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Call of duty: Newton Co. sailor rescues fishermen on Arabian Sea

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

CONYERS -- When David Michael Laib of Newton County signed up for the Navy, he expected hard work and adventure on the high seas. He's getting both, and he's learning that being in the U.S. military doesn't necessarily mean engaging in battle. Sometimes, it means performing humanitarian missions.

On June 21, as a sailor with the USS Winston S. Churchill naval destroyer, Laib maneuvered an inflatable boat over to a stranded dhow, an Arab sailing vessel, adrift on the Arabian Sea. There, Laib and his crew members found two dehydrated and hungry Yemeni fishermen.

They'd been on the water for 14 days, run out of fuel and hadn't had a drink or food in four days. USS Churchill crew members offered them water, food and fuel.

"Of course, (they were happy to see us), especially when we extended a helping hand, because they had a radio and could scan and listen to the channels but they had no transmitter, so they were not able to call for help," said Laib in an interview via e-mail.

Laib said that they first used hand gestures to communicate because of the language barrier. The U.S. sailors offered the men diesel fuel but after smelling it, the Yemeni fishermen expressed they needed gasoline.

The Churchill stayed with the fishermen until the Yemeni Coast Guard arrived to escort them back to land.

Laib said finding stranded boats at sea is not unusual.

"It's just about as common as broken down cars but usually people with broken down cars have the means to correct the problem, but here there is always someone who doesn't have a spare tire and needs a little help," he said.

Most likely, without the aid of the Churchill, the fishermen would have died, Laib said.

"That's why we as sailors, not just because we are military, felt compelled to help," Laib said.

A 2007 Newton High School graduate and Eagle Scout, Laib joined the Navy on delayed enlistment in 2007, completed basic training in summer 2008 and reported for duty on the USS Churchill in August 2008.

The Churchill is part of a U.S. Navy carrier strike group that contains other destroyers, an aircraft carrier, submarines, frigates and a cruiser.

On board the Churchill, Laib is a boatswain's mate whose duties include driving the ship; coordinating delivery of fuel, cargo and other supplies; directing helicopters for landings; performing watches; and doing ship maintenance such as painting and welding.

Laib's chief selected him for training as coxswain on the Churchill's VBSS, or visit, board, search and seizure, team. The VBSS team typically boards and inspects vessels of interest, focusing primarily on counter-piracy and counter-terrorism operations along with the prevention of drug and weapons smuggling, according to a press release from the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.

Laib said as VBSS coxswain he knows the "rules of the road" when navigating in the ocean, reads naval charts and safely navigates the small craft on missions.

"Boardings happen whenever and wherever my higher-ups deem it necessary to do so," said the 20-year-old who has traveled major seas including the Mediterranean, Red, Black, Baltic, Arabian and Caribbean as well as the Atlantic and Indian oceans.

Laib said the most challenging part of his job is the long hours. Sometimes he works 18 hours a day, with 30-minute sleep breaks here and there.

"I guess I take a lot of pride in working hard and knowing that whatever task or job is laid in front of me that I will get it done because it has to get done," Laib said.

Laib said leaves are "always too short" and while he can get absorbed by the excitement of his job, he does miss home.

"I never forget about where I came from and I never forget about the people I love and care for back home," Laib said. "Although I don't hear from them as much as I'd like being out here, I am busy and I'm sure they are too. Life goes on and life is good."