The ship sailed through the Strait of Hormuz and entered the Arabian Gulf on 6 January 2002. She visited Al Manama, Bahrain (13–16 January), and then came about and passed through the Strait of Hormuz on 17 January. Vella Gulf turned over her duties as TF 50 ADC for Enduring Freedom on 25 January. Capt. Ralph M. Rikard, Jr., relieved Capt. Feckler as the commanding officer on 28 January. The cruiser assumed duties as the MIO/Leadership Interdiction support ship on 3 February. Allied planners concerned about the escape of terrorists via ships from Afghanistan developed Leadership Interception Operations to catch suspicious vessels sailing off the Iranian and Pakistani coasts.
Vella Gulf intercepted coastal tanker Lina, of undetermined registry, in the Gulf of Oman (16–19 February 2002). Lina had previously smuggled Iraqi oil, but the modified and reinforced locking measures fitted around the tanker had delayed a coalition boarding party from entering and taking control of the ship prior to her escape into territorial waters. In this instance, Lina disregarded repeated bridge-to-bridge queries. Vella Gulf radioed an Iranian vessel for assistance, and the Iranian ship compelled the smuggler to enter international waters.
The cruiser intercepted Lina, but the tanker attempted to ram her. Vella Gulf backed and avoided a collision as the ships passed at a range of 150 yards. The ship dispatched her VBSS team, which included an eight-man Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment (LEDET), to board and inspect the suspect. Lina maneuvered threateningly, and a Seahawk covered the sailors while they boarded. Reinforced and welded entrances further impeded the boarders, but they secured the ship and detained 21 crewmembers. None of the boarders sustained injuries during the non-compliant boarding, and the Americans towed Lina to a holding area in the Arabian Gulf. Further investigation and inspection revealed that Lina operated as a communications ship to guide smugglers.
The ship escorted Theodore Roosevelt through the Strait of Hormuz on 23 February 2002. She visited Bahrain (24–28 February), and escorted Theodore Roosevelt when the carrier came about and returned through the Strait of Hormuz to the Arabian Sea on 28 February. Vella Gulf steamed through Bab el-Mandeb on 5 March and through the Suez Canal on 8 March. Theodore Roosevelt also passed through the Suez Canal. Earlier in the cruise, Lt. Clarence J. Ervin of Vella Gulf had shifted to Theodore Roosevelt to monitor airspace during strikes over Afghanistan. Ervin disappeared from the carrier just after roll call as she crossed the Mediterranean. Two Seahawks of Helicopter Antisubmarine Squadron (HS) 11 launched from the carrier, and an SH-60B flying from the cruiser searched into the next day, but the helos failed to locate the man overboard. Egyptian sailors discovered Ervin’s body in the water near Port Sayeed Lighthouse on 13 March. Vella Gulf visited Valletta (11–15 March), sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar and reached the Second Fleet on 18 March, and returned to Norfolk on 25 March.
Vella Gulf completed a Board of Inspection and Survey inspection (24–28 June 2002), followed by a dry dock availability and repairs at Newport News Shipyard, Newport News, Va. (1 July–27 September). The ship served as an opposition force against aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) during a JTFEx (28 October–5 November 2002).
The ship sailed to the Baltic (24 May 2003), visited Gydnia, Poland (5 June), and trained with guided missile destroyer Ross (DDG 71) and the British, Danes, Estonians, Finns, French, Germans, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, and Swedes during Baltic Operations 2003 (5–23 June). A Russian Kamov Ka-27 Helix, operating from guided missile destroyer Nastoychivyy (DDG.610), landed on board Vella Gulf several times and refueled once from the cruiser, marking the first time that a Russian helicopter accomplished these evolutions on board the ship (15 June). The exercise also included the opportunity to track two diesel-powered attack submarines—Polish Orp Sęp (SSC 295) and Swedish Hälsingland. Vella Gulf visited Kiel, Germany (20–23 June), before she returned to Norfolk on 3 July.
Capt. Michael D. Davis relieved Capt. Rikard as the commanding officer on 9 July 2003. Vella Gulf shifted berths at Norfolk to change out her No. 1B Gas Turbine Engine (11 August). Hurricane Isabel devastated areas of the Gulf and East Coasts of the U.S. during the summer, and on 16 September Vella Gulf emergency sortied to escape the tempest. The ship completed a CompTuEx (13 November–19 December), that including participating in the SinkEx (sinking) of decommissioned and stricken destroyer tender ex-Yosemite (AD 19) on 18 November.
