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And all the ships at sea

From the sublime to the ridiculous. One day, it was celebration in
San Francisco. Fleet Week and the Navy and a great port reception!
Less than a week later, it was another Fleet Week on the other side of
the country, but celebration was not the word. It was somber and
tear-stained. This was not the way to celebrate the 225th birthday of
the United States Navy.

Purely by coincidence, I found myself immersed in the Navy this
week. The first part of the story was that, in preparation for Fleet
Week, the aircraft carrier USS Constellation was out in the Pacific
steaming toward San Francisco to take part in the Parade of Ships under
the Golden Gate Bridge on Friday, Oct. 6. She would then be available
for the public to visit. But before that, it was sailing to San
Francisco, and I would be onboard — staying overnight at that!

The other part of the story relates to the bombing of the USS Cole.
When I heard that a Navy destroyer had been hit by a terrorist attack in
Yemen, I recalled that this past winter I’d been fortunate enough to
have had a tour of a destroyer, the USS Higgins, when it was in port in
San Francisco.

At first, since I didn’t have the name of the ship, I feared the
bombed vessel was the one I’d been on. As it turned out, it wasn’t, but
the two ships were identical, so I felt a connection that doesn’t
usually occur with tragic news stories.

As a result of my visit to the Higgins, I knew what the Cole looked
like, what it felt like, what it was like inside. I knew what part of
it blew up and could only imagine in my worst dreams what it looked like
after the explosion ripped its heart open, viciously and cruelly ending
the lives of 17 young people.

Working in news, as I have for many years, you get used to talking
about tragedies with a level of separation. You have to do that, just
as doctors and emergency workers and police do, in order to maintain
professionalism and sanity.

But in this case for me, the line of separation had a tendency to
blur. Not because of my tour of the USS Higgins several months ago but
because of my on-board stay on the Constellation scarcely a week before.

It was much more than a media visit; it became a look at a ship and
the crew which inhabit it and make it live and breathe. It became an
experience I never anticipated would be so profound nor one which would
change me to a depth I would not have thought possible.

It was a wonderful surprise when I received a special invitation to
join the crew. We would fly out to the ship on a COD — not a fish, but
a “Carrier Onboard Delivery” aircraft, technically a C-2A Greyhound. We
would depart from a business airport near the Oakland International
Airport along with an eclectic group of people ranging from media folks
to aviation people to business PR types.

We met early Thursday morning and after the usual military hurry up
and wait, we got the safety briefing and the gear. With our flotation
jackets, helmets and ear protection, we all looked like we knew what we
were doing. Don’t let the look fool you!

To call the plane functional is exactly right. A seat, safety belts,
head rest and floor. Window seat? Forget it. Only two windows and
none of us had one. You sit facing the rear. Leg room? Forget
it? Heat? Forget that, too; it was chilly. But it was the smoothest
flight I’ve ever been on. What they say about those military pilots is
right. We started taxiing and I never even knew we took off until my
ears started popping.

We got briefed for the landing on the carrier — sit up, head back to
the seat, feet flat on the floor and arms crossed on your chest, hands
grasping the safety straps. Then, T-H-U-N-K. Boom! WHOMP! The plane

Whew, and there we were, on a ship that’s like a city, 17 stories
high with a 4.5 acre flight deck. It’s a ship that houses a crew of
more than 5,000, that provides for all their needs from food and sleep,
to medical and recreation, to e-mail and laundry and chapel and, of
course, their daily jobs.

And what jobs they are. The most visible were, of course, the men
working on the flight deck. Not only were there the pilots but the
different crews who made sure those planes were ready and safe and able
to take off. And that they did — all day and through most of the night.
It’s a routine that keeps them all in training for what they might be
called on to do in a military situation.

All the while this was going on, hundreds of others kept the ship
going — operations, maintenance, safety, supply, navigation, legal,
weapons, training, medical/dental, engineering — and more jobs than you
can imagine.

On the flight deck, it’s another world. You can’t imagine what it’s
like. I had the chance to see it from the bridge with Capt. James
Kelly, the commanding officer, handling the details of the takeoffs and
landings. I also watched from outside and also, from right on the flight
deck, just feet from the jets as they went from zero to 150 mph in two
seconds! Looking into the jet engines as they sped past was like
looking into the heart of the sun. The heat they threw off was like a
hot desert wind. Get too close and it could kill you.

