BROOKVILLE and THE USS HARRY S. TRUMAN — Christmas will be different for Jeffrey Draa and his mother, Joann, this year. Namely, they will be together during the holidays for the first time in three years.
Draa is a member of the U.S. Navy, and serves on the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, which has been at sea for the past 211 days, according to Lt. Katie Cerezo, assistant public affairs officer for the Truman. Draa has been on board for that entire duration.
While on board, he has seen Marseilles, France, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Souda Bay, Crete. He also met distinguished visitors, including singer Jessica Simpson, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan, and the country band Gloriana, Cerezo said.
One thing he has not seen during that time: His family.
That has changed now, though, as Draa, 20, and a 2009 graduate of Brookville Junior-Senior High School, arrived back in the area earlier this week.
“I’m excited beyond all belief,” Draa said last Friday over the phone while crossing the Atlantic aboard the Truman. “It’s going to be weird because I’ve been doing the same thing every day for the past seven months. I’m just looking forward to not having to worry about anything, and I’m really looking forward to seeing my mom and my grandmothers. I think it’s going to be a really good time.”
Draa has missed the last two Christmases because of his commitment to the Navy. He admitted that there might be some difficult adjustments, for example, he may have to find some way to occupy his time while others sleep.
Shut-eye is a luxury that Draa is not well endowed with. His typical day begins around 6 or 7 a.m., and shortly afterward, he begins preparations to launch jets. That lasts for about two hours, and then flights begin, continuing until about 10 p.m.
“Then we break down the equipment and clean it again to make sure all of the spaces are good to go,” Draa said. “We get done around 12 or 1 (a.m.). We get about five hours off. Usually, I stay up and get online to talk to family or see if maybe I can make a phone call.”
That is a normal day, but the crew must be ready at all times. There were times when Draa and his shipmates were called as early as 4 a.m. to begin preparations for launches due to start at 6 a.m., and that was after working until after midnight the previous day.
There are perks, however. For example, Draa has seen the sun rise while on deck, and the number of stars that he sees at night “is just ridiculous.” But if you do the math, Draa typically has only about five hours of personal time each day.
With that schedule, Draa said there is little time to make phone calls and speak with his mother. Surely, he is looking forward to sleep, but more so, he is looking forward to seeing his family. That desire was perhaps exacerbated last Thanksgiving when his father died.
“Being gone, you really appreciate your family and know how much they mean to you,” he said.
Of course, Draa may eventually get quite used to being away. He said he is considering reenlisting for another four or six years, despite the demands of his work.
“I honestly really enjoy my job,” he said. “Hours are terrible. The work is dirty. There is no way to sugarcoat it. There is no way make it sound like a pretty job, because it is not. We can be woken up at anytime. We have an alert: If he says we have 15 minutes to get the bird into the air, we have to get it done. Basically, it is the most demanding of any job that I’ve ever had.”
It is demanding in more ways than one: Not only has Draa not seen his mother in seven months, but until recently, he had to go a month without even talking to her.
“I haven’t had the opportunity,” he said, adding that calls allow him to “vent” about things that happen at work. “We listen to each others’ problems and just converse like anyone else does. It’s just there is no chance of seeing the other one.
“My family always says that they are extremely proud of me,” he said. “My mom just makes sure that she instills that she is proud, and says she wishes I would hurry up and come home.”
Initially, calls to his mother were typified by “the whole crying routine,” Draa said. “I’m an only child. She has a hard time when I’m not there.”
Joann Draa still tries to look out for her son, he said. She often asks what he needs and gives him many items that he could have easily purchased on his own, Draa said.
“She’s not quite used to the fact that I can afford my own things,” he said.
Of course, Draa isn’t used to being home for Christmas, and he is even less prepared to spend the holidays at home without his father’s presence.
“I know Thanksgiving was a big deal for her,” he said. “Holidays are always really rough when it comes to family and losing a loved one. I will be very happy to be there, not just for her but for me too. She’s kind of depending on me to help her get through, and I will be leaning on her also.”