Command Master Chief Sharon "Shay" Fortson never felt more frightened than when the United States fired on Iraq, launching the 1989-90 Gulf War. Patrolling near the combat zone, she wore a gas mask and chemical protective gear for hours - even in the shower. "I handled that moment the same as I do now - by praying," says Fortson, 46. "And I have learned over the years to face such challenges head on. Deal with it and move forward."
Next week, Fortson, a former Chattanooga High School salutatorian, will enjoy a much more peaceful patrol of our shore at this month's Riverbend Festival. She will be among the scores of sailors billeting here for Navy Week, including Regional Command Master Chief Nancy Patterson Hollingsworth, a 1984 Red Bank High School graduate.
A traveling boatload of a promotion, Navy Week tethers itself to civic events and festivals in about 20 American cities a year: Leap Frogs (U.S. Navy special operations forces) parachute into performances, divers swim with the sharks at the Tennessee Aquarium, a flotilla of admirals hobnob with the Rotary, Lions and mayors.
Fortson and Hollingsworth will also team up to visit girls in the innercity Girls Inc. program, compete in a 4,000-child YMCA Fitness Challenge and race in the Blue Cross Riverbend Run & Walk. "We have an exciting week planned for Chattanooga," says Lt. Cmdr. Sarah Blansett, Chattanooga's Navy Week Officer in Charge.
Like other high school girls, Fortson and Hollingsworth chased boys, ate funnel cakes and giggled with friends at Riverbend. "I have many great memories of watching my mom and step-dad in the raft race," says the 44-year-old Hollingsworth.
But both women capsized their collegiate careers early on. After three years at the University of the South, Fortson quit school when Georgia Tech rejected her application for engineering studies. "Mad at the world, I elected to head crosscountry," says Fortson. "When I ran out of money, I joined the Navy."
Because her parents could not afford college tuition, Hollingsworth enrolled in Chattanooga State Community College. She, too, went AWOL. "I was more interested in making money to party than studying, and I was driving my mom crazy," she says, "so I went down to the Navy recruiting station and joined up - I was ready to go."
Over the years, Fortson and Hollingsworth rose through the ranks, scored honors and meritorious service and achievement medals, earned bachelors' and masters' degrees and excelled in athletics.
Today, Hollingsworth supervises 1.6 million acres of shore installation, recently helping to relocate 7,700 families after the recent tsunami in Japan. Fortson, like other Master Chiefs Petty Officers, gauges sailor morale and battle readiness. She is currently posted on the destroyer U.S.S Sampson.
As she prepares to "man up" her Riverbend booth, Fortson assembles her talking points. Of the Navy's recent victory over Osama bin Laden: "I have mixed feelings - I understand my role as a military member is to kill and I, like the SEALs, will do so when I must. But now the world is a safer place and I am grateful."
She would rather tally the military's benefits: free college tuition, skilled trade training, steady promotions, 30 days of paid vacation each year, world travel, a place to grow up. "The Navy provides a better quality of life for many people," says Fortson, "in a time when life isn't necessarily all roses."
Shopping is her favorite part of sailing - from purses in Italy to coffee tables in Thailand, says Fortson. "I've also had my nails done and gotten pedicures and massages in some of the best spas in the world."
Humanitarian projects, however, add spiritual sustenance to sometimes tedious tasks. "I have participated in many community relations projects in orphanages and with missionaries to build hope in the lives of people," says Fortson. "If that's not cool, I don't know what is."
Sailors often feel lonely, adds Hollingsworth. Yet, as in the classic "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," they often submit to the ocean's charms. "I loved being at sea - watching an F-18 fighter jet take off from an aircraft carrier, seeing beautiful sunrises and sunsets," she notes. "It's these moments of wonder that keep you coming back."
In the end, what will Fortson's take-away message to Riverbend revelers be? With its responsibilities, leadership opportunities, world travel and skills training, she decides, it will be this: "The Navy has not been just a job or an adventure - it's been a life-altering experience."