Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speaks to the crew of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), Aug. 22 in Bremerton. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kenneth Abbate)

BREMERTON, Wash. - The flagship of the John C. Stennis Strike Group (JCSSG), Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), will depart Monday, Aug. 27, to begin an eight-month deployment to the 7th and 5th Fleet areas of operation.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke here Wednesday with the crew of the ship to thank them for the extraordinary effort to prepare for this upcoming deployment.

"I understand that it is tough," said Panetta. "We are asking an awful lot of each of you, but frankly you are the best I have and when the world calls we have to respond. You are the heart and soul of our national defense. You are the heart and soul of what makes America strong. That's why I'm here. To thank you for what you do to help keep America the strongest military power in the world."

JCSSG is returning to the U.S. 7th and 5th Fleet areas of operation four months ahead of schedule in order to maintain combatant commander requirements for the presence in the region. Stennis returned in March from its most recent deployment.

JCSSG is comprised of the USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 9, Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 21 and USS Mobile Bay (CG53). CVW-9 consists of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 8, Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 71, and Fleet Logistics Combat Support Squadron (VRC) 30 from Naval Air Station (NAS) North Island, Calif.; Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 14, VFA-41, VFA-97, and VFA-192, from NAS Lemoore, Calif.; and Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 133 from NAS Whidbey Island, Wash.