Vella Gulf deployed to the Mediterranean and Arabian Gulf on 20 January 2004, and reached the Sixth Fleet on 24 January. She cross-decked with Canadian frigate Toronto (FFH.333), (27–29 January), and passed through the Strait of Gibraltar on 1 February. The cruiser visited Souda Bay (6–10 February) and sailed through the Suez Canal on 16 February. Vella Gulf transited the Bab el-Mandeb on 20 February, and passed through the Strait of Hormuz on 28 February. She often served as the ADC for George Washington during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Capt. Davis reported that Vella Gulf carried out her motto of “Move swiftly and strike vigorously.” The cruiser came about for “urgent missing tasking” and passed through the Strait of Hormuz on 11 March to operate in the Gulf of Oman and Indian Ocean, returning through the strait on 15 March. Vella Gulf fought in Iraqi Freedom, then visited Dubai (24–29 March).
Al-Qāidah attacked the Iraqi offshore infrastructure in the Northern Arabian Gulf on 25 April 2004. At 1730, coastal patrol craft Firebolt (PC 10) launched a Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB), manned by seven sailors, to enforce a security zone around the Iraqi Khawr Al Amaya Oil Terminal. Suicide bombers steered an explosives-rigged dhow at the terminal, but the RHIB turned to intercept the dhow. The terrorists abruptly turned their boat toward the RHIB and at 1816 triggered their explosives alongside, capsizing the RHIB. Sixteen minutes later, two other boats sped toward Panamanian-flagged tanker Takasuzu, moored at the Al Basra Oil Terminal. Task Force Shield (the garrison) opened small arms fire on the attackers. The first boat exploded alongside Takasuzu without appreciably damaging the tanker. The second boat struck the tanker to starboard but failed to explode, and broke up and sank.
The attack killed three of the sailors on board the RHIB: 27-year-old Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Michael J. Pernaselli, USN, 28-year-old Signalman 2d Class Christopher E. Watts, USN, and 24-year-old Damage Controlman 3d Class Nathan B. Bruckenthal, USCG. The explosion also wounded all of the other men on board: Operations Specialist 1st Class Alan R. Daily, USN, Communications Technician 2d Class Nathan D. Kisner, USN, Engineman 3d Class Timothy A. Carlton, USN, and 23-year-old Boatswain’s Mate 3d Class Joseph T. Ruggiero, USCG. The Navy sailors served with coastal patrol craft Firebolt (PC 10) and Thunderbolt (PC 12), and the Coast Guardsmen with LEDET 403, Tactical Law Enforcement Team South, Coast Guard Patrol Forces Southwest Asia.
Two HH-60Hs of HS-5 flying from George Washington, an Australian Sikorsky S-70B-2 Seahawk operating from frigate Stuart (FFH.153), and an MH-60S of Helicopter Combat Support Squadron (HC) 6 Detachment 6, embarked on board Supply (T AOE 6), evacuated the wounded men to Kuwait Military Hospital. George Washington also launched one Tomcat, one Hornet, three Lockheed S-3B Vikings of Sea Control Squadron (VS) 31, and one Grumman E-2C Hawkeye of Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 121 that patrolled over the Northern Arabian Gulf and southern Iraq for additional terrorists, and searched for other possible survivors of the attack blown into the water. A land-based Lockheed P-3C Orion of Patrol Squadron (VP) 47 diverted from another flight and supplemented these patrols.
Vella Gulf patrolled the Arabian Gulf when the attack occurred, and she made speed to reach the area. The cruiser coordinated and controlled the aircraft operating from George Washington, and also launched a Seahawk that protected the oil platforms. Additional vessels that reinforced the patrols in the area included guided missile cruiser Yorktown (CG 48), patrol craft Chinook (PC 9), Coast Guard cutters Adak (WPB 1333) and Wrangel (WPB 1332), and fleet ocean tug Catawba (T ATF 168).
