplanes,” Thompson jokes. They reconnected in 2011 and Baker, then head of the Military Team at GEICO, brought Thompson on board.
GEICO has been supporting men and women who serve our country since 1936. Visit the GEICO Military Center to learn more.