CRYSTAL LAKE – Andrea Wells went from scanning merchandise at Costco to maintaining some of the world’s most advanced jets on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean.
The 28-year-old Crystal Lake resident said a “quarter-life crisis” led her to join the Navy, but it ended up being the best decision of her life. By the time her service came to an end a couple of weeks ago, she left with multiple awards, including Plane Captain of the Year on her ship and two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement medals.
Even the EA-6B Prowler she maintained donned her name and her hometown.
After two deployments that took her from Malaysia to Thailand and the United Arab Emirates among others, the Prairie Ridge High School graduate sat down with Northwest Herald reporter Jeff Engelhardt to talk about life at sea, maintaining a $50 million jet and what she plans to do now that she has returned to civilian life.
Engelhardt: So what inspired you to join the Navy as opposed to the Marines or Army or some other branch?
Wells: Well, the Air Force didn’t call me back [laughter]. It just sort of happened very fast. I talked to a recruiter on a Friday and the following Thursday I was sworn in. I shipped out 34 days later. I just wanted to get out and do something else. In the grand scheme of things it was only four years. I wasted six years out of high school not knowing what I wanted to do. It worked out really well.
Engelhardt: What were some of your responsibilities?
Wells: My job when I started was aviation electrician, so on the aircraft carrier I was a brownshirt, which you see in videos. But the big thing we did was launching and recovering aircraft. As plane captain, I was the first and last person to handle the plane before saluting the pilot and turning it over to him. It’s a big responsibility. You’re the last one to check it before it launches off a catapult.
Engelhardt: How was it adjusting to life on the water?
Wells: We did two deployments on the USS John C. Stennis and one was seven and a half months, and the other was eight and a half months. It was difficult to adjust at first. We had a room about the size of a one-car garage where about 30 girls slept. It’s like living with 30 sisters. You do your best not to upset each other. The food was terrible on the ship though, I don’t care what anybody says. But they train you to have this mentality that you just do it. And I did meet a lot of great people.
Engelhardt: Were you ever nervous or scared being out on the water or during missions?
Wells: I actually felt really safe on the ship. The carriers are so big and there are 4,500 people out there with you. Nobody would mess with a carrier. There is a sense of camaraderie where you learn to trust everyone no matter what their job is. There are people on the ship I never met but I knew somewhere along the line they were keeping me safe.
Engelhardt: What did winning those awards mean to you?
Wells: Well, some of the ribbons you get are for small things like finishing boot camp so it doesn’t mean as much. But earning the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals was special and they’re my highest-ranking ribbons. Some people go eight or nine years without ever earning one and I got two in four years so I think that’s pretty awesome.
Engelhardt: Now that you’re back, what are your plans? Do you think your experience in the Navy will help you going forward?
Wells: I got accepted into DePaul and will be going for business management and HR, which is what I always wanted to do. Working on jets was never a life goal or a dream but it was a pretty awesome adventure. I have the utmost admiration for people who can be in the military 20 years because it’s tough.
But to work on a $50 million jet gives you confidence and now I know I can do anything. I had the opportunity to work with such a diverse group of people over the last four years and met some of the most extraordinary leaders I will ever cross paths with.
Who is she? Andrea Wells, Navy veteran who served two tours on the USS John C. Stennis and earned Pilot Captain of the Year.
Hometown? Crystal Lake
Favorite hobby? Cooking.
Favorite food? Portillo’s. She had dreams of Chopped Salad while at sea.
Favorite band: “Modern Day Romeos”