The cruiser came about and resumed her participation in Iraqi Freedom, punctuating her operations with visits to Jebel Ali, UAE (7–12 May and 11–15 June 2004). The ship passed through the Strait of Hormuz on 3 July, and turned over her duties to John F. Kennedy and her consorts two days later. She transited Bab el-Mandeb on 8 July, the Suez Canal on 11 July, and visited Valletta (13–16 July). Vella Gulf passed through the Strait of Gibraltar on 18 July, and returned to Norfolk on 26 July. During her deployment, the ship’s VBSS team boarded and inspected about 100 vessels, ranging in displacement from tankers to dhows. The ship then visited Port Everglades (4–7 October 2004).
Vella Gulf completed two maintenance availabilities at Marine Hydraulics (19 January–22 March 2005 and 27 June–10 September 2005), including the enhancement of the Ship’s Signal Exploitations Space and replacement of the sonar dome. Capt. Stephen F. Davis, Jr., relieved Capt. Michael D. Davis as the commanding officer on 19 August. On 12 September, Capt. Davis relieved 47-year-old Command Master Chief Hospital Corpsman William Sidwell because of “fraternization” with a female junior enlisted sailor—she was reassigned to a different command.
Vella Gulf trained off the Virginia capes (3–17 November 2005). While the ship crossed Chesapeake Bay en route to the Naval Academy, Capt. Russell S. Crenshaw, USN (Ret.), spoke to the crew during an all-hands call. Crenshaw had served as the executive officer and antisubmarine warfare officer on board destroyer Maury (DD 401) during the Battle of Vella Gulf, and he offered naval combat lessons from his experience. The ship then visited the Naval Academy (4–7 November) and Mayport (11–14 November) before returning to Norfolk.
The cruiser sailed on 18 January 2006, served as a school ship at the Surface Warfare Officer’s School at Newport (23–27 January), and returned to Norfolk on 2 February. She then made for Charleston, S.C., on 8 March, and visited that city (10–13 March) before operating as an opposition force against aircraft carrier Enterprise (CVN 65) during a CompTuEx (14–20 March). Vella Gulf completed a Board of Inspection and Survey inspection during the first week of May.
The ship operated as part of Commander Carrier Strike Group 10 (17 May–6 July 2006). She embarked Aircraft No. 455 and Aircraft No. 456, two SH-60Bs of HSL-44 Detachment 1, and sailed to take part in Baltic Operations 2006 on 17 May.
That same day, two Dutch sailors, 47-year-old Robert Dirven and 50-year-old Johan Aarden, put to sea in their 41-foot sloop from Connecticut for the Azores. Fierce weather struck the boat, and 55-knot winds ripped four sails and the rigging (21–22 May 2006). The engine and bilge pumps incurred problems, the men became dehydrated, and Dirven fell down a ladder and cracked a rib. They radioed their distress to the Norfolk Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center, which alerted Vella Gulf.
When the cruiser received the message at 1030 on 22 May 2006, she had reached a position about 1,300 miles east of Boston and 62 miles from the stricken boat. She immediately came about and raced to the position. Ensign Greg Page, officer in charge, Chief Petty Officers Chaney Warrior and Steve Fortner, and Petty Officers 2d Class Aaron Haight and Greg Moon, manned a RHIB and fought 10 to 20 foot seas and 25 knot winds and rescued both mariners. The RHIB, reinforced by Petty Officer 2d Class Justin Smally, returned to the sailboat when the weather calmed and scuttled her in 2,000 fathoms of water to prevent a hazard to navigation. The cruiser then continued on to the Baltic.
The multi-national exercise emphasized the initiative for Partnership for Peace amongst the Baltic nations, and comprised 2,000 people, 15 ships, two submarines, and 30 aircraft from the British, Danish, French, German, Latvian, Polish, Russian, and Swedish forces. Vella Gulf visited Karlshamn, Sweden (2–4 June 2006), Kiel (16–20 June), Gydnia (21–25 June), and Portsmouth, England (28 June), and returned to Norfolk on 6 July.
