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Mediterranean Sea Dispatch: Smooth Sailing

April 7, 2003

Getty/Mario Tama

One of the regular features of life on board the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt is the "Bully Big Stick Show"--so titled in honor of the ship's namesake--a weekly call-in program broadcast from the ship's onboard TV studio featuring the commanding officer, Captain Richard O'Hanlon, and his deputy, Executive Officer Terry Kraft. Sometime in the coming days, I am told, the show will boast a new wartime feature: declassified imagery, taken by the ship's fighter jets, of targets they have struck in Iraq. Included will be video of Saddam Hussein's Ar Ramadi palace compound on the Euphrates River just west of Baghdad and a Republican Guard barracks at Al Falluja, also outside of Baghdad. "The idea is to boost crew morale," says one officer on board.

Last Saturday, at 1:45 a.m., morale among the 5,500 people aboard the T.R. (as the ship is called) seemed in little need of boosting. Scores of sailors--some who rarely get near the flight deck--jammed a viewpoint called "Vultures' Row" to catch a glimpse of two dozen fighter and support aircraft taking off on their first combat mission for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Sporting camcorders and digital cameras, they snapped endless shots--so many, in fact, that pilots on the F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets complained to flight control that the flashes were distracting them.

"This is an historic movement for the country and for the air wing," Captain O'Hanlon announced over the ship's loudspeakers shortly before the first planes took off. The point was hardly lost on the 102 pilots on board. This is what they train for. They are the kings--and, in a few cases, queens--of the ship. Despite Iraq's recent capture of American POWs and the memory of Michael Scott Speicher, the still-missing Navy pilot who was taken during the first Persian Gulf war, these pilots are competing to fly in each of the ship's strike or support missions. "You wouldn't be a military aviator in the world's finest Navy unless you had that personality that assumed that you were going to have success. You have to plan for the worst. You have to prepare for the worst. But we go into every mission expecting success," says O'Hanlon, himself an F/A-18 pilot. Commander Anthony Gaiani, an F-14 Tomcat pilot (call sign "Gandhi") who led the F-14 Squadron VF-213 "Black Lions" in the strike on Saddam's palace, says, "I always consider it a great privilege to be in combat for my country." After returning from a six-hour mission this week, Gaiani appeared drained but nonetheless said, "I wish we could go again." A 34-year-old F/A-18 pilot, who goes by "Mongo" (after the character in Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles), has already participated in one mission but cannot wait to be selected again. "I want to get out of here right now, go jump in a plane and do what I can. And that's pretty much the way the whole squadron, the whole air wing feels." Like many people on board, Mongo is also guided by faith. "I'm happy doing this job. And, quite honestly, I believe it's in God's hands." Another F/A-18 pilot, one of the most veteran on board, says he is concerned "about the future of my country and my family." Remembering the photos he has seen of what Saddam did to the Kurds, he says, "That will get you motivated."

That motivation is a lot harder to come by for most of the enlisted men and women on board, however, whose jobs not only lack the glamour and the excitement of the pilots' but are often curiously disconnected from the conduct of the war itself. After nearly three weeks as one of eleven embedded journalists on board, I've discovered that, as a result, most of the young enlisted sailors--the vast majority of the ship's crew--are more or less indifferent to the war. They have not spent much time, on the whole, considering the merits of the confrontation, and their understanding of it is limited. On the first day of the war, I talked to a petty officer from Louisiana who specializes in electronic warfare. "So we went to war," I say. "Is it any different for you?" "No. It's really no different. We all knew it was going to happen eventually, so, I mean, it's just another day. Nothing's going to change."

And, for the most part, he is right. Here on the warship--as opposed to in the skies over Baghdad--training and fighting aren't all that different. There are always flight operations and maintenance on the jets and laundry to do and meals to cook and ordnance to assemble. Planes loudly take off and land on the flight deck, whether or not there's a war going on. And, six days a week, as planes and parts are maneuvered through the massive hangar bay, a bulky exercise coach named James continues to lead dozens of people in an intensive hour of push-ups, sit-ups, and leg lifts in a class bizarrely known as "EOD," or Explosive Ordnance Disposal--since James, when he's not helping people get into shape, is responsible for disarming live bombs. As for myself, I'm getting ready to play in a three-on-three basketball tournament.

The most palpable change as a result of the war is that we have shifted to a night schedule to allow missions to be flown from the Mediterranean Sea 24 hours a day. (Our sister carrier here, the USS Harry S. Truman, whose admiral is more senior than ours, has taken the day shift.) Here, most people wake up at 7 p.m. and go to sleep around 10 a.m., rarely, if ever, seeing daylight. Another difference is that the bombs being loaded onto the fighter jets are real GPS-guided ordnance, rather than the dummies used in practice flights.

Understandably, the question that most concerns the majority of the enlisted men and women is not when Saddam will be deposed but when the ship will return to its home port of Norfolk, Virginia. Most of them have spouses and young children. The wife of a flight-deck officer, Lieutenant Bill Ellis, gave birth a few days ago in his absence. A young female officer named Emily had to choose her wedding dress on the Internet. There are young mothers here, and, for many of their husbands, it is their first time trying to care for their children solo. (The T.R. has 800 women on board, more than any other ship in the U.S. Navy.) The cruise puts an incredible strain on marriages.

Much of the crew was aboard during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The ship set sail on September 19, 2001, and spent 159 days at sea without a port call. This time, the carrier left January 6, expecting to be at sea for a five-week exercise. Instead, they were sent to the Mediterranean for an indefinite deployment, throwing many peoples' lives into sudden disarray. Sailors can be heard whispering in the corridors about the latest rumor: They may not go home until November. And a port call soon seems out of the question--the last one was in Crete on March 7--as very few ports are considered safe enough to dock given the high level of anti-American sentiment in the area. Even Haifa, in U.S.-friendly Israel, was deemed too dangerous after a recent suicide bombing there. Beer was loaded on board in Crete--a bad sign. The U.S. Navy is one of the last "dry" navies in the world; only if the ship spends 45 straight days at sea is each person on board entitled to two beers.

A day or two before war started--it is hard to keep track of time here--I asked Petty Officer Darryl Williams, an aircraft-engine mechanic who has been with the ship's company since October 1999, what he thought about the war with Iraq. "Really, it doesn't concern me right now because we're here to do a job," he told me. "That's what we signed up for, so whatever happens, happens. If we do go to war, it's fine. If we don't, it's fine, too." I asked if he supported a military offensive to oust Saddam. "Yes and no. I do because we fight for our freedom. And I don't because it's taking me away from my family."

This article originally ran in the April 7, 2003, issue of the magazine.