Inking up the blogosphere. And no, I don't glow in the dark. But thanks for asking.

September 16, 2009

Memoria Diem

I had wanted to write some kind of grand and eloquent post about today, the 8th anniversary of 9/11. However, the more I tried to flesh something out, the less the words wanted to come. I was beginning to get really worried: where were my feelings? Had I completely forgotten the memory of what this day means to me and my country? I guess I just experienced what actual writers already know--you can't force the words out, they only flow when they are done brewing.

For me, today is and always will be a day of rememberance. Eight years ago to the minute, I was at sea off the coast of the Carolinas and we were making max turns due north. Everyone around me including myself was in a mixture of states: shock, anger, fear, excitement. Everything that had come before had ceased to exist and what lay in the future was now blank. It was a crystalline moment, the focus of space and time narrowed to a single point. 24 hours later I was watching the gaping hole in the skyline billow black smoke into the morning air, my heart breaking.

First and foremost, I want to always remember the feeling of vulnerability. Some might disagree with me on this, but I think it's incredibly important to know how it feels to be blindsided. If you don't know where your weaknesses are you can't shore them up. If you forget that feeling you will cease to be vigilant and it will happen again.

I remember the unity of that day. Everyone came together and there was a bond that transcended race, creed, and partisanship. It was the bond that makes us Americans. No matter our differences before or since, we are bound in that moment forever and no one can take that away from us.

I remember the heroes. When something terrible happens, there are two types of people: those who run away from the danger and those that run towards it. Never forget that there were and are people who willingly place themselves in harm's way, even if they know they will not survive, to ensure the safety of others. That kind of sacrifice and strength of character can never be forgotten or taken advantage of.

When I think about what it means to be an American, I remember seeing all of those things that day: pride, fraternity, charity, heroism, selflessness, adaptation, strength, and most of all intolerance of tyrrany or terrorism. I remember that in the worst of moments we became our best.

A Quick Note

The past couple weeks have been very busy for me, so I haven't found time to post anything new. But I wanted to take a few moments and throw a couple things out here.

First, for those of you reading this blog that are interested in or are following Sergeant Shelton's Wounded Warrior Ranch Retreat, it appears that their website is undergoing construction right now, so any links to the site aren't working for the time being. I will update them as soon as they become available again. This is a wonderful and extremely important cause, and I encourage everyone to follow and support it. For those that live in Texas, Billy "Soupbone" Shelton and Marcus Luttrell have filmed a PSA for the Ranch that I hear will be aired within about a month or so. Also, there is a fundraiser for the Ranch being held in May 2010 at the Cowboys Golf Club in Grapevine, Texas--if you like to swing the crooked stick and can make it, please show your support. When the SSWWRR site gets back up, information on booking for the event can be found there.

Secondly, the anniversary of 9/11 is fast approaching. I am working on a post reflecting my thoughts about what that day means to me. I challenge everyone to do the same; on Thanksgiving we think about what we are thankful for in our lives, on 9/11 we should remember why we are thankful to be Americans and what that means to us and apply that to how we live.
Thank you all for your support and continued visits to this blog. Take care.

Mixed Bits

I’ve managed to reconnect on Facebook with a lot of the people I served with aboard the George Washington. This weekend we had a hysterical discussion thread that winged back and forth, all started innocently by a guy who happened to have a random memory of a certain dish served on the mess decks—the notorious Pork Adobo. The conversation quickly devolved, as it will do with squids, and it got me thinking about a whole bag of stuff: the things we loved to hate.

While deployed, there is precious little to entertain yourself with. Squids are nothing if not creative however, and opportunities present themselves in the form of bitching and joking, both of which we refined to an art form. Mind you, bitching is different than complaining. Bitching builds camaraderie, it became a language of its own. The biggest target for ridicule was the food. I know carriers have better food than other venues in the Navy, but some of it was still astoundingly bad. Everyone made new names for the most infamous dishes. The aforementioned Pork Adobo became Pork A-No-No, Pork A-Doo-Doo, or my personal favorite Red Death. It was served approximately 4 times a week. There was “Noodles Jefferson”—plain boiled egg noodles sprinkled with dried parsley. Was Thomas Jefferson a famous cultivator of parsley? Because if not, I’m sorry but it’s just noodles. There were these pre-packaged Chicken Cordon Bleus that were fried and served—known affectionately as Butter Bombs, Deep-Fried Hamsters, or Whale Turds. The milk, after about a week underway, needed no refrigeration and was a disturbing blue color. The juice (aka Bug Juice) was so high in citric acid that we used it down in the plant for shining up brass and other metals. And then there was the Chili Mac. I have no words for it, aside from the fact that I can’t eat anything resembling it to this day. On the plus side, the cooks could bake the shit out of some dinner rolls. They were yeasty and delicious. And potatoes, no matter the form, were usually pretty good. In the grand tradition of the military, anytime we got a steak dinner followed by ice cream, we knew bad news was on the way.

Nukes, being a smart bunch, got bored easily. One game developed down in the propulsion plant was Danger Nut: slide a ¾” or larger nut onto the end of a long flathead screwdriver, and aim a jet of high pressure compressed air at the nut. After it achieved the desired speed, you flung the screwdriver releasing the nut. It had so much internal energy it would ping all over the damn place, ricocheting, people diving for cover. A variant on this game was Xtreme Danger Nut: take the same nut and cut notches on the flats. When you spun it, it sounded like a jet engine winding up. The speed and energy of the nut were like 10 times greater than the original Danger Nut. Xtreme Danger Nut got the kibosh after someone got a hole punched through his coveralls and a nasty bruise. He needed to work on his reflexes. But hey, horseplay leads to sick bay, right? The other game that somebody came up with was Nutz: we painted a small 3-sided goal against the backsplash of a workbench. Each player got five 9/16” nuts, and you shot them at the goal using one finger to slide them. The next player would use his nuts to try and knock yours out of the goal. Points were awarded for nuts remaining in the goal, nuts on the line, and for knocking the opponent’s nuts out. Over successive deployments, the game of Nutz was refined with a whole series of rules, regulations, and a referee.