It was like organized chaos but with lives at stake. The captain
said the last guy to give the OK to the pilot to take off has the most
dangerous job in the world — standing that close to a jet roaring at full throttle, ready to be catapulted off the deck out over the ocean into

The varied crewmembers wear different color vests to designate their
job and they communicate over headset and handheld radios and hand/arm
sign language.

The deck appeared to be a swirl of aircraft — F-14s, F-18s, Seahawk
helicopters, Prowlers, AWACS and more. Wings folding up and down and
back and under, planes turning on a dime, equipment, gauges, trucks and
people. Watching it in daylight was amazing; at night, it was surreal.

It was a windy pitch-dark night, low clouds obscured the moon and
stars. The deck barely lighted with small, orange lights. The crews
carried colored flashlights, which they used to signal each other and
the pilots. The planes got into position, their engines roared, the
catapult snapped and they were gone, with a deafening roar and the only
visible part of them the one or two circles of white-hot jets. It was
mesmerizing; it felt like I was looking at everything in slow motion
through water.

Even more bizarre was the planes landing, because it was silent. The
sound was behind them not in front, so we heard nothing. And we saw
nothing because they had no lights. Suddenly, at the end of the deck,
from out of the blackness of the sea and the night, like a mysterious
silent bird, the plane suddenly swooped in to snag one of the four
arresting cables which would pull it to a stop. Just in case, the pilot
keeps it at full throttle. If he misses the wires, the plane just keeps
going and goes airborne again, circles and tries the landing again. Of
all the sorties that day and night, I saw that happen only twice. I tell
you those pilots were good.

And young — in their early 20s, with the usual bravado and courage
of youth that enables them to treat taking off and landing huge and
expensive planes on a ship in the middle of the ocean with a landing
area that looks like a postage stamp. It’s probably just as well I
didn’t have a window seat when we landed!

By the way, while I didn’t get a chance to take off from the deck, we
did land and so I am eligible to join the Tailhook Association. I plan
to do just that and will consider it an honor. In addition, I was given
a certificate by the captain naming me a special member of the crew of
the “Connie,” a status I treasure.

And what a crew — and are they young! I know, we always say
that, especially those of us over 30. But they are; so many are just
teen-agers. In the hanger that night, we watched a group going through
some training for fire rescues. This gang of young guys, standing
around in shorts, tennis shoes and t-shirts looked like any bunch of
kids in a gym in any high school or on a street corner.

I looked at them and realized these are the men we ask to
protect our country. These are the men the president can (and
does) send anywhere, for whatever reason, to defend our country. Or, as
we ask them today, to keep the peace. These are the men we expect
to give their lives, if need be, to fulfill their commitment to the
service and their country.

These are kids. Put them on a street corner and they are just kids.
But they made a choice to serve us and we are not keeping up our part of
the deal. As Capt. Kelly told me, we pay them $8 thousand a year, and
it’s not enough.

He’s right. It’s insulting. They have to pay for their food and their
uniforms; they are asked to work with not quite enough supplies, with
not quite adequate training, in longer tours of duty, under
circumstances that the military should not have to endure with missions
that are neither clear nor proper.

And then the USS Cole blew up, and the reality hit home. I read the
list of the dead. Kids. Someone’s son, brother, daughter, sister,
spouse, father. Dead. I read their names and looked at their pictures
and wept. They gave freely of their dedication and put their well being
in the hands of the leaders of this country. They were let down.

Why was that ship there? Why was it not protected? Why was the
showing of the flag more important than the reality of security? Why did
we ignore the threat of terrorism? Why do we let politics get in the way
of common sense, of intelligence — military and otherwise?

The bodies will come home, draped in our flag. The president and
others will nod somberly and say the words, but it won’t change a
thing. At least not now. Not as long as the people in power who make
the rules regard the men and women in our military like pieces of
equipment to be moved around on the chessboard of politics to meet an
agenda they never signed on to.

The shock of the deaths will pass. But it shouldn’t. Where
is the outrage? What will it take to have the people of this
country get properly angry? What will it take for us to demand that
those representing us do right by us? We must demand they do right by
our children.

Those kids on the Constellation and the Cole and the Higgins
and all Navy and other military facilities are the men (and now,
women) the politicians and bureaucrats send in harm’s way. It’s a
dangerous world and we owe those kids — those men and women — every
precaution and protection possible. We can’t guarantee their full
safety, but full and honest support is the very least we can provide.

In the case of the Cole, the politicians failed. It wasn’t the first
time, and I fear it won’t be the last. God help us and our kids and our