Lt. Cmdr. Kyle Caldwell received the Afghanistan Commemorative Medal for his service aboard a French aircraft carrier at the French embassy in Washington. (Navy)
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Some sailors may join the Navy to see the world and learn about foreign cultures, but few get to work side-by-side with foreign sailors on a foreign ship — for more than two years.
Lt. Cmdr. Kyle Caldwell was the only American attached to the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle from February 2009 to September 2011, deploying to Afghanistan with the flattop as part of a personnel exchange program.
He is a specialist in catapults and arresting wires who has served on four U.S. carriers, and his skills translated seamlessly to the French ship, which uses a launch and recovery system purchased from the U.S.
His duties included everything from daily inspections to maintenance to consulting to serving as a flight-deck shooter.
For his performance, Caldwell received the Afghanistan Commemorative Medal —comparable to the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal — at the French Embassy in Washington on Oct. 4.
"I look at this award as a heartfelt semblance of their appreciation for the support that I provided them," Caldwell said. "Plus it's also a great achievement in my military career — not many officers can say they have received an award from a foreign military."
While the systems were similar to what he experienced on U.S. carriers, the food wasn't, Caldwell said.
"I really enjoyed the time sitting down with the other officers for lunch and dinner," he said. "We'd all sit down together and have a formal five-star dinner as if in a restaurant."
His favorite dish while at sea? "Moules et frites," or mussels and french fries.
Caldwell's biggest adjustment wasn't to the flight deck or the food — it was the language. When he decided to serve with the French navy, he did not speak any French.
He took a class in the states before leaving, but had to learn colloquial French, slang and dialects while aboard ship, he said.
While Caldwell got to experience the culture of France, he also got to share some American culture with his fellow sailors.
"They actually would have ‘Cheeseburger and French Fry Day,‘" he said. "And any time there was an American holiday, they made sure I felt at home and that I didn't skip any American holiday."
Sharing traditions made Caldwell feel like the sailors were one unit working together even though they came from two cultures, he said.
"They treated me like one of their own," Caldwell said.
Since his return to the states in September 2011, Caldwell has been stationed at Patuxent River, Md., as the Program Executive Officer of Tactical Aircraft Programs.