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Former area man commands strategic base

Mary Pickels
| Sunday, Sept. 23, 2001

Smack dab in the middle of the Indian Ocean, thousands of miles - but a dead-on missile target away - from Afghanistan, is a tiny atoll, what one former Navy man likened to Gilligan's Island.

But the island of Diego Garcia is a hub of military activity, a hub likely to soon come under the glare of a global spotlight.

And commanding the base is a 45-year-old former Westmoreland County man, a man who, 25 years ago, saw an air show and ditched a planned career in accounting to enlist in the Navy.

For the first time in his 22-year career, Capt. Michael Lucarelli - a 1974 Hempfield Area Senior High School graduate - is preparing for the likelihood of war.

And he and his staff, he said, 'are pumped up - absolutely and unequivocally. We are ready to do this. The military worldwide is pretty upset about what happened to our country. We want to get back at them.'

In a telephone interview Friday from his base, he recalled how he and his staff learned of the terrorist attack.

'It's one of those epic events that you will remember until the day you die,' Lucarelli said.

'We had just come in from a softball game,' he said. 'We are 10 hours ahead of (the East Coast), so it was around 7 p.m. I always click the television on in my quarters to see what's going on. I saw CNN showing live one of the World Trade Center buildings, with smoke billowing out.'

He said while he was showering he was wondering to himself what could have struck the building.

'Being a pilot,' Lucarelli said, 'I appreciated the beauty of the day. I couldn't understand how a plane could have hit that building inadvertently. The second I saw (footage of) the airplane hitting the building, I knew it was a terrorist attack.'

NEW DIGS

Lucarelli first arrived on Diego Garcia three months ago. He left a NATO command position in Norfolk, Va., to accept his new assignment.

'Just a chance to command is a big deal for us,' he said. 'You have to be specifically selected.'

Never having been to Diego Garcia before, he said he had some preconceived notion of the isle's isolation and how remote it is.

But although he's far from his family, he said he is glad to be positioned where he is.

'We have a chance to directly influence getting back at these bad, bad people,' he said. 'Had I still been at my (previous position), a desk job, I would have been as angry, but I would have felt impotent.'

Where in the world is Diego Garcia• Perhaps more appropriately, what in the world is Diego Garcia•

The island was developed as a joint U.S.-British air and naval refueling and support station during the Cold War.

It was a launch site for both 1991's Persian Gulf War and 1997's Operation Desert Fox.

The British territory, a tiny dot on the globe, south of Afghanistan and Pakistan, is temporary home to thousands of members of the military. The U.S. Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia is the military base from which the United States has kept its eye on potential threats, such as Iraq.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks on America by terrorists, the nation's leaders have had Afghanistan in their sights. The country believed to be harboring millionaire Osama bin Laden has been warned to surrender the suspected ringleader of the al-Qaida network.

And as Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged that 'all roads lead to' bin Laden, thousands of military reservists are being called up to respond to the attack.

Team Diego Garcia includes Navy, Air Force and Army personnel. A $500 million construction program in 1986 rendered the island fully operational. The island is 436 miles south of the equator, with a mean annual temperature of 83 degrees.

On its Web site, the U.S. Navy Support Facility is touted for its 'unbelievable recreational facilities and exquisite natural beauty.'

Downtime, Lucarelli conceded, can be quite enjoyable.

'It's absolutely lush here,' he said. 'There are rare species of birds, fish, marine life. We can go snorkeling on the lagoon side. The ocean side is off limits. There are some potentially dangerous sea life, such as sea snakes. We have sailboats, and I'm getting a paraglider here. Life is good, from that standpoint. It's beautiful. We can deep sea fish, if you like yellow fin tuna, wahoo.

'That's hard to find in Greensburg,' he said, laughing.

Lucarelli was born in Braddock, Allegheny County. He is the son of Mary Olene Baney of Lincoln Heights and Michael Lucarelli of East McKeesport. His stepfather is Joseph Baney.

He is married to the former Susan Ginacola of New Castle, a woman he proposed to just months after meeting.

'I was getting ready to transfer to Italy for three years,' he said, 'so it (proposing) was do or die. It was a real litmus test for a marriage.'

The couple, who married in 1983, are the parents of Carson, 15; Adam, 12; and Austin, 8.

'That's our one-third of a baseball team,' he said.

The family resides in Chesapeake, Va.

He has two brothers, Terry, of Greensburg and Jim, who resides in Florida.

Lucarelli attended the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, and graduated from Robert Morris College in Moon Township.

