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Sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt receive gift of handmade masks to guard against coronavirus

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) during an airpower demonstration. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Chris Brown/Released)

Stephanie Oddo was ecstatic when she got an email from a Navy lieutenant aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt on Thursday afternoon, April 23.

“I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to help us out here on TR with your masks,” Lt. Dan Willey, assistant air operations officer, wrote to the Laguna Niguel resident. “Things are difficult over here right now, but it helps tremendously to know that people back home are thinking about us. Sincerely, thank you and thank you to everyone that helped make it happen.”

For Oddo that message was huge.

“It’s validation that our efforts and hard work are worth it,” she said. Oddo, who six weeks ago started Healthcare Mask Collaborative, has also sent masks to the USNS Comfort, to Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton and to three Veterans Affairs hospitals in Southern California. “The fact that we have the opportunity to provide for those who protect us is a feeling of great satisfaction and pride.”

Just a week before, Oddo and Robert Harmon, a veteran corpsman, had partnered in the monumental undertaking of coordinating a team of sewers throughout Southern California to make more than 5,000 masks for sailors on board the nuclear-powered carrier after a widespread outbreak of the coronavirus onboard.

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Their challenge was to get everything done in three days so the masks could be shipped out on a U.S. Air Force transport plane taking other supplies to Guam where the ship was docked.

Harmon, of Long Beach, had come up with the idea after seeing news reports chronicling the spread of the coronavirus through the narrow corridors and stacked bunks of the Theodore Roosevelt. He knew from his own firsthand experience aboard the USS Ranger during Desert Storm the close quarters the sailors live in.

“I’m really happy and relieved,” he said, of the masks arriving aboard the carrier. “Anything could have happened. It’s good they made it.”

By April 15, the masks were on board a plane with Air Force Reserve pilot Jengi Martinez at the helm. Stops were made at Naval Air Station North Island, then Hawaii and finally Guam.

Navy officials announced this week that the entire crew of the Roosevelt has been tested, with 840 sailors showing positive for the virus – about 17% of the nearly 5,000 aboard. Four sailors aboard the ship are still hospitalized at the Guam Naval Base and one sailor, identified as Aviation Ordnanceman Chief Petty Officer Charles Thacker Jr., 41, died April 13 from COVID-19, the disease that comes from the virus. Thacker was from Fort Smith, Arkansas.

The ship remains docked in Guam. More than 4,000 members of its crew have been moved off the ship as the carrier is cleaned to help stop the spread of the virus.

“It means the world to us to know that American’s back home are thinking about us and are willing to spend the time to do something so kind for sailors they have never met,” Willey said in an email to the newspaper. “It helps to remind us of what makes the United States so special: Americans. We want to thank everyone that was involved in the whole process. TR will be back soon and everyone involved should know it was in part thanks to their efforts!”

Oddo wasn’t sure if she would actually hear back from the recipients on Roosevelt – she had included her contact information in the boxes. While she encountered multiple obstacles during the three days of racing to get everything ready, she knew there could be other challenges in getting the masks aboard.

“I had to lead the people to sew and they had to trust me that the masks would actually get there,” Oddo said. “Every time Jengi’s plane landed, I thought, ‘Her plane could be stopped.’ Now, it’s a mission accomplished that I will talk about for the rest of my life.”

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© 2020 The Orange County Register