(Published by Associated Press)
ROME (NNS) -- Twenty-three Sailors and Marines aboard amphibious dock landing ship USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41) received a blessing from Pope Benedict XVI during a visit to Rome Jan. 18.
The group traveled from Naples to Rome to attend Pope Benedict's weekly Wednesday general audience at Vatican City.
The pope welcomed groups from all over the world and then specifically mentioned the U.S. service members. "I also greet the group of Sailors and Marines from the United States and accord to you and your families God's abundant blessings."
Regardless of their faith, Whidbey Island service members responded warmly to the Papal blessing.
"My whole family is Catholic, and I am currently studying to fully enter the Catholic church, but I am the one who gets to see him before they do." said Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class (FMF) George Serrano. "Seeing him give a shout-out to the Sailors and Marines-it was just an awesome experience. Also, listening to him [greet a group] in Spanish-that definitely made me feel like I was at home."
"For someone who is not Catholic, it was still an overwhelming and an amazing thing to know that someone, such a high and popular person, is welcoming you in front of all these people," said Cpl. Weston Sherwood, from Whidbey Island's embarked 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit.
Following the general audience, service members toured St. Peter's Basilica and the excavations under the basilica, known as "The Scavi Tour", which ended at the bones of St. Peter, the first pope of the Catholic church.
Later, service members toured some of Rome's most famous sights, such as the Roman Forum, Coliseum, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, the Pantheon and Piazza Navona.
"Rome is probably one of the places I've been dreaming about visiting for a while," said Operations Specialist Seaman Sierra Spencer. "[This] ranks number one on the liberty ports we've visited."
"It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences," said Cpl. Evan Carrillo. "It was overwhelming at first, seeing all those sights, and all the history surrounding them. I still feel that sense of being overwhelmed. I'm going to have to look through all the pictures I took to be like, 'Oh yeah, yeah...I remember when we saw this or that'."
After more than 300 days away from family and loved ones, the visit to Rome and the Vatican provided unforgettable moments for some Sailors and Marines.
"I think the highlights of the visit for me would probably be a mix of seeing the Coliseum and seeing the Pope, because the Pope is such a huge figure in the world-one of the few people that everybody knows-and to actually see him in person, and hear him reading the Scriptures to the audience...that was pretty awesome," said Sgt. Renn Shaver. "And the Coliseum, because obviously I'm a Marine so of course I love that kind of stuff!"
"It was the best experience in my life-truly amazing," said Serrano. "Out of all the ports we visited, this was the best one. The highlight for me was seeing the pope - you don't get a shout-out from the pope every day, right? It's not just some random guy saying, "Hey" or "God bless you", you know? It's the pope! You don't go much higher than that."
Whidbey Island deployed March 23, 2011 as part of the Bataan Amphibious Ready group. Whidbey Island has spent the past nine and a half months supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet areas of responsibility.