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When I was given the chance of staying overnight on an aircraft-carrier I jumped at it.
Not because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do but just because... why not? For your average you and I it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and as a journalist, it offers a multitude of stories to write about.
I’ve never really been one to find fascination in the military. I fully recognise and accept the need for it and I will always support and have a great deal of respect for the men and women that go out there and put their lives on the line so that the rest of us can continue to live the lives we choose but like for so many of us non-military folk, the politics and actions of the unscrupulous few can too often blind us to the day to day reality of it all. You’d have to be deaf dumb and blind not to notice all the bad Press the allied forces in general and the UK and US in specific are generating and it makes it very difficult not to jump on the bandwagon and start protesting in the streets with the masses, but the truth of the matter is that like for the rest of us, for most of those in uniform it’s just a job like any other. The risks and personal sacrifices are higher and the losses are greater but at the end of the day, like any society, there is the good, the bad and the ugly and they all have a daily job to do and life to live. It’s a fact I’ve never been more aware of than now, having just returned from one of the most fascinating and genuine experiences of my life: 24 hours on the flagship of the US Navy – USS Enterprise.
It’s easy to see why when the US Navy really needs to impress someone, they fly them out to one of its aircraft-carriers. More than a ship, USS Enterprise is practically a self-sufficient city on the ocean with the ability to turn seawater into potable water and generate its own electricity. Her primary aims are to provide a credible and sustainable independent forward presence and deterrence in peace time, operate as the cornerstone of joint allied maritime expeditionary forces in times of crisis and operate and support aircraft attacks on enemies, protect friendly forces and engage in sustained independent operations in times of war. It takes thousands of people to make all of that happen and those thousands of people all need somewhere to eat and sleep, work and play. She is quite literally a marvel of engineering.
I have to admit I was more than a little nervous when it was time to fly out and meet her somewhere in the Arabian Gulf (we’ve been already been through the whole ‘I could tell you but...’ thing so let’s just leave it at that). Although I’ve spent most of my life flying all over the world, the older I get the more nervous I am when it comes to getting in a plane – and that’s a normal chartered flight, never mind a rattling cargo plane like the C-2 Greyhound! So you can imagine my mildly opaque knuckles when I found out that not only was I going to have to trust a hook and a rubber band to catch us and stop us from rolling right off the flight deck on arrival, but I was also going to be shot off the deck like a ball from one of those automatic tennis ball machines to get me back to Bahrain (OK I admit it, it’s a little more complex than that but you get my point). In the end though it was worry about nothing and SO MUCH FUN! If someone were able to bottle and sell the sensations you go through, they would become overnight millionaires. Add to that the feeling you get when you’re standing 20 feet away from a F-18 Super Hornet taking off and world domination is yours. It’s hotter than hell on the flight deck and you’re covered from head toe in protective clothing, there’s a warm wind blowing a gale around you and despite your ear plugs and helmet, the air is thick with the sound of rumbling thunder. The ground shakes and the roar of the jet vibrates through your body to rattle the roots of your teeth. It’s both an awesome sight to behold and a thrilling sensation to feel.
Walking around the ship I’m amazed we don’t come across people leaving breadcrumb trails to find their way back from whence they came. USS Enterprise is huge and a maze of corridors and stairs take you from area to area and floor to floor. The general consensus is that it takes a good couple of weeks to be able to properly find your way around. By the end of day one my legs are about to drop off and my feet feel like they’ve just gone 10 rounds with Mike Tyson (I blame the trainers – I’m sure I could have done it 10 times over in my usual high heals but I would probably also have broken my neck in 10 different places going up and down the very steep ladder/stairs). As Dave – LCDR David Nunnally, Public Affairs Officer – and I walk down the corridors people flatten themselves against the walls to let us past, looking very much like rabbits caught in the glare of headlights at the sight of me. “They see someone walking around not in uniform and it makes them nervous because they don’t know what you’re here for” explains Dave. But despite the nerves they all have a ready smile for Dave and a polite “Ma’am” for me (just to make me feel old) and everyone is perfectly willing to stop and share with me their experiences of living on a carrier.
The more I look around the more there is to see and the more I realise how self-sufficient the ship is. With 5,400 personnel on board there are a lot a facilities to take into account. There are gyms, and a mini-hospital complete with an operating theatre should the need arise, a dental clinic and a lab, a laundry and a barber shop. There’s a mini-supermarket and a metal workshop where they can turn a simple metal pole into almost anything you could possibly need. There’s a chapel to pray in and there are councillors to turn to talk through your problems with as well as people to talk to about career advice. There’s a mini radio and television station where they can put together their own programmes and even a small printing press to print up the daily newspaper, The Big E Shuttle, that covers human interest stories on board as well giving advice on the likes of identity theft. There is even a special programme to enables the sailors and Marines to keep in closer touch with their children left at home by participating in United Through Reading, a programme whereby they can read stories and sing songs into a video camera. The recording is then transferred onto DVD and sent home to their families. One such person is Michael Niewald who said “Two months out I figured this would be a neat way to send something home to my daughter so she could watch it and not forget too much about dad when he’s gone for six months. They’ve got some good books and there’s even one called Daddy’s Little Girl so I figured that would be a good one”.
Six months is a long time to be away from your loved ones, especially when most of that time there is no sight of land, and walking around I can’t help but be impressed with how upbeat everyone seems to be, getting on with their day to day lives. Dave tells me: “Of all ships in the Navy being on a carrier is both the easiest and the hardest to live on. It’s the easiest because of how relatively simple it is to communicate with the outside world but it’s the hardest because you’re away from home and often have no way of dealing with the problems you hear about but are too far way to solve”.
For my part, I’ve come away with a new respect and deeper understanding of what life on an aircraft-carrier is all about. I love my creature comforts way to much to be able to spend any real amount of time on board but given the chance would I go back and visit again?... Hell yes, in the blink of an eye!