Most Americans, if they think of aircraft carriers, envision handsome, virile pilots (thank you “Top Gun”), super cool “F-something or other” fighter jets, square jawed officers and perhaps people running around on deck in different colored T-shirts. While that is not an inaccurate picture it is decidedly incomplete and superficial, as I recently experienced first hand.
As part of the U.S. Navy Distinguished Visitor Program, 15 of us writers, bloggers, and media executives spent 24 hours on the carrier USS Carl Vinson CVN70, 150 miles southwest of San Diego, underway in a 100,000 square mile area of ocean known as “Whisky 291.” Taking off from the Naval Air Station in Coronado on a Navy C2 Greyhound COD (carrier onboard delivery) turboprop aircraft, we experienced a tail-hook landing on the carrier, decelerating from 105 mph at touchdown to a dead stop in 2 seconds. The thrills did not end there.
As the rear ramp of our cramped, dark, nearly windowless aircraft opened, our senses were assaulted by brilliant daylight, the thunderous vibration of jets landing and taking off just yards away, and a 30 knot wind. A young man in a helmet and goggles shook my hand, patted me on the back and motioned to follow. We did, quickly as he swiftly led us to a grated catwalk hanging 70 feet above the rapidly moving ocean below then back inside, to the captain’s stateroom. Strong hot coffee, warm fresh-baked cookies and cool water awaited us.
We received a warm welcome by Executive Officer Captain Walter “Sarge” Slaughter and then the captain of the ship, Captain Kent “Torch” Whalen (all pilots have call signs, even after they no longer fly). We were told what to expect during our next 24 hours, what was to be a frantic, fast-moving, exciting and unforgettable experience. Our expectations, already high, soared, and yet they would be exceeded by the time we catapulted off the deck the next afternoon.
Knowing we would be duly impressed by the advanced technology we’d see, Captain Whalen made a point that the heart of the ship is really the people, from the lowest ranking, just-arrived-from-boot-camp green seaman to the admiral himself. But it was the enlisted men and women the captain emphasized. He was right. The technology was indeed impressive, intellectually overwhelming, unforgettable. But at the end of our 24-hour tour, we all knew, it was the people that truly impressed. The young men and women at times would stun us in their focus, discipline, sacrifice, and dedication to the job at hand. The much-maligned Millennial Generation make this 100,000 ton, 1,100 foot-long piece of Borg-like war machine work, 24/7, and work well.
When the air wing is aboard there are over 5,000 people on the carrier. A few of the highest ranking officers share a small college dorm-size stateroom, including a shared head (bathroom) with another stateroom. Captain Whalen has the stateroom we entered, a small suite that he uses mostly for greeting dignitaries and working while the ship is in port. But when underway, he lives in a tiny room just off the bridge, a noisy, cramped space where he sleeps just steps away from where he and a 24/7 crew work, above the near-constant cacophony of noise from the flight deck below.
Officers’ quarters are spartan. The enlisted crew, safe to say, would aspire to spartan accommodations. Their home while underway is a bunk stacked three high, with a shallow drawer underneath and perhaps a small half-locker to store uniforms and private items. They share a room with 20 to 120 others with only a small blue bunk curtain to give any semblance of privacy on a ship where thousands are moving to and fro at all hours.
One of the things that struck us was the level of maturity and accountability we observed in each and every crew member we spoke to, and we collectively spoke with hundreds. As a group they are as diverse as America itself and their backgrounds and reasons for joining the navy equally so.
These young men and women, with an average age of only 20, work 16-18 hour days 6-7 days a week, for below market wages, are limited to 15 minutes of internet access a day, have no cell phone access, give up all privacy and are away from loved ones while on deployment for 8-10 months at a time. And they do so voluntarily. What sort of person does such a thing?
I’ll tell you. Such a person is Robert, who proudly educated us on the hand held weapons on board (ranging from a bolt action rifle for protecting swimmers from a shark attack, to M-16s to .50 caliber machine guns). He grew up hard in East Los Angeles, graduated from high school and found himself at a crossroads. “I knew if I did not have purpose in my life sir, I might wind up dead or involved in bad things” he said. So he joined the Navy (not as easy as you think, not everyone can get in) and apparently he has found that purpose. Fit, proud, respectful, and confident, he is barely 19 years old. Robert is not sure if he will make the Navy a career yet, but he is sure it was the best decision of his life to join. He is excited about his first deployment and seeing the world.
I spoke with Katy, an athletic young woman exercising on a rowing machine on a small deck that hangs out over the ocean, just below the main flight deck. Her accent gave away her Texas origins and she graciously spoke with me as she continued her workout. Barely off her 18-hour workday, she was due to report back to her duty station in 6 hours but said it was important to keep fit and relieve stress and there she was, working up a sweat when most of us would be asleep in bed. She had a BS in Physiology and was 22 years old. The first in her family to serve in the Navy, she shared a room with over 20 other women.
Standing on the flight deck just aft of the Bridge, observing pilots practice their touch-and-go landings, I noticed a young man deftly and confidently direct the movement of a F18 Super Hornet, a $67,000,000 aircraft, through the moving maze of equipment and people on the flight deck, to position it for a catapult launch. I managed to speak with him later during lunch. A native of Boston, Maurice was but 18 years old and had never been away from home before joining the navy, as did his father and grandfather before him. He bunked in a room with nearly 80 others so he cherished his time working in the fresh breezes on the flight deck. His goal was to continue his education and make the Navy a career.
None of this is to say that there are not men and women in their 30s and 40s on the ship, or at the air station. We met many who had been in the navy 15 to 25 years including a seventh-generation pilot, a direct descendant of Robert E. Lee. It takes the entire crew to make this extremely complex, dangerous and important operation work well every hour of every day, year after year.
Life on an American carrier never, ever stops. Thousands of people are working at every hour of every day in what is essentially a massive, seagoing industrial machine. It is dangerous, exhausting and demanding work.
Captain Whalen was correct. As technologists, we were indeed mesmerized by the advanced technology present throughout the ship. State of the art aircraft, weapons, communications gear and even safety equipment surrounded us every moment. But more than anything, we were astounded by the degree of professionalism, dedication, maturity, and sacrifice of a crew that averages 20 years of age. The ships’ motto of Vis Per Mare (Strength from the Sea) could just as easily be Vis Per Populus (Strength from the People).