By Samantha Hindman
Robert Mastraieni made his slow trek to his first assigned base. His orders were scanned, and he was allowed to step within the cold metal gates. He looked around and realized that what was meeting his gaze – a 100,000-ton aircraft carrier, the USS Kennedy. The realization of the journey’s gravity hit him all at once, and the young sailor had one thought racing through his mind: “Oh my God, what did I get myself into?”
Mastraieni was enamored by the prospect of sailing the open sea and traveling across the world. So in an effort to follow in his father’s footsteps, in 1983 at 18, he enlisted into the U.S. Navy
The USS Kennedy was where Mastraieni spent the entirety of his military tenure. When he first arrived on the ship, he had an open mind and an undesignated job. “Some guys had a plan, but I didn’t care where I went,” he said. He ended up a G4 in the weapons department, which is the individual responsible for inventory and logistics. He described the work as fulfilling but slightly boring, “like a 9 to 5 job.” But that perspective might just be because his on-board duties of cataloging and organizing paled in comparison to his experiences of adventure outside the carrier
“It’s easier to say where we didn’t go than where we went,” he began. “Spain, Italy, France, Israel, you name it.” A Catholic of Italian heritage, Mastraieni reminisced on the time he spent surveying Italy’s gorgeous countryside as well as exploring ancient tombs in Israel. Once, during a stint in England, he was able to witness the change in Parliament. “I know it’s all touristy stuff, but I definitely ate it all up,” he added.
Although Mastraieni has pleasant memories of his time in the service, that does not mean that the Navy didn’t have its fair share of dangers. Although not combat-related, living on his aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean gave way to an entirely different enemy – the elements.
To save time, the ships would often stop at sea and use long gas hoses to refuel. Because the large ships floated so closely together, occasionally the roughness of the ocean’s tides could cause two ships to nearly collide with one another. This strikes what is called an ‘emergency breakaway,’ and it is certainly no laughing matter.
“When we hear the alarm blaring, everyone just starts gasping for air hoping that we don’t collide,” Mastraieni recalled, “Not only so the ship isn’t damaged but also because these aircraft carriers contain a huge amount of jet fuel, and we obviously didn’t want an explosion.” Although he luckily never had to experience a real collision, the repetitive drills and close calls were enough to remind him of the seriousness that at times overshadowed the fun.
Through it all, the travels were made sweeter and the danger much less harsh by the company Mastraieni kept. The camaraderie shared with his crewmates is something that continues to flourish to this day, he said, comparing their bond to that of the soldiers on the series “Band of Brothers.”
“Every year we have a reunion,” he elaborated, “just to talk and laugh and cry about all of the things we did.” Better placement.
Mastraieni’s time in the service came to an end in 1986 after four long years of sailing on the USS Kennedy and tirelessly working in the weapons department. He had decided to leave despite being offered another eight-year tenure should he had chosen to accept it. “Another eight years on that boat? I loved it, but no thank you,” he said.
Now residing in Washington, Pennsylvania, and working as a hardwood floor and carpeting contractor, Mastraieni claims the hard work and discipline taught to him in the military was the key to his success. His familial legacy of serving in the Navy is carried on by his daughter Crystal, whom he continually expresses his pride in. Crystal enlisted in the Navy in 2014, serving for four years before entering the Air Force reserves in 2018.
“I think that, if they can, every young person should be in the military for a while,” he said. “It truly made me who I am today.”
Learn more about Mastraieni and watch the interview here.