WASHINGTON (AFNS) --
Somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean last week, sailors aboard the Trident strategic missile submarine USS Maryland prepared to start a series of underwater practice maneuvers known as "angles and dangles."
The Maryland's captain, Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey M. Grimes, and his chief of the boat and senior enlisted leader, Master Chief Petty Officer Michael C. McLauchlan, intently observed the actions of the officers and enlisted crew in the control room as the vessel silently tilted downward.
Trident strategic deterrent submarines, nicknamed "Boomers," carry as many as 24 Trident II D-5 nuclear ballistic missiles.
"We're there on the front line, ready to go," Commander Grimes said. Important missions, he said, are "happening every day in the deep, blue ocean."
Tridents are nuclear-powered, Ohio-class submarines. At 560 feet long and 42 feet wide, they are the largest submarines in the U.S. Navy's inventory.
Meanwhile, in the control room, Petty Officer 3rd Class Lamar Johnson, 23, sits calmly at the helmsman's station as he adroitly manipulates the yoke control that adjusts the submarine's depth and direction. At about 400 feet under the waves, the Maryland leveled off, then began ascending.
After the exercise, Petty Officer Johnson, who hails from Chicago, said piloting the Maryland underwater is a matter of "paying attention, making sure you're tracking the gauges."
Sailors volunteer for submarine duty and are among the top performers across the Navy, Master Chief McLauchlan, a 26-year veteran, said.
"There is a pretty rigid screening process to get a guy to come into the submarine force," Master Chief McLauchlan said.
New submariners are subject to stringent qualification criteria when they report to their first boat, he said, while submarine veterans experience continued certifications during their careers.
During their first year while assigned to their first submarine, enlisted members are required to earn the coveted silver "dolphins" pin that says they've learned how to function as a team member aboard their boat. Dolphins-pin recipients also must demonstrate knowledge of basic submarine operations, as well as the ability to work as a team member to put out fires and control flooding.
"They kill themselves to try to get those dolphins, because it's very important to them," Master Chief McLauchlan said of enlisted sailors aboard their first submarine. "And we make it very special when we present them. Once they get those dolphins, it's just the start for more and more for these kids."
Commissioned officer submariners also must qualify to wear golden dolphins.
About a week earlier, the Maryland's "Gold" crew under Commander Grimes' command embarked on its 53rd patrol from its home port at Naval Submarine Base King's Bay, Ga.
Trident submarines have two crews, called Blue and Gold, which rotate patrols. One crew is at sea for 60 to 90 days, while the other trains ashore. In this way, the vessels can be employed at sea 70 percent of the time, when not undergoing scheduled maintenance in port.
The USS Maryland is "a platform that is undetectable, that cannot be found, and yet, is in constant connection with the national command authorities," Commander Grimes explained. The submarine, he added, possesses "the stealth and power needed to respond to a global crisis with devastating force."
The Maryland's crew routinely performs damage control exercises, consisting of flooding and fire scenarios, as well as mock battle and strategic-deterrence drills during its patrols, so that if the real event should ever occur, "we're ready to go," he said.
As the Maryland's commander, it's important to impart to the crew "how they fit together on the ship as a team," Commander Grimes said.
"They realize the mission is relevant and they feel the importance of their job," he said. "They leave their families at home. They work long hours for me when we have the boat in for refit.
"It's all about the mission," Commander Grimes said, adding that Trident submarine sailors stay in the Navy "because they like what they do, and they are true patriots."
The Navy's attack and strategic-deterrent submarine force "is safe, secure and reliable and ready to perform its mission, 24/7," said Navy Capt. Kevin R. Brenton, who was along for part of the Maryland's patrol and is preparing to take command of Submarine Squadron 20 at King's Bay.
"We couldn't do it without the extraordinary young men that man these submarines," Captain Brenton said. "They're America's best and brightest."
Besides its 160-member crew, the Maryland also was carrying a group of journalists, who early on Feb. 15 had been conveyed by tugboat to the Maryland for a two-day orientation tour. During the journalists' visit, the submarine would be submerged for 24 hours.
A nuclear-powered Trident submarine like the Maryland produces its own drinking water and oxygen, and, therefore can remain submerged nearly indefinitely, Commander Grimes said, needing to surface only to take on food.
The Maryland's lead culinary specialist, Chief Petty Officer Tony L. Thompson, 40, said he and his staff prepare food for about 120 crew members during the course of the day. Submariners, he said, enjoy the best food in the Navy.
"We do all we can to make them comfortable down here," Chief Thompson said of his team's efforts to provide the best meals possible for the Maryland's crew.
Chief Thompson, a 20-year Navy veteran, said he enjoys the "close-knitted" camaraderie that's part of duty aboard submarines such as the Maryland.
"I could walk around and talk to anybody around here," said Chief Thompson, as he enjoyed a plate of prime rib. "Everything is 'one' crew ... because you've got to depend on everybody.
"I'm a cook," Chief Thompson said, "but at the same time, I can go and put out a fire."
Near the end of the journalists' visit, the submarine surfaced to make its rendezvous with the tugboat that would return them to shore.
A cloudless, bright-blue sky stretched across the horizon as Lt. j.g. Eric S. Spurling, Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle G. Fulmer and Seaman DeAngelo Jackson Adams pulled watch duty on the bridge atop the Maryland's sail panel, or uppermost structure. The day's temperature was unseasonably mild.
Submariners belong to "a real tight community" of sailors who perform a vital, unique mission, said Petty Officer Fulmer, 23, from Dillon, S.C.
"You have to be able to trust everybody with your life. ... Any time, anything could go wrong, and if you're beside it, you have to be ready to act on it," he said.
Seaman Adams, a 21-year-old sailor from Detroit, cracked a sliver of a smile at his machine-gun station as the breeze batted at his orange windbreaker.
He said he loves the sailor's life aboard the Maryland.
"The mission of being out to sea, under water, is just cool, you know?" he said.
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