CHANGE IN PLANS

'I went to an air show around 1976-77,' he said, 'and saw some military jets flying. I thought, 'Let's see, I could become an accountant or I can do this.' It took a nanosecond to decide.'

Commissioned through the Aviation Officer Candidate School in 1979, he has served as helicopter combat support squadron, on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations and commanding officer during tours of the Mediterranean Sea and Arabian Gulf.

He also holds master's degrees from both the Naval War College and Salve Regina College at Newport, R.I.

His awards include the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal (two), Navy Commendation Medal (two) and the Navy Expeditionary Medal.

Lucarelli said his predecessors served for one year only, but he is unsure how long he may be in Diego Garcia.

'My original and current duties,' he said, 'are to be responsible for the proper operation of the base, from the airfield to the harbor to security, the whole spectrum of functions you would expect at a base. Lawyers, doctors, military folks all report to me.'

Since Sept. 11, he said, some of his autonomy has been lost.

'Events are driving my day,' he said, 'getting ready to support this operation.'

Lucarelli said certain information about the atoll is now classified. He declined to comment on the number of personnel stationed there. He also declined to confirm other Web site reports that the island is equipped with B-52 bombers and long-range cruise missiles.

He said military crews on the base range from those not long in service to those who have put in more time than his own two decades.

'Most here are not first-tour sailors,' he said.

Lucarelli stays in daily Web cam communication with his family, having brought his own computer system to the island.

Internet communication costs about 4 cents a minute, he said. In contrast, a 47-minute phone call to his wife, he said, resulted in a $503 phone bill.

Island troops are aware of the patriotism exhibited back 'home,' he said, from flags to yellow ribbons.

'We need it,' he said, noting the island held its own memorial recently. A balloon release signified America rising to the challenge being presented.

He said troops have backed President Bush, who has announced that a potential long-term war will result in American casualties.

'Across the board, there is near homogeneous pride, patriotism and eagerness to get on with getting back at the bad guys,' he said. 'It feels so good to be part of a military operation like this ... to make a direct contribution to this fight.'

His own preparation as commanding officer has involved some personal reflection.

'I have faith in God, myself and my troops,' he said. 'Everything else just sort of falls into place. I have a superb staff and a superb facility. ... The easiest part is keeping my folks motivated.'

Lucarelli called President Bush's Thursday night national address a 'perfect combination of words. He could not have said it better - his swagger, his confidence, his resolve.'

He was pleased to see Democrats and Republicans embracing.

'There was no sense of party lines,' he said. 'There was a sense of getting on with what is bigger and of more importance.'

Lucarelli said that since the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, the United States has had to consider the threat of terrorism.

Beirut is the closest Lucarelli has yet come to direct combat.

Shortly after the bombing, he was part of a contingent flying into Lebanon to pick up Robert McFarlane, national security adviser during the Reagan administration.

As they awaited McFarlane's arrival, he said, 'We could hear small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades. It was definitely being bracketed toward the air base.'

'Bracketing' is a military term referring to the interval between the ranges of two rounds of artillery fire, used to find the correct range.

After McFarlane was aboard and the crew had its 'feet wet' (were over water), Lucarelli said he and the former security adviser had the same adrenaline-fueled reaction.

'We both had a smoke,' he said, laughing.

Terrorism has moved, he said, from 'an anticipated' to a 'real' threat.

'We cannot assess if this was a first strike, or one-time only,' he said. 'The information we are expecting is that it is not a one-time event.'

He said the military is looking at the potential of another occurrence, likely targeting government population and facilities.

'We realize the military alone is not the answer,' he said. 'We are part of a pronged attack working with our allies and the full range of government functions.'

Messages of support, he said, make the troops' jobs easier.

'I've gotten lots of e-mail from friends, family, neighbors,' he said. 'They are standing behind us 100 percent.'

He noted that the military considers itself the nation's public servants.

'From a military standpoint,' he said, '(the support) is like owning a business and having nothing but happy customers.'

Lucarelli said he and his family try to visit their relatives in Pennsylvania at least once a year. Their last time home, he said, was last Christmas.

'Hopefully, we'll come home next summer, if things go OK,' he said. 'I won't be there this Christmas, that's for sure.'

Chesapeake, he said, is a great place to live.

'But it does not have the seasonal changes and terrain of western Pennsylvania,' he said. 'I wouldn't be unhappy, if things worked out, if I could retire there (western Pennsylvania).'

Asked if he had any messages for friends and family back home, Lucarelli said, 'Keep us in your prayers.'

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