She took part in JTFEx 06-2 Operation Bold Step off the east coast (21–31 July 2006). The multinational exercise comprised more than 16,000 servicemembers and 30 ships and submarines from five countries. The principal U.S. ships included aircraft carriers Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) and Theodore Roosevelt, and amphibious assault ships Bataan (LHD 5) and Wasp (LHD 2). Allied vessels included Colombian attack submarine Tayrona (SS 29) and French attack submarine Emeraude (S 604). Soldiers of the Army’s 34th Infantry Division and the Canadian 8th Brigade group made up the Combined Coalition Force Land Component Command during the exercise.
Vella Gulf next completed integration training with the Bataan Expeditionary Strike Group, comprising Bataan, amphibious transport dock Shreveport (LPD 12), dock landing ship Oak Hill (LSD 51), guided missile destroyer Nitze (DDG 94), guided missile frigate Underwood (FFG 36), and attack submarine Scranton (SSN 746) off the east coast (16–26 August 2006).
The ship visited Mayport (9–11 September 2006), took part in antisubmarine exercise Seawiti, and returned to Mayport (16–18 September). The ship rendezvoused with Bataan and provided nighttime fire support for marine spotters at Camp Lejeune, N.C. She then accomplished a continuous maintenance availability at Norfolk (25 September–13 October), followed by additional training with Bataan off Cherry Point (23 October–12 November).
Vella Gulf deployed with the Bataan Expeditionary Strike Group (Bataan, Shreveport, Oak Hill, Nitze, Underwood, and Scranton) to the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean on 4 January 2007. The amphibious ships embarked the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable). Vella Gulf reached the Sixth Fleet on 10 January, and sailed through the Suez Canal and entered the Central Command on 30 January. She carried out Maritime Security Operations (MSOs), which provided security and stability in the region.
A Bell UH-1N of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 264 crashed while taking part in exercise Edged Mallet ’07 with Kenyan forces at Naval Station Manda Bay, Kenya. The accident injured two of the six marines on board the Iroquois, but other marines rescued and evacuated all six of the men to Bataan. Vella Gulf passed through the Suez Canal on 1 June, visited Rota (14–20 June), and returned to Norfolk on 3 July. Capt. Mark D. Genung relieved Capt. Davis as the commanding officer on 10 August 2007.
The ship took part in Fleet Week at Port Everglades during late April and early May 2008. Vella Gulf, with HSL-42 Detachment 1 embarked, deployed as part of the Iwo Jima (LHD 7) Expeditionary Strike Group to the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean on 26 August 2008. The ship carried out MSOs and supported Iwo Jima during those evolutions.
Pirates seized Belize-flagged roll-on roll-off ship Faina, operated by Kaalbye Shipping Ukraine, off the coast of Somalia on 25 September 2008. The vessel carried an estimated $30 million of Russian military equipment. The ship’s master reportedly suffered a fatal heart attack shortly after being taken hostage, and the pirates held Faina and her surviving 20 crewmen near Hobyo, Somalia. Vella Gulf operated as the on-scene commander (OSC) and led a variety of coalition ships and aircraft that monitored the pirates around the clock.
“Our successful mission as the OSC of the M/V Faina crisis was the longest and most challenging [of the deployment]…” the cruiser’s commanding officer, Capt. Genung, recounted, “…in what became a highly-complex ransom negotiation process.” The captain noted that Vella Gulf’s operations prevented the pirates from smuggling the arms on board Faina into Somalia and saved the crewmembers. “We de-escalated several tense situations when the pirates made credible threats to the Faina hostages and Vella Gulf.”
Vella Gulf relieved amphibious transport dock San Antonio (LPD 17) as the flagship of Combined TF 151, a multinational task force that conducted counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean, on 4 February 2009. Rear Adm. Terence E. McKnight broke his flag in command of the force in the cruiser. The following day, the pirates released Faina—purportedly after receiving a ransom payment. Sailors from guided missile destroyer Mason (DDG 87) boarded Faina and provided food, water, and medical support to the survivors, while Catawba refueled the ship and replenished her fresh water supply.
