Erin Tholen joined the Navy to see the world.
Now the 23-year-old Brainerd woman is one of 5,500 crew members aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. John C. Stennis heading straight into action in the Middle East. As a Navy journalist, she's found her job has quite a few perks, such as meeting celebrities like Jay Leno, Pamela Anderson and Ben Affleck.
Tholen is the daughter of Rod and Sharon Carlson of Brainerd. She married Nate Tholen, also of Brainerd, on July 21, two months before she reported for duty on the U.S.S. John C. Stennis.
Tholen graduated from Brainerd High School in 1996 and attended the University of Minnesota in Duluth. She said via e-mail this week that during her sophomore year at UMD she was unsure what she wanted to major in, but was interested in journalism. Her instructors told her the journalism program was going to be cut after the next semester, so she didn't know what to do.
"A few weeks later I was flipping through a phone book looking up a number, and came across the Navy Recruiting Station," she said. "It was something I had never really considered, or even thought about, but I got in my car and drove there. Two weeks later, I was at MEPS (Military Enlisting Processing Station) in Minneapolis."
She was 19 and enlisted in the Delayed Enlistment Program for about six months so she could finish her sophomore year of college. She enlisted as an E-3, and was disappointed when told she wasn't able to enlist as a journalist. The position was overmanned, she was told. After graduating from boot camp and seaman school, she received orders to report to Pearl Harbor Naval Station in Hawaii in the security department. She spent two weeks learning about terrorism, self-defense and other security measures by Marines, but still wanted to become a journalist.
"Then my leading petty officer at the time gave me the best advice I had ever gotten: 'Never take no for an answer. If someone tells you no, there is a 95 percent chance that someone above them in your chain of command will say yes,'" she said. "And they did."
While waiting for the results of her journalist test, she was sent to Ford Island, Hawaii, to be part of the Command Ceremonial Guard. She represented the Navy at more than 60 burials for retired Navy personnel and was in the color guard for Naval ceremonies.
The movie "Pearl Harbor" was shot near where she worked and she was able to watch many of the flying scenes filmed for the movie. She was involved with the planning of last year's Dec. 7th Pearl Harbor ceremony and gave tours to retired Navy personnel, their families and Pearl Harbor survivors at Pearl Harbor. She also had media passes to attend the movie premiere. She spent one day escorting Oakland Raiders football player Rich Gannon and his brother around the base while they were in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl, she said.
Tholen also spent her time speaking to high school students and sea cadets about life in the Navy and wrote stories for the Hawaii Navy News. She wrote about Navy life at Pearl Harbor, including leisure stories on luaus, beaches and area campgrounds.
Then she had a decision to make. She could either stay at Pearl Harbor and finish her three-year tour of duty, or extend her tour for two years to go out to sea, which is what she decided to do and signed on to the U.S.S. John C. Stennis.
"Since part of the reason I joined the Navy was to see the world, I didn't want to see myself when I was older and people were sitting around telling sea stories, and the only thing I really had to say was that I spent four years on a tiny island," she said.
When she and her husband moved to San Diego this fall, they were expecting her deployment to be in January. But along came Sept. 11, which changed everything. She left Nov. 12 aboard the U.S.S. John C. Stennis and left her new husband in San Diego.
Onboard, she said, they have a television station for the crew where they play movies and a television studio where they film messages from the captain and training videos for the crew. She is in charge of starting the ship's radio station. The radio board is currently being fixed, she said, so for now Tholen writes for the ship's daily newspaper, The Statesman. She writes only about the ship -- about the crew members, the departments and any happenings onboard.
Jay Leno came onboard Nov. 3 and filmed a two-part special for his television show and she interviewed him. He explained that he wanted to film as many crew members as possible so their families could see them.
The U.S.S. John C. Stennis has a library and game room and the Navy Morale, Welfare and Recreation Department sponsors activities like bingo night, as well as card and game tournaments, she said. They also gave them Christmas decorations for a door decorating contest.
Tholen can't say where they are right now, but they expect to be gone at least six months. They expect soon to pull into their first port, she said this week, and she is excited about being overseas for the first time.
"We all understand that there is a war going on and we are the ones who are tasked to fight it," she said. "Everyone tries really hard to keep positive. Although a lot of us didn't expect it and it came as quite a shock, we realized it is our job, what we signed up to do in the first place. None of us knows what to expect. Some people are excited; some are scared. In all, there is a good feeling around the ship, a feeling that this is the way to do our part.
"Some people clean up the rubble. Some people give blood. We do the fighting."
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