This weekend, the San Francisco Bay area is celebrating Fleet Week again. Yeah! It was canceled last year because the government had money problems – the sequestration and all that.
It was missed, and the fact that the U.S. Navy will be on full display again on the Bay is something to cheer! The program of events has everything – the Parade of Ships under the Golden Gate Bridge, the Blue Angels and their masterful piloting expertise, the Marines, the air show, K-9 Heroes, the tours of ships, music, food and good times for all.
It all began back in 1908 with Teddy Roosevelt's "Great White Fleet," supporting our Navy. Later Fleet week was dropped but in 1981, it was revived when Dianne Feinstein was San Francisco mayor.
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In the year 2000, I had a wonderful opportunity to be on board the lead ship, the aircraft carrier USS Constellation, as it sailed from the Pacific Ocean under the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco Bay.
I wrote about it in my first WND column and when I learned Fleet Week was back this year, I decided to re-read my column.
I was amazed at my thoughts at that time, but also at my reflections on the people in our military and the way the government treats them and their jobs. I realized that things never really change.
So sit back and reflect with me on my experience with the U.S. Navy. I headlined the piece, "And all the ships at sea." Here it is:
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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 on board – 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.
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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, 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 who inhabit it and make it live and breathe. It became an experience I never anticipated would be so profound nor one that 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.
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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 STOPPED.
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 in 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 flight.
The varied crew members wear different color vests to designate their jobs, 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 was 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 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 teenagers. 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 $8,000 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 country.
Media wishing to interview Barbara Simpson, please contact [email protected].