Sitting in the cockpit of an F/A-18 Hornet on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier at night can be an awe-inspiring experience. You can see the determination on the faces of the support crews as they ensure your bird is ready to fly.
If you’re LT Johnnie “Cooter” Caldwell, naval aviator, you whisper a prayer as you settle into your seat. After a last salute, the catapult underneath launches your plane with engines at full throttle, speeding you down the deck until you lift into the air at incredible velocity. Caldwell and his family are members of London Bridge Baptist Church in Virginia Beach, Va. He deployed with his squadron, the “Gunslingers” of Strike Fighter Squadron One Zero Five (VFA-105), to the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) almost four months ago. While the separation from family is hard, Caldwell knows he’s right where God needs him to be.
“I wanted to be a pilot as early as 6 or 7 years old,” said Caldwell, resting in his squadron’s ready room before heading to bed before his next mission. “My granddad, we called him ‘Old Salty,’ was a retired Navy chief and he was the one who convinced me to join the Navy instead of the Air Force. [He] told me if I went Air Force and had to eject from my plane, I’d be jumping into mountains or trees. If
I went Navy, at least I’d land in water,” Caldwell jokes.
The challenge and thrill of launching from and landing on aircraft carriers is what especially attracted the Thomaston, Ga., native to the Navy. A graduate of the Naval Academy, 29-year-old Caldwell is about to complete his seventh year as an aviator and his third year of flying Hornets. The nation’s first strike-fighter aircraft can travel up to speeds of Mach 1.8 and “pull” seven and a half times the force of gravity (7.5 “Gs”). When his missions are completed and he has some downtime in his stateroom, Caldwell’s thoughts often turn to his wife Tammy, his daughter Hailey, 8 and his young son Tyler, who just had his first birthday. He gives a lot of credit to Tammy for keeping the family unit strong. “She pretty much lives the life of a single mom right now,” Caldwell acknowledged. “When e-mail is running, we write pretty regularly. She tells me everything going on at home–like how Tyler took 10 steps the other day.”
Although he invited Christ into his heart at the young age of 11, Caldwell said priorities shifted away from church when his interest in flying hit a peak in high school. He credits his wife with bringing him back into a closer relationship with God. “I went to the same church all of my life and so when I left home for school, it was really hard to go off and find another church,” he said. “But Tammy expected it, right from the first date, that we’d go to church together. And we did.” Accountability plays a large part in the couple’s relationship. They encourage each other not to miss a service and Caldwell will frequently e-mail his wife about the notes he’s taken from a Sunday service on board the ship, or about a passage of Scripture or book he’s read.
Their Sunday School class at London Bridge also plays a strong supporting role for Caldwell, his wife and family by sending e-mails to Caldwell and keeping Tammy busy with fellowships and get-togethers. It feels good to know he is always on their prayer list.
“This past month has been pretty hard as things have heated up around here,” said Caldwell, referring to Operation Iraqi Freedom. “You start feeling the anxiety–not the fear–the anxiety of what you’re getting ready to do. The more you let it take control, the more it overwhelms you. I pray a lot about not worrying over things.”
Mercy Me is the CD playing over his headphones when he works out, the exercise providing some physical stress relief. Caldwell knows that his is a dangerous occupation. It’s a necessary job that nonetheless has moral implications. It’s clear that he’s done a lot of thinking about it. “I always pray that whatever I do, that God would be the priority and He would be in control,” Caldwell said. “No one should ever take pride in the loss of human life.” Caldwell believes he has to trust the authority God has over him. “I have to trust the leaders who’ve ultimately given me my mission and believe that it is in the best interest of the country,” Caldwell said. “I trust that God is working through our nation’s leaders. I pray for the president and my other leaders quite a bit because I know that their decisions directly affect me.”
Caldwell admits that he thinks about death a lot more now that he’s a husband and a father. But he relies on God to protect him and give him the opportunity to come back home. He is grateful for the chaplains on board who lead the services and stand by on the deck when they fly out.
He is strengthened by the text in Ephesians 6 about putting on the whole armor of God. “It talks about your breast plate of righteousness, your shield of faith, your helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit,” Caldwell said. “It says that the reason why we must take up the full armor of God is to resist the evil one, and having prepared everything, you take a stand.” He turns his face away momentarily and pauses. When he turns back, his face reflects an understanding, a sense of commitment, about the calling–however risky, however hard–he feels God has given him. His steady voice resonates with patriotism and honor, and the commitment he has made to serve and fight for a country that allows him the freedom to pray and worship. He clears his throat and repeats what he just said. “It says for us to stand I really like that.”