I can personally attest to the fact that duct tape is surely a miracle of the modern world. It truly is like the Force: it has a light side, a dark side, and it holds the universe together. I’ve seen a grown men suspended from the overheads, unwary victims of an MMFTT (mobile midnight flopping and taping team). I can’t confirm or deny that I’ve found myself stuck three feet up a bulkhead held fast by the superior strength of duct tape. It was also useful for creating a pretty fancy 9-hole golf course: balls, tees, and cups; the clubs were long extendable inspection mirrors. If Corporal-Captain Radar were a Nuke, he’d trade for duct tape—we had a whole underground black market for the stuff.

All of these things now are pretty amusing to look back on, but there’s other less tangible things that will stay with me forever. What do I do if while wearing a gas mask after a CBR attack I start feeling a tightening in my chest? One atropine and one 2-PAM chloride, straight in the thigh. Start to drool? Another atropine and 2-Pam chloride. The sound of a QAWTD being dogged: ka-CHUNK! The unique and pervasive smell of a ship underway—we called it Ship Funk; it’s a combination of JP-5, sweat, ass, oil, and feet. After a while at sea, everyone plain stinks and no amount of deodorant or soap can cover it. You could put me blindfolded in a city dump and hold a shirt from a deployed person under my nose and I’d know that smell. The belt buckle of the webbed belts we wore made a particular unique tinkling noise, and it was always a good laugh when in the bathroom stall next to you you heard ‘tink-tink-splash..(pause)..Goddammit!!’ Pretty sure that happened to everyone at least once. And more than once I’ve woken up from a dream, still hearing the sound of the General alarm: bong…bong…bong “Dual reactor scram, all reactor plant personnel lay to the propulsion plants”.

So this is my mental chop suey for today. It was great to relive some memories with my shipmates, and has left me smiling. BZ buddies.

Swede Momsen: A Man Worth Noting

For my birthday yesterday, I got three books that I am pretty excited about: “The Terrible Hours” by Peter Maas, “We Were Soldiers Once…And Young” by Harold G. Moore & Joseph Galloway, and “An American Daughter Gone to War” by Winnie Smith. I’m already halfway through “The Terrible Hours”, and it’s an incredible story.

On May 23, 1939 the newly commissioned USS Squalus (SS-192) was off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire conducting her 19th test dive. After reaching a depth of about 60 ft. they experienced a critical failure of the 31” main induction valve, which fed air to the diesel engines, and had been closed at the start of the dive. Massive flooding ensued, and the Captain ordered the main and bow ballasts blown to try and surface. The Squalus gained an up angle, but the flooding was too severe and it sank by the stern, coming to rest at nearly 250 ft. off the Isle of Shoals. All electric power and propulsion was lost; the aft battery/crew’s quarters, the forward and aft engine rooms, and the aft torpedo rooms were completely flooded. Because of the skill of the highly trained crew who responded immediately to the flooding, the watertight doors were closed very quickly and 33 of the 59 crew aboard found safety in the forward torpedo room and control room.

A massive search effort was launched after the Squalus failed to report in as expected after the dive, though because of a mistranslation of the coordinates the boat sent in Morse code indicating their dive location, the searching ships were nearly 5 miles from where the Squalus actually lay. The sub launched a marker buoy and multiple flares, one of which was seen and the ships were able to close on their position. This was before the days of sonar however, and their exact location could not be pinpointed with accuracy since the line connecting the marker buoy to the sub had parted when hauled aboard one of the ships. Efforts were made to communicate with the Squalus using submerged oscilloscopes, the sub’s crew valiantly trying to respond by hammering on the hull in Morse code. After surviving dozens of hours in near-freezing temperatures and increasingly toxic atmospheric conditions, 33 men were rescued.

Beyond the skill and heroism of the Squalus’ crew, what makes this story so remarkable was that they were actually able to be rescued. A few short years previously, a rescue at that depth would have been impossible. During those days, submarine duty was called the “Coffin Service”—if anything went wrong while submerged, unless the sub happened to be in warm and very shallow water, there was no hope of escape. The 33 men of the Squalus owe their successful escape to one man: Charles ‘Swede’ Momsen.

Momsen was a Naval Academy graduate, a line officer, and a technical and scientific whiz. In 1925, while commanding the S-1 (SS-105) submarine, his sister ship the S-51 collided with a cargo ship and went down. Momsen was involved in trying to locate the S-51, and eventually found its oil slick. The downed sub was at 130 ft, and there was no way to rescue them. On board the S-51 was a good friend of Swede’s, and he later discovered that most of the crew didn’t die immediately as had been assumed. He was tortured with the knowledge that his friend had torn the skin away from his fingers trying to pry open a hatch, and that most of the dead had lived for hours before succumbing. 33 men aboard perished. Momsen dedicated himself to finding out methods to rescue trapped submariners. He designed a diving bell which could be lowered down to the submarine and thus the men could escape. He sent the plans up the chain of command, and they were ignored for more than a year before finally being rejected as impractical. By that time, Momsen was assigned to the Navy’s Bureau of Construction and Repair, and decided to proceed with other rescue ideas on his own. Shortly after his diving bell plans were rejected, another sub, the S-4, went down off Cape Cod—another 40 souls lost, with 6 of the dead surviving for 3 days. Swede became a man possessed.

Simultaneously while developing a working prototype of his diving bell, Momsen invented what would later become the Momsen lung: a rubber bag that hung around the neck that could be filled with oxygen, containing soda lime to scrub CO2 from exhaled air. It would allow the person to be able to breathe until he got to the surface, as well as providing a controlled amount of buoyancy to allow slow ascent thereby avoiding the bends. Swede personally tested all phases of the Momsen lung, eventually using it to ascend successfully from a depth of 200 ft. In addition to the diving bell and escape lung, He also developed the Heliox gas mixture—replacing nitrogen in compressed air with varying amounts of helium—thus making it possible for a diver to descend below 200 ft., the point at which nitrogen narcosis becomes a serious danger.