Piracy continued unabated. Brigands attacked Marshall Islands-flagged motor vessel Polaris in the Gulf of Aden, and she issued a distress call at 1500 on 11 February 2009. Vella Gulf came about, made speed for the area, and captured seven pirates. At 1600 the following day, additional pirates in a skiff fired at Indian-flagged Prem Divya and attempted to board the merchantman. A Seahawk flying from Vella Gulf raced to the area and signaled for the skiff to stop. The pirates continued and the helo fired a warning shot, which the pirates also ignored. The Seahawk then fired a second warning shot and the skiff stopped. VBSS teams from Vella Gulf and Mason boarded the boat and apprehended nine more pirates, together with their weapons, including a rocket propelled grenade launcher. The cruiser transferred the 16 pirates to a temporary holding facility on board the dry cargo ship Lewis and Clark (T AKE 1).
Vella Gulf subsequently came about, passed through the Suez Canal, and in early March 2009 visited Haifa. The ship returned to Norfolk on 27 March. Capt. Mark S. Young relieved Capt. Genung as the commanding officer on 23 April. The following month, the ship took part in Fleet Week at New York. She completed a selected restricted availability at BAE Systems, South Norfolk (late 2009–March 2010).
Vella Gulf participated in Joint Warrior 10-1 in northern European waters (29 March–7 May 2010). The exercise included visits to Faslane, Scotland, and ports in Poland and Norway. The ship incurred engineering problems during the cruise, and conducted emergency repairs in dry dock at BAE Systems, South Norfolk (10 May–23 June).
Vella Gulf deployed to the Mediterranean on 8 July 2010. The ship visited Rota on 17 July, and then sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar and put in to Augusta Bay, Sicily (21–26 July). The cruiser provided ballistic missile defense across the eastern Mediterranean, punctuating her patrols with visits to Haifa (29–31 July, 1–3 August, 8–12 August, and 25 August), Limassol, Cyprus (7–10 September), Bodrum, Turkey (22–25 September), Haifa (4 October), Souda Bay (13–22 October), Haifa (4–9 November), and Kusadasi, Turkey (24–27 November). Vella Gulf next visited Rhodes, Greece (7–12 December), where heavy winds and seas pulled bollards from the pier, compelling the ship to carry out an emergency sortie. She then visited Souda Bay (22–30 December).
Relieved of her Sixth Fleet duties by guided missile destroyer Stout (DDG 55), Vella Gulf returned to Norfolk on 15 January 2011, where Capt. Mark W. Harris relieved Capt. Young as the commanding officer on 28 January The ship trained primarily for ballistic missile defense and accomplished upkeep throughout the year. Vella Gulf extended her operations during one of these training exercises to evade Hurricane Irene in August.
Vella Gulf deployed to the Mediterranean on 3 January 2012. The ship visited Rota (12–16 January), where she relieved guided missile destroyer Ramage (DDG 61) of her ballistic missile patrols in the Sixth Fleet. The cruiser then sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar, visited Souda Bay (20 January), and the following day passed through the Strait of the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosphorus, and entered the Black Sea. Vella Gulf trained with Romanian and Ukrainian units, and visited Constanta, Romania (22–25 January), and Sevastopol (26–30 January) and Odessa, Ukraine (31 January).
The ship returned through the Turkish Straits into the Aegean Sea (4 February 2012) and entered Souda Bay (5–14 February). She participated with the British, French, Germans, Greeks, Italians, and Turks in NATO antisubmarine exercise Proud Manta (16–23 February). The ship concluded Proud Manta with post exercise briefings at Augusta Bay (26–29 August).
Vella Gulf transited the Strait of Messina (11 March 2012) and completed a voyage maintenance availability at Naples (12–21 March). The cruiser visited Souda Bay (23–27 March) and then worked with the Greeks and Israelis in NATO exercise Noble Dina (27 March–5 April). The exercise included a visit to Haifa (30 March–2 April). Vella Gulf resumed her ballistic missile defense patrols and visited Souda Bay (27 April), Haifa (30 April–4 May), and Souda Bay (1–7 June and 1–5 July). The ship served as a plane guard for Dwight D. Eisenhower on 12 July. Guided missile destroyer Laboon (DDG 58) relieved Vella Gulf of her ballistic missile defense role at Souda Bay (24–26 July). The cruiser then transited the Strait of Gibraltar on 29 July, visited Rota the following day, and returned home on 11 August. Capt. Philip W. Vance relieved Capt. Harris as the commanding officer on 29 August.
Tugs took Vella Gulf under tow for repairs at Titan drydock, BAE, that lasted into 2013.
Mark L. Evans