Wednesday, November 20, 2002

OTTAWA DAILY TIMES: Season on the Sea

NORTH ARABIAN GULF - It’s been referred to as “the most dangerous work-space in the world.” Below the surface of this steel beast are 5,700 people living in a virtual city at sea. It holds about 80 aircraft ranging from planes to helicopters, 500,000 pounds of jet fuel, receives 3,000 pounds of mail daily, and travels the seas of the world at speeds more than 30 knots. Welcome on board the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.

We’re underway on this U.S. Navy Nimitz Class Aircraft Carrier during a Western Pacific Deployment, which the crew calls a “WestPac.” The Lincoln heads up an eight-ship battle group that’s deployed to the region for about six months. They’re in the Arabian Gulf in support of Operation Southern Watch, the coalition effort to patrol Iraq’s southern no-fly zone.

Any fighter pilot on board will tell you it’s not the safest job in the world.

“You never get used to being fired at,” says Lieutenant Junior Grade Steve Dean, who flies the Navy and Marine Corps’ new F/A 18-E Super Hornet fighter jet. This is the first combat deployment for the new Super Hornet, which saw action over Iraq for the first time November 6th.

Attacks on coalition aircraft over Iraq are becoming routine as Saddam Hussein continues to defy United Nations resolutions prohibiting any attack on coalition aircraft in the no-fly zones. The United States considers these attacks, aimed at fighter pilots like Dean, a material breach of United Nations resolutions. “But all that really doesn’t matter to us,” he says. “We know what we have to do and we get it done.”

Getting it done isn’t a job he handles alone. With a crew bigger than many towns in LaSalle County, each and every sailor has a vital role in making sure Iraq plays by the rules, and the aircrews return to the carrier safely.

On the flight deck, we get to observe “launch” and “recovery” – Navy slang for take-offs and landings. Less than 20 feet from the planes as they take off, and close enough to feel the intense heat of the afterburners of the jet engines, we get to see up close why they call the flight deck of an aircraft carrier the most dangerous work-space in the world.

Planes are prepared for take-off by a number of crews ranging from life support technicians and mechanics to the crash and salvage team, which is ready for any mishap on the flight deck. The planes take off from the deck of Lincoln within seconds of each other. It’s the same hectic place during carrier landings. Sometimes the planes don’t quite make it to hook the arresting line on the surface of the ship, and they get a wave-off, which means they have to make another pass back to the carrier to get the landing right.

It seems amazing, given the hectic pace of operations on the flight deck, that there haven’t been any major accidents during this deployment. All the pilots have safely returned to the Lincoln after combat missions over Iraq.

“But I’m sure Saddam would love to get his hands on a coalition pilot,” says LTJG Dean, who attributes the success of his squadron’s mission to “risk management.”


Life aboard the ship during the holiday season is somewhat festive. Throughout the passageways are Christmas decorations that turn an otherwise dull looking steel corridor into a blur of red and green Christmas tree lights.

At the end of one of these hallways is one of the busiest places on the ship during Thanksgiving and Christmas – the mailroom. They’re in a combat environment, so sailors on board the Lincoln are entitled to send free letters back to the United States. In addition to the hundreds of packages bringing in fruitcakes and Christmas presents, outgoing mail makes for a busy day for Chief Petty Officer Rich Vargas.

“We get about 3000 pounds of mail per day during the holiday season,” he says, as mail clerks bring in even more packages to his already crowded post office. And it’s only the beginning of December.

On a typical day at sea, the crew of USS Abraham Lincoln eats about 20,000 meals a day. They consume about 13,000 sodas, 660 gallons of milk, 1700 pounds of fresh vegetables and fruit and about 180 dozen eggs. They wash about 5,550 pounds of laundry each day and cut about 250 heads of hair.

And that’s a typical day.

“We joked about the line during Thanksgiving,” says Petty Officer First Class Keith Jones, a public affairs specialist on board the Lincoln.

“We said the line was so long you could have read a Tom Clancy novel.”

There’s no need to read Clancy’s book “Carrier” in that line, though. It’s the adventure they live every day in the Arabian Gulf.

Monday, November 18, 2002

OTTAWA DAILY TIMES: Season in the Sand

KUWAIT CITY - Less than 50 miles from the border with Iraq, in a desert filled with choking dust, the U.S. military has dug in, ready for war.