Swede Momsen was flown in to personally direct the rescue of the Squalus’ crew. Because of his ingenuity, passion for his service, and dedication to ensuring that trapped submariners had a means of escape, 33 men were able to return home to their families. Because of his achievements, development of deep diving became possible, and naval services around the world have been able to build on his rescue and escape inventions. The Momsen lung led to the Steinke hood, Submarine Escape Immersion Equipment, and free-ascent techniques. His diving bell design led to others, and most likely to the ideas that became Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicles. Because of this one man, a man who wouldn’t accept defeat, submariners who survive casualties at sea have hope of rescue, no longer members of the “Coffin Service”.

Red Sky In The Morning

It’s been one of the hottest weeks on record here in the Pacific Northwest. The kind of heat that wrings you out and makes it hard to think. 85F by 6am, 108, 110 by midday…it affects the brain. The morning sun has been blood-red for the past few days, and I’ve had several moments where reality has seemed to fold over on itself—it’s the same sun I saw in the summer months in the Persian Gulf. It doesn’t matter how much time has passed between then and now, I’m momentarily back there again in flashes, blinking in and out, the hot wind not helping things. All week I’ve had this feeling of something ominous following me around. Sleep has been elusive, and my dreams have been filled with shipboard disasters and shadowy intruders. I’ve woken up at least once, swinging, absolutely sure there was someone standing over my bed. No bueno.

I think I’m over-receptive to dark news lately. So when I read this story about Sgt. George Nickel (thanks to Blackfive for putting the word out), it really tore me up. Here’s a guy that gave as much as he could be asked to give for his country, and experienced things that most of us should be eternally grateful we will never have to. Back home, he seems to be coping the best he can but unfortunately something in the night got the best of him. Losing track of his dog, Nickel’s reality folded over on itself. This is just my assumption of course, but his dog became a lost guy in his unit, the apartments turned into an unsecured complex. He did what he was trained to do—clear and secure the area, door by door. Because he had a weapon and was using it to shoot out the locks, necessarily the police became involved. And necessarily, they also have a responsibility to neutralize what they perceive as a threatening situation. Thankfully, no one was injured or this would have turned out to be a lot worse than it already is. Nickel is charged with felony counts of aggravated assault and discharge of a gun into an inhabited building, but most stunning and disgusting is Chief of Police Mike Masterson’s comment about the situation: “This is bizarre behavior….I don’t know what would push people to that (level of) of desperation.”

This makes me want to shriek and my head spin around. There’s no logic to what will trigger stress and survival mechanisms in someone who has experienced front-line combat, nor should those reactions ever be judged so publically by someone who has no idea what kind of hell warriors have gone through. It just further illustrates the lack of understanding of what our veterans are going through when they return home. In every war or conflict America has been involved in, returning soldiers are expected to just hang up their guns and go back to ‘normal’ life. Flip the switch. Forget their training. Transitioning from a warrior to a civilian is certainly a process that has to happen, but it can’t be dictated on other people’s terms. And as a nation, we are ignoring opportunities to help people transition, and showing great ignorance about what a huge issue it is. I suppose we’re just quietly hoping someone will invent some kind of pill. Issue solved, right?

My grandfather was in the Army in WWII, but his coping mechanism was to just bury it I suppose. Not once in the 25 years I was alive before he passed away did I hear him speak of his experiences, other than just the fact that he served. I only have a few physical remnants of it: shortly before he died, he was ill and he made a request that I come home on leave from Florida because he wanted to see me in my dress uniform. One of my grandmother’s prized possessions was an intricate lace bedspread that she crocheted during the time he was away—she claimed she nearly went blind making it. And at his funeral, there was a flag draped over his casket. It just makes me incredibly sad.

Sgt. Nickel’s story is just the latest of innumerable cases of vets returning home who need help and support. The trauma will never go away, but can be made manageable I think if every effort is made by family, friends, neighbors, communities and government to both understand what warriors are going through and get them the help they need. Heaping insult upon injury is not the answer.

God bless our warriors at home and abroad, and may He give them peaceful sleep and solace in the night.

Rock 'n Roll in Dalmatia

I thought I’d stray again today away from serious issues and share another story of one of my travels. If I had to list a favorite city among all I got to visit, Dubrovnik, Croatia is probably tied for first place.

If you don’t know of it or haven’t been there, Dubrovnik is an extraordinarily beautiful old city situated on the Adriatic and has been a popular vacation destination for European travelers for years, with good reason. The city itself is in sort of two parts: the old city and the new. Old Dubrovnik sits right on the water and is surrounded by a 2km wall. In the Middle Ages, it was one of five Maritime Republics and was said to rival Venice. Aside from historical preservation and rebuilding due to combat damage, the structures in the old city all date to about the 17th century or before. It has existed under the Greeks, the Ostrogoths, the Byzantines, the Venetians (who called it Ragusa), Napoleon, the Hapsburgs, Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia, and finally the Kingdom of Croatia. In 1991, Slobodan Milosevic declared that Dubrovnik could not remain part of Croatia and his Serbian forces (remains of the Yugoslav People’s Army) attacked the city. When I visited in 2000, most of the old city had been repaired and restored, but outside the walls in the new city there was still a lot of visible damage from shelling and bullet holes in concrete walls.

The Croatian people in Dubrovnik couldn’t have been more friendly—some of the most polite and hospitable people I’ve ever met. They are also physically lovely; the average male height seemed to be around 6’2”, females about 5’8”, and they all were strikingly attractive. The exchange rate for the Croatian kuna was quite favorable to the dollar, but wasn’t so overinflated as to be ridiculous (like it was in say, Turkey). Speaking of Turkey, which was one of my least favorite places to visit, I don’t think we engendered a whole lot of local enthusiasm when my friends and I doubled over in a fit of hysterical laughter after I asked to borrow a million lira from one of my buddies (which was like $1). I seriously almost peed my pants. But anyhoo, I digress. I was travelling as usual with my two good friends. In sketchier ports, they pulled double-duty as big brothers/bodyguards for which I’m eternally grateful, but was unnecessary in friendly Dubrovnik. They were fantastic people to travel with.

