Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Caribbean Princess Veterans Charity Cruise

Senior Officer Panel with Mr. Buckelew
What an honor and privilege it was to sail on the Princess Cruises' Veterans Charity Cruise  "Cruising for a Cause" last week! This event on the Caribbean Princess marking Veterans Day raised funds for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and Operation Homefront and was hosted by Princess President and CEO Alan Buckelew, himself a Vietnam veteran. Although the cruise was way too short at only four nights long from Houston and one port of call, it was packed with special presentations and Q & A sessions by military brass and their spouses, service branch get-togethers, a military film festival, and even a 5k walk led by Mike “Flagman” Bowen carrying his signature POW/MIA flag. This military veteran was so moved when visiting the Vietnam Memorial Wall that he began his quest to log 58,272 miles, one mile for each American killed or lost as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and completed his quest September 20, 2013. (And I wondered if the 5k back and forth on one side of the ship would ever end!)

The Senior Officer Panel included Admiral Michael Mullen, USN (Ret), 17th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; General George W. Casey, Jr., US Army (Ret), 36th Chief of Staff, US Army; General James T. Conway, USMC (Ret), 34th Commandant, US Marine Corps; Admiral James Loy, USCG (Ret), 21st Commandant, US Coast Guard; Admiral Gary Roughead, USN (Ret), 29th Chief of Naval Operations; and General Norton Schwartz, USAF (Ret), 19th Chief of Staff of the US Air Force.

With great pride, I told Gen. Conway about my own connection to the Marine Corps. My second cousin, General Louis Wilson is one of his predecessors as Commandant and also a Medal of Honor recipient. Just a good ol’ boy from Brandon, MS, who made it to the top of his ranks.

With Maj. Gen. Vautrinot and Col. Crandall
(third and fourth from left)
Those on the slate of guest speakers brought equally impressive credentials. I won’t list them all, but we especially enjoyed hearing Major General Suzanne Vautrinot, USAF (Ret) and Former Commander, 24th Air Force and Commander Air Forces Cyber Command, who gave an excellent presentation in layman’s language of cyber and security threats posed not only to the military but to us as citizens. She currently resides in San Antonio, and some of our group enjoyed an impromptu visit with her and her husband, AF veteran Bill Keller, who served on the military spouse panel. As we gathered for a group photo in the Piazza, we saw Medal of Honor Recipient Colonel Bruce Crandall, US Army (Ret) and invited him to join us. 

Robert W. “Bob” Patrick who is Director of the Veterans History Project encouraged all of us help his office gather oral histories of our living veterans. And we learned the history of “Taps” and other bugle calls from Jari Villanueva, USAF/USAF Band Director (Ret), who is considered the country’s foremost expert on military bugle calls.

Those of us "women" (okay, I said it) coming from the previous Officers Wives Club era were very gratified in hearing from today's military "spouses" about the numerous networking, support, service opportunities, and assistance organizations available to military spouses now, as well as learn of some of their individual accomplishments.  It is truly a different world and military lifestyle these days, but change has evolved in ways we can be proud--our own wonderful personal memories notwithstanding.

On the lighter side of things, country singer and US Army veteran Rockie Lynne added his talents to the normal Princess
lineup of singers, dancers, and comedians and drew big crowds at both of his performances.
Eight couples joined Ben and me in our little group, and all were military veterans with one active duty Army officer
Veterans Welcome at Progreso
about to return to Afghanistan.  (God speed, Kevin.)  Our personal attendance was almost an afterthought since we already had a busy travel schedule this fall. However, we’re so glad we went and only regret ot doing a better job at spreading the word particularly in the San Antonio area. 

This sailing was the very first from the new Bayport Cruise Terminal in Houston. The terminal itself is very nice, but as with any first sailing there are some kinks to resolve with logistics such as signage to the port and parking, which we trust port officials will address. The Caribbean Princess sails from Houston through April 2014, and the Emerald Princess takes her place in mid-November 2014. The Norwegian Jewel debuts there the month prior in October 2014, so the pace will be picking up for Houston departures next fall, and we'll watch for those improvements. Just note that if you’re sailing from Houston you should go by the address posted on the Bayport website, since our GPS had trouble locating the address as listed. The Port of Houston is primarily a commercial port without the tourist infrastructure in place at Galveston. That said, there are several hotel chains like La Quinta in nearby La Porte, Pasadena, and Seabrook, and even more near Houston Hobby and the greater Houston area.

Chichen Itza
As far as the ship itself is concerned, the Caribbean Princess is in pretty good shape, although she’s a little worn around the edges in some places. The Piazza area is still topnotch, though, with the Vines wine and tapas bar, International Cafe, and entertainment area. Although the weather was a bit nippy going and coming, Movies Under the Stars was in full force on the top deck, sometimes playing military themed hits. Food was very good, and our servers, most accommodating. One of our favorite Princess signature production numbers is “Piano Man,” and this dance troupe did not disappoint. Great music! Comedian Cary Long was a delightful surprise. He had us laughing at his jokes AND ourselves!

Our lone port of call in Progreso gave some of us a first-time opportunity to visit the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. Incredible. Although Ben and I have visited several ports in Mexico, Progreso was new to us. Nearby is the colonial city of Merida that I’d also love to visit one day, but time did not permit on this trip. Even the Port of Progreso got into the veterans theme with a lovely huge welcoming mural on the terminal wall.

We salute Alan Buckalew and Princess Cruise Line for putting this classy event together and look forward to a longer version next year and beyond!

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