Dotted throughout the northwest part of Kuwait are several remote camps filled with thousands of U.S. troops. The soldiers here call these camps “kabals,” an Arabic word that means fortress.

Most of the troops in these kabals are in the Army, deployed from the United States for six months at a time as part of a 1991 defense agreement with the Emirate of Kuwait. Even though American forces have been in this tiny Middle Eastern country for more than a decade, the threat of war in Iraq is shedding new light on their mission here.

Our two-week news gathering effort to the Persian Gulf starts here in Kuwait. We’re talking with and documenting the lives of these deployed soldiers on what could become the front line in a war with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. We’re also trying to get a feel for what it’s like to live under these conditions thousands of miles away from home during the holiday season.

Last Thanksgiving, they were in basic training, or at home with friends and family, or back at their home base. This year, they’re staring down a defiant Saddam Hussein just as weapons inspectors arrive in Baghdad to begin the job of searching for biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons.

War is not far from anyone’s mind here. One U.S Army public affairs officer, Captain Darryl Wright, reminds us that President Bush hasn’t yet made a decision about whether or not to strike. Even so, the training in the desert keeps these soldiers prepared for battle, on any front.

We land in Kuwait City just three days after a Kuwaiti policeman shot and wounded two American soldiers. Protection of the soldiers in this country has taken on renewed importance with the threat of global terrorism, and we drive from the city to the desert camps in a convoy to make sure we get to our destination without interference.

The trip out to the camps quickly turns from a cruise on the highway to an adventure in the desert. Paved roads end about halfway to the camps and the rest of the trip is on the open desert. Our U.S. Army Public Affairs escorts use Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to lead us through the sandy, desolate terrain. Our drive is not without incident. Attempting to scale a dune, our four-wheel drive Hyundai Galloper gets stuck in the sand. It takes creative thinking and some resourcefulness by the soldiers accompanying us to get us back on the “road” again. First we try digging around the tires, but in the end, we use flak vests as ramps to get up and out.

We spend our first day interviewing soldiers from Fort Stewart, Georgia participating in a live-fire exercise at the Udairi bombing range less than 25 miles from the border with Iraq. The exercise involves mobile Paladin Howitzers, Apache helicopters, and “fast-movers” (U.S. Air Force jet fighter / bombers). Talking with the soldiers during the exercise, we get a feel for how they see the world events happening around them. One soldier indicates he hears more from his wife back home about what’s happening in the world than he does in the desert, and that he’s prepared for anything that comes his way.

It’s a common feeling among the soldiers out here. The following day, at Camp Pennsylvania, we talk with Sgt. 1st Class Eric Olson. He’s an M1A1 Abrams tank commander with Alpha Company, First Brigade, 64th Armor Regiment. His platoon recently returned from a field exercise to get ready for Thanksgiving. He served as a tank driver during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and the last time he saw Kuwait, 12 years ago, the country’s oil fields were on fire.

“I was curious to see what it would be like,” he says as he takes a puff on a cigarette. He has fond memories of the Gulf War, and remembers how grateful the Kuwaitis were to the U.S. soldiers for helping liberate their country.

We get to take a ride in a few of the tanks in his platoon. What sets it apart from other platoons are the words stenciled on the tube of each tank turret. The four tanks in his platoon bear the names of the planes hijacked on September 11th, 2001.

“We though it would be a great way to show some patriotism,” says Olson. Tradition dictates that words stenciled on the tubes have to start with the letter “A” because the platoon is from Alpha Company, but Olson’s commanding officers thought it was a great way to build morale among the troops. They gave the OK for the names of United Airlines Flights 93 and 175 to join American Airlines Flight 77 and 11 on the platoon’s tanks.

Like many soldiers in the field, Olson sees no difference between the War on Terrorism and a potential war with Iraq. When the hammer falls, Olsen says he wants his tank platoon to lead the charge “north.”

As journalists, covering these soldiers takes us away from home for part of the holiday season, too, but it’s not the same stress and hardship these soldiers face for months at a time. We fly in and armed escorts take us to the action, but after a few days we leave for the relative safety of a world that’s familiar to us.

Unlike us, soldiers get through a long deployment by learning how to take their minds off the distance between them and their families. Some say it’s not hard to keep focused here -- the uncertainty of war and constant training in the deserts of Kuwait does that for them.