We walked the entire circumference of the old city wall, and saw most of the famous tourist sights. There were some indescribably beautiful cathedrals and medieval buildings, as well as a multitude of local art shops. The city rises from the sea up the hill, and all the streets are too narrow for any cars, so it’s foot traffic only, mainly. We spent the day walking until our legs felt like lead, ducking into pubs along the way to quench our thirst. When we stopped for dinner the wait staff treated us like celebrities at a 5-star restaurant, delivering plate after plate of complimentary hors d’oeuvres and shots of firewater. I ate the best steak I’ve ever tasted outside the US.

At that point, after dinner, we were way off the beaten path. We’d managed to get ourselves deep in the old city away from the main streets. It was getting dark and we were trying to make our way back to the center plaza, but kept running into dead-end alleys. There weren’t any signs, and those that were there weren’t anything we could read. So we just kept going over, down, dead-end, turn around again, up, over, down. Needless to say, it got to the point where I always seem to find myself when I travel: I’m never lost, I just don’t know exactly where I am. We were tired, thirsty, and getting cranky. I knew if we could just keep headed down towards the sea we’d run into either a main road or people. We started down yet another narrow cobblestone street when we heard something remarkable, something so out of place it stopped all three of us dead in our tracks: the ringing strains of Lynard Skynard’s “Sweet Home Alabama”—you know, that opening guitar riff? I thought I was hallucinating. Our three brains coalesced into a single unit and we immediately started chasing the sound. We wound around in circles, the music coming from first above us, then behind us, then to our right. Eventually I looked up and saw a shining beacon in the dark, a pink neon sign up in the air that said, “BAR”. We dashed up three flights of rickety wooden stairs attached to this impossibly narrow stone building and stopped at a thick door, where there was a hand-lettered sign attached that said, “American Classic Rock Bar”. My grin was so big I’m pretty sure you could have seen it from space.

Inside it was just a large room bordered by tables, decorated in medieval kitsch, with the bar in the center. When we went up to order our drinks, the bartender started hopping up and down, shouting and laughing. Apparently, the only thing the American Classic Rock Bar was missing was Americans. He ushered us to a round table and shooed out the occupants. He came back with t-shirts for us all that he insisted we put on right then with the bar’s logo on it, and in short order there were so many bottles of Heineken on the table there wasn’t room for our elbows. This is no shit: we didn’t buy a single drink the remainder of the evening.

Within a few minutes, we were joined by the 4 people sitting at a table next to ours. There were three men and a woman, all serving with the UN, down on furlough from Sarajevo. Two of the men were retired Dutch military, one man was active duty Brit, and the woman (for some reason I still remember her name—Marie) was a French Canadian. She adopted me so fast I’m still not sure how it happened, but it was something like, “Hallo, Je suis Marie. Oh, you are American? Le Marin? Mon Dieu! You are now my sister. We will not be separated this evening!” She was fabulous as only French Canadian women can be. The seven of us shared a truly enjoyable evening, trading stories, getting soused, and laughing like fools.

In hindsight, that bar likely could have been a clever setup, designed specifically because the owner knew there was a US carrier coming into port, figuring that no sailor could resist the double bait of rock and roll and booze. And once we left it maybe transformed back into whatever pub it was before we got there. Well, no matter. I am an American Sailor. I took a formal oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic. But I also took an informal oath: I am an American Sailor: I will work hard and play harder. Where there is beer and bullshit there is esprit de corps. I recharge my fighting spirit with sauce and sea stories.

I absolutely loved Dubrovnik. I would return again in a heartbeat. Good sights, good food, good drink, good people, good times.

Boxes Of Cats and Falling Trees

I’m going deep today. I’m posing the ol’ theoretical question: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

From a scientific standpoint, sound production requires a source, a means of transference, and a receiver. In that view, the tree makes sound waves but no sound itself because there's nothing to receive them. From a philosophical standpoint, there is the theory of subjective idealism which states that things cease to exist if they are not observed—i.e.: 'to be is to be perceived'. So if there is nothing to witness it, the tree doesn’t exist in our minds and thus won’t make a sound.

Closely related to this argument is the principle known as the Observer Effect, that the act of observing something can change the event being observed. People are known to change their behavior if they are being watched, and in order to observe or measure something an instrument has to be used, which will impart a change on the object being observed, thus affecting it in some way.

When I went through Navy nuke school, things were fine and dandy until we started delving into the quantum physics portions. At that point, it was a real challenge for me to suspend disbelief—a lot of the ideas were real brain-benders. I had to tape an “I Believe” button to my desk. In quantum mechanics, an object exists in a state called ‘superposition’—being in all states at once—until it is observed. Essentially, the act of observing something will force it into its quantum state at the instant of measurement. There is the notorious thought experiment called Schrödinger’s Cat: place a cat into a sealed box containing a tiny bit of a radioactive substance, a Geiger counter, a hammer, and a vial of a toxic substance. Using mathematical probability, the substance will either radioactively decay (emitting radiation) or it won’t. If it does, the Geiger counter will register, triggering the hammer to strike the vial of toxin and the cat will die. If it doesn’t, nothing will happen and the cat will live. While the box remains sealed and you can’t observe the cat, it is both alive and dead in equal probability. It is not until you open the box and see the cat does its quantum state become observed.

Now, if you’re still with me at this point, you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with the price of tea in China. The thing is, I can’t help but think about these things and apply them to the news media. By and large, most of us get our information about what’s happening in the world around us from some media outlet. It has become such that, if something is reported in the news it becomes fact—and therefore ‘exists’. If something isn’t reported, it ceases to be in our minds. If we report Taliban and al Qaeda actions as merely insurgent or militant, they cease to be terrorists. If we cover a celebrity’s death for a week, a soldier who died for his country will not be known. An unobserved event is one which imparts no information on any other thing; it therefore can have no legacy in the present (or ongoing) wider physical universe. It may then be recognized that the unobserved event was absolutely identical to an event which did not occur at all.

Just some food for thought.

Edit: I just realized that there might be a third probable outcome in the Schrödinger's Cat experiment--If the cat in question was Cat Norris, then he would disable the Geiger counter with a stunning roundhouse kick, drink the poison and laugh at death, use the hammer to pry his way out of the box, and proceed to turn the scientist into a whimpering pile of Jell-O.

A Healing Place, A Hero, and A Prisoner

As per my normal Monday routine, I have to spend some time clearing out the weekend fluffernutter in my head. After roundfiling most of it, what remains this morning are thoughts of three people.

First thought is of Billy Shelton. For those that don’t know of him, Soupbone is a remarkable man—a venerable US Army Special Operations and Vietnam veteran who has spent years dedicating himself to training young men in his community, preparing them mentally and physically for success. The most public of his prodigies are Marcus Luttrell and his brother Morgan, though I have no doubt that there are scores more young men whose life Mr. Shelton has impacted in great ways. Billy’s story has resonated with me since I heard about it, and he has two new projects that I think are important to mention. He has written a book, “Sergeant Shelton’s Black Book: Hard Won Lessons and Down Home Truths on Young Men and War”, to be launched in January of 2010. I’ll be waiting in line to buy it when it comes out. Billy’s second project is the founding of the 501 (c) non-profit Sergeant Shelton’s Wounded Warrior Ranch Retreat , the culmination of the principles by which he has lived his life. SSWWRR is a place where wounded warriors and their families can stay and heal. The amenities the Retreat will offer are too many to list here, save to say it sounds like a truly amazing place that will allow those recovering from their wounds ‘a little bit of heaven’ at no cost to them. SSWWRR is located 75 miles west of San Antonio, Texas, along the Frio River. Please join me in supporting this wonderful cause by donating and/or getting the word out about it, as well as purchasing “Sergeant Shelton’s Black Book”.

My second thought today turns to former SSgt. Darrell “Shifty” Powers, E Company, 2d Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. Shifty was a surviving member of the famed Easy Company, portrayed in the book “Band of Brothers”. I recently found out that Mr. Powers passed away on June 17th, with little or no media coverage, which is to me deplorable. Today, I join everyone at the Warrior Legacy Foundation in virtually honoring Shifty Powers for his service and heroism. Men like Shifty and their stories should never be overlooked and forgotten. We lost another hero last month, and I hope that wherever Shifty is right now, he is getting the rest he earned…and hopefully hoisting a drink or two with his comrades in arms. Thank you, Mr. Powers.

The third person I am thinking about today is Pfc Bowe Bergdahl, whose name has been released as the US soldier being held captive by the Taliban. I can’t possibly imagine what this young man has gone through since his capture, nor the pain and worry of his family. My thoughts and prayers are with him, and I hope he knows that no one is giving up on him. I sincerely hope that Pfc Bergdahl takes comfort in the knowledge that we won’t stop looking for him; we don’t leave our men behind. I’ll end this thought with lines from the Code of Conduct:

  1. I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.  
  2. I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command I will never surrender those under my command while they still have the means to resist.  
  3. If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.  
  4. If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information nor take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades. If I am senior I will take command. If not, I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way.  
  5. When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, service number, and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.  
  6. I will never forget that I am an American, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.

An Unlikely Sailor

There’s no feeling quite like having your voice heard when you’ve got something to say. A couple weeks ago, I had sent an email to my state Representative about a matter affecting the company I work for. When I saw a reply from his office, I expected it to be the standard form letter—you know, “Thank you for your email, we appreciate your concern….” etc. I was surprised then when I opened it and read it. The man himself had replied to me, saying thank you and that he would like to speak to me about my concerns personally and requesting my phone number. Later that evening he indeed called me, straight out of a legislative session, and he spoke to me at length. I have to say I was really impressed that he took the time to hear me. It was the first time since I was old enough to vote that I really felt a connection to the civic process.

Recently, I also was browsing the US Coast Guard’s website, looking through their history section. My maternal grandmother was a SPAR (the Coast Guard’s version of a WAVE) during WWII, serving as a Corpsman. I have a copy of a newspaper article about her receiving the Congressional Silver Lifesaving Medal, presented to her by Capt. Dorothea Stratton. It states in the article that my grandmother was the first SPAR to ever receive this medal. So as I was reading through the list of Coast Guard firsts, I noticed she wasn’t listed there. I sent an email to the site webmaster, telling them about her and the newspaper article I have. Well today, I went back to the site and she was on the list. What a great feeling! Our family (and me in particular) are really proud of her service and achievement, and I am tickled to see her honored in this way.

So my thoughts today are reflective of my grandmother, my family in general, and the origins of my own service. If looked at superficially, the fact that I ended up in the Navy is actually a little odd. I spent much of my formative years in what was essentially a very hippie existence. My Mom hit her prime in the 1960’s, and she never really lost that culture. My childhood was set to the soundtracks of Cat Stevens, Harry Chapin, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez. We lived way out in the middle of nowhere in northern California, in the Sierra Nevada mountains. We shopped mostly at the local natural foods store, and I remember eating a lot of vegetables, grainy bread, and brown rice. Where most kids spent their allowance on toys or something, I bought sugary cereal (to my mother’s everlasting chagrin). We attended fringe gatherings and festivals, where it seemed to me like there were a lot of people wearing not a lot of clothes; though there was usually some really good live music. My brother and I were little wild animals in the summer—swimming like fish in the river, adept at picking blackberries and climbing trees for crabapples. We ran around barefoot and turned brown as nuts. I guess that explains the freckles I have now (curses!).

We took a gazillion road trips and camped all year round, snow, rain or shine. We skied, snowshoed, hiked, climbed, paddled, spelunked, foraged, explored. Each activity was accompanied by some kind of lesson from my mother. We were taught how to be safe, how to make a fire, how to find clean drinking water. We learned what we could and couldn’t eat, what to do if we thought we were lost, how to make a splint from our surroundings, how to treat rattlesnake bites, how to rappel, to traverse. We learned the necessity of caloric intake and the value of carrying GORP, how to MacGuyver a fishing rig and catch hellgrammites or minnows for bait. When I expressed interest in buying a gun when I was 14, she made sure I was taught proper gun safety and marksmanship by the local cops at their indoor range. The culmination of all this knowledge was that, by the time I was a teenager, it wasn’t unusual for me to head out for the weekend by myself armed with a pack, tent, groundpad, mummy bag, compass, topo map, and a fishing pole; all the makings of a great weekend. As an adult, I can see what great value there was in the lessons my Mom imparted: how to respect but not fear your environment, and how personal limitations can always be pushed and exceeded, and the importance of strength and self reliance.

Though my mother’s political and social leanings were decidedly and sometimes radically liberal (when I was 5, I remember her shouting that if Regan was elected, we were going to camp out on the White House lawn in protest—the thought of which still mortifies me), she was always very pro-military. We have strong service threads running through our family that we take great pride in: my mother was an Air Force brat, one grandfather Army, the other Air Force, grandmother Coast Guard, brother Army. She used to tell us over and over again that Americans focus too much on their rights and not enough on their responsibilities as citizens. You have to give yourself in service of some sort before you can partake of the rights bestowed upon you by the Constitution. That may not necessarily mean military service (though she still believes to this day that we should have a minimum 2 year mandatory military service for all citizens), there are any number of ways that you could serve your country to ensure its betterment. The idea was the same though, your responsibility to others starts at home, and expands with a ripple effect to your neighbors and on and on to all Americans. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you—my mother’s prime cardinal rule.

So when I found myself at age 21, directionally and financially challenged in college, it was her that suggested I look to the military. Though at the time it felt like a spur of the moment decision and an abrupt right turn, I am and always will be grateful to her for pointing out the obvious open door to me. She is loud and proud of my time in the Navy, as is all my family. If I have any one regret in my life, it is not fully appreciating the meaning and impact of what I was doing in the Navy at the time I was doing it. If I did, perhaps I would be writing this while still wearing a uniform. However, hindsight being what it is, I can still carry pride in knowing I participated in something very special. The people I served with will be my brothers and sisters forever. And I am forever thankful to my mother for shaping me into who I am today, though she’d probably faint dead away to hear me admit that although I can eat my way through a bowl of rice and veggies, I still prefer a fat greasy cheeseburger or chili dog any day. Love you Mom!

Swedish Pop And A Slow Bus

By far my favorite experiences from my time in the Navy were the places I got to see overseas. In the end, I think I visited 11 different countries; most of which I never would have chosen as a destination had I been planning the trip on my own, but ended up having a great time. I truly enjoy travelling—I dig right in and typically try to find the stuff off the beaten path. I seem to be a magnet for the oddball occurrence however. Every place I went overseas I ended up having some kind of screwy or strange experience, most of which translate now into some pretty entertaining stories for my family and friends.

One of the places we made a port visit to was Koper, Slovenia. I remember not being real chuffed at the announcement before we pulled in, because I had never thought of Slovenia as a popular destination. However, I always try to keep an open mind and so I set about planning the itinerary. My two good buddies and I decided that Ljubljana would be the best place to go, being’s as it’s the capital and seemed like it had a lot of really wonderful things to see. So off we set, day packs full of snacks and minds full of tomfoolery.

We managed to get ourselves on a bus despite the obstacle of not a lot of English signage nor us speaking any Slovenian. We were about 75% sure we were on the right bus, mostly based on the utilization of the tried-and-true foreign travel technique of repeating our destination to the driver (“Ljubljana? Is this the bus to Ljubljana? Ljubljana??”) and receiving a head nod in response. Alrighty then, good to go.

We had deduced that Ljubljana was about 75 miles from Koper, and figured we’d be there in 2 hours tops. We only had about 12 hours of liberty time before we had to be back, we all had duty the next day. I calculated 4 hours for travel, 6 hours for fun, and 2 for a margin of error. Well. It became quickly apparent that we had made a critical tactical error in not learning the Slovenian words for ‘Slowest Bus In The Country’, because clearly that was what we had boarded. After more than 3 hours, not only had we not arrived in Ljubljana, but we were starting to worry that perhaps we had unwittingly crossed over into Austria or Yugoslavia or something. I started mentally reviewing the Geneva Convention articles and wondered about extradition treaties.

All three of us were paranoid enough at that point to agree that we needed to get off the bus soon, and so at the next stop we bailed out. It turned out we ended up in the town of Postojna—a truly lovely place. We managed to grab some food, and with the aid of some clever sign language we found the post office, which had a bank of public telephones. I’ll tell you, that was a fun conversation back home: “Hi Mom! Hi honey, where are you? Postonja. It’s in Slovenia. What? Where is that? I have no idea, but it’s beautiful here! Hang on, let me get the atlas.” So after that, we were in a quandary about what to do next.

We found the Postonja Tourism Bureau and went in to see what this burg had to offer. There was a wonderful woman who spoke perfect English, who recommended we go see the local Predjama Castle. Sweet! Anything involving castles, I’m in. It turned out that there wasn’t a real taxi service in town, but she promised that she would arrange for transportation to get us up to the castle and back. We waited outside, and before long an unmarked black Mercedes pulled up and a surly looking man dressed in all black got out. The lady from the Bureau came out and told us that for $20 US, he would drive us. I don’t know what the guys were thinking, but it looked pretty shaky to me—a little too reminiscent of East Germany or something. But we three liked to live on the edge, so we piled in and our driver took off like the Stasi was hot on our tail.

We wound up this narrow mountain road out of town at an insane speed, my buddies and I throwing glances at one another, nobody saying a word. We’d tried to talk to the driver, but just got an impassive look in response. Super. So to take my mind off how nervous I was, I started looking out the window. In just about 2 seconds, I forgot about the creepy ride from hell I was on: the mountains rose up like saw teeth, perfectly purple and snowcapped. We started seeing these little cottages with actual thatched roofs, and it looked like we had been dropped out of the sky into a Hans-Christian Anderson story. Phenomenal!

You know in the movies when a beautiful reverie is interrupted by the sound of the record scratch? Well, halfway up that mountain, our driver popped in a cassette tape, and at high volume out came… ABBA. Actually, it was an ABBA medley mix. For the final 15 minutes of our drive, our scene was set to ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Fernando’, ‘Waterloo’, and ‘Take A Chance On Me’. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life. To this day, I can’t hear an ABBA song without thinking of that trip!

At any rate, we arrived at the Predjama Castle, which is an architectural marvel, built right up against a 400 ft. sheer cliff face so that it looks like it is carved right out of the rock. It has a built in tunnel connecting the castle with a massive natural cave in the mountain, where it was used historically for a smuggling cache, storage of goods, and defensive hideout for when the residents were being besieged. They have done a good job at restoring the castle, and it now operates as a museum of sorts, displaying artifacts of medieval life.

The Slovenia trip is one that will stick with me for the rest of my life. Despite the fact we never got to Ljubljana, we were blessed with seeing some remarkable things and still managed to make it back to the ship safely and in one piece—always a plus. Zdravo Slovenija, mi had a velik cas!

Did the world stop turning this last week?

I have doubts that this post will profound in any form, and yet I’ll persevere. I have a serious bee in my bonnet regarding all the coverage of Michael Jackson’s death and memorial. Now, I’ll just say that for those who were in his life that cared for him, my condolences. In fact, the one thing about this whole crazy mess that really made me feel sad was the speech given by his daughter. No matter what, he was her father and no one can or should detract from that. That being said, by all that’s holy---could there perchance have been any actual relevant events worth reporting on during this last week? Amidst sensational coverage of MJ’s golden coffin arriving at the Staples Center, might there possibly be families of more than 13 soldiers grieving over their deaths in combat and wanting our country and media to honor them publically for their ultimate sacrifice? Call me crazy.

And what about the soldier in Afghanistan who is currently being held captive by some fairly nasty individuals? Have we forgotten about him? Somewhere, right now, I am willing to bet his family is holding a vigil; waiting, praying, hoping that he is returned to them. That should deserve something, at the very least continued public awareness so that he and his family might have the knowledge that their nation cares.

I freely admit that I am as susceptible to celebrity gossip as the next person. I see it as a sort of executive perk—being an American who has served and is concerned with earning my rights—the right to be curious and entertained. However. By continuing to saturate the airwaves, newspapers, radio, and internet with nonstop attention of a man who’s biggest contribution was merely to pop culture, we are showing to the world that we care more about a person’s ability to entertain than someone’s service and sacrifice to help ensure a safer, stronger union. Why are we placing a higher value on celebrity and sensation that we are on sacrifice and duty? Most of those I know who are serving or have served in our military are quite content to just go about their business and do their jobs quietly, from what I’ve seen. No huge fanfare necessary. But the occasional thank you and show of appreciation by our media would be nice.

Post note: A big thanks to the guys at Blackfive for keeping everyone posted on what's been happening in the real world during this circus.

WOT: Where Are We Now?

I recently re-read the 9/11 Commission Report. I had first read it shortly after it came out, but at the time was more interested in the factual elements of the attacks themselves. This time, I focused on the events leading up to and after the attacks. Several things jumped out at me. I started thinking about where we are as a nation, nearly 8 years after 9/11, regarding the War on Terror. Are we better prepared now than we were to prevent or handle the next inevitable attack on our country?

One thing is clear. Those who wish us harm have not lost any of their hatred for the United States. They are waiting, planning, and preparing for the next opportunity to strike. They possess patience and long memories. Our prime challenge is not to forget the danger we face. We have a history of letting time blur our hindsight and foresight, slipping back into complacency born of national and global success.

In the final portions of the 9/11 report, it addresses several failures we made that made us vulnerable to the attacks. The first was ‘Failure of Imagination’. This to me is a prime example of the complacency I mentioned above. The feeling of “it can’t happen to me”, or that we assume that any attacks on Americans are going to take place on foreign soil. The report mentions a great example of this: despite evidence that the Japanese were looking at Pearl Harbor as an option for attack, there were also reports that they would attack US interests somewhere in Southeast Asia. So with the prevailing belief that the enemy wasn’t capable or wouldn’t dare attack us on our own soil, we chose to believe they would attack us elsewhere.

We couldn’t imagine that an entire anchored Naval fleet would be attacked on home soil, nor did we imagine that a commercial jetliner would be used as a weapon itself. Prior to 9/11, we believed nearly exclusively that terrorism conformed to certain rules—hijackings were done to achieve a goal (i.e.: a release of prisoners, ransom, etc.), or that the prime risk to airliners was someone planting a bomb on board. Information about new or improvisational tactics weren’t deemed credible. I see this as a failure to properly assess the enemy. We underestimated the commitment terrorists have to hurt us, as well as their capability to adapt and improvise. Three quotes from The Art of War come to mind, the first I think should be foremost in our minds as a nation: “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” The following quotes are chilling if looked at from the view of terrorists: “Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.”, and finally “If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”. It appears to me that al Qaeda knows their Sun Tzu.

Another factor that became clear to me in the Report was the massive communications black hole that existed in the intelligence gathering and reporting agencies. I get that, at any given moment, there are millions of pieces of data flying around about possible terrorist threats to the US, and by and large most of them don’t amount to much. Data about threats can come in at so many different points through any agency: the CIA, the FBI, INS, ATF, what have you. A source could walk into an embassy in the Phillipines with what could be vital information, but it doesn’t necessarily get disseminated to everyone. Why can’t there be some kind of central database for intelligence blurbs, with relevant facts relating to the tip formed in keywords that could be entered by an agency as report of the contact? I know it’s simplistic, but if I can plug in a string of seemingly random words into Google and come up with results, an FBI agent in say, Denver should be able to search for a string like “attack, US, plan, building” and receive hits regarding information received from agencies stationed overseas. Some kind of centralized database could make tracking and anticipating future attacks easier because you never know who is going to be the guy to put two and two together and see an alarming picture.

Terrorists utilize fear to change their target’s behavior, seeking to employ panic reactions to force their ideological goals. The only way to take the teeth out of fear is to name it and understand it, turning it into a positive impetus where it can be managed and made to work for us. Manageable fear keeps people alert, keeps people alive, and keeps people thinking on their feet. When we get to that point, we can start to identify what is acceptable risk and are able to live without looking over our shoulders and changing how we do business. There has to be a way of naming our enemy without underestimating his potential, and at the same time getting the message out that he will not change us nor do we consider him an equal.

One thing I consider with pride as the most classic American traits is innovation. Throughout the last 233 years, if we don’t like the way something stands we go right on ahead and change it. America has never been afraid to stand up and say we want something different, better. We are a nation that has again and again pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. Because of this, I can’t think we’re not imaginative enough to outthink those bent on terrorism. We need to turn to and make Red Team thinking the standard—the most creative scenarios our own minds could come up with are going to be better by far than any they can come up with, I believe it to my bones. That is of course assuming we know our enemies as well as we know ourselves.

I’ll end with the famous quote from John Paul Jones aboard the Bonhomme Richard as he fought with the HMS Serapis at the furious battle of Flamborough Head, his ship on fire and crippled, in response to the British Captain asking if they would strike their colors: “I have not yet begun to fight!”

9/11: Looking Back Nearly 8 Years

There is a moment that I consider one of the most defining moments of my life, and changed forever my outlook on myself and the world. It’s not a story of any unusual heroism, but it is the story of my experiences of 9/11.
I am proud to have served in the Navy, from 1997-2003. I was a Nuke--officially MM1 (SW), and served my sea time aboard the USS George Washington (CVN-73) out of NOB in Virginia. Now, if you know any nukes or have heard anything about us, you’ll know that we almost serve in a different Navy. We are an intelligent group, smart and sassy. A lot of normal naval rules don’t apply to nukes—we report ultimately to Congress, don’t have the same GQ stations as the rest of the ship, are exempt from ‘mess cranking’ like the other poor souls that newly report to the ship and have to spend weeks doing something other than their job, and even the lowliest reactor plant enlisted watchstander has the same authority and responsibility as the highest watch officer in regards to safety of the plant. All of the factors of being a nuke combine to make us a world unto ourselves amidst the floating city that is a carrier, and because of this most others aboard consider nukes to be prima-donnas: arrogant, insubordinate, aloof, privileged. We are all that and more, in the best and worst sense.

In the early hours of the morning of September 11, 2001, the GW was steaming off the coast of the Carolinas on what was supposed to be a 3 day shakedown cruise. We had just come out of the shipyard for a refit and maintenance period and were testing the repairs and looking for any operational problems. We in the nuclear contingent took this opportunity to conduct reactor plant casualty drills. During the course of a drill set, a mistake had been made by a watchstander that violated casualty procedure and could have quite easily, except for sheer luck, affected the safety and reliability of one of the plants. I was a member of the team running the drills, and so after making the plant safe we were mustered in a classroom by 0830 to debrief and await what was sure to be a royal ass-chewing. We were told the CO himself was on his way down and I’m sure we all knew we were in for a truly unpleasant morning. None of us had any inkling just how unpleasant it was about to become.

Moments before the Captain was expected to arrive, just before 0900, there was a commotion from the office across the hall. Within a few seconds, the door to the classroom crashed open and someone shouted, “Holy shit! A plane just hit the World Trade Center!” Everyone in the room started making for the door, to go find the television in the office. Now, this office housed 6 people comfortably and perhaps 12 if you didn’t mind smelling what the guy next to you had for chow. We easily doubled that capacity, all of us vying for headspace to view the TV. There was much conversation and speculation, the general consensus being that an airliner had somehow gotten disastrously off course. And then the second plane hit. In my life, I have felt personal and emotional panic but I have never before or since felt what happened in that room, at that instant. It was a body of panic—a body of more than 20 people, pressed shoulder to shoulder. I could literally feel it. It was like a universal shudder; people’s bodies started ping-ponging off one another. We all knew after the second plane hit that our country was under attack.

We were shortly shepherded back to the classroom. Despite the obvious crisis occurring, the CO was still waiting to speak with us. To this day, I have the highest respect for that man for many reasons, but primarily because of his conduct on that day. He could have easily and perhaps should have turned right around and headed back up to where he was needed, but instead took the time to address our motley crew. He told us that apparently something quite serious was going on and that we would receive information as soon as he could pass it along. He also told us in no uncertain terms that now more than ever he needed our ‘A’ game and that we must deliver. No mistakes, no bullshit. Nukes by and large are not a hooyah group, fairly sedate even in the face of high rank. But the universal “Aye, Aye Captain!” was the most heartfelt I’ve ever heard.

After his departure, we all made our way to any available television to watch what was going on. There were a lot of discussions about lost planes, planes in the air, and whether or not the military would shoot down a commercial jetliner full of civilians. The talk was cut off when the Pentagon was hit. Any lingering doubts that anyone had were silenced by that strike to the heart of the American military institution.

In the moments following the attack on the Pentagon, I heard the sound of feet running on the deckplates above me. It is a sound I will recognize forever: even in my sleep, even if I was blindfolded and dropped in the middle of Times Square and someone made that noise I would know it above all others. I knew now was the time to go to work. And as I came up the ladderwell to the p-way that would take me to the reactor plant, I saw something that truly drove home just what kind of a no-shit situation we were in: nukes running. That never happens, nukes don’t run—they saunter. I’ve seen nukes walk with purpose and even approach a trot, slide down ladderwells yelling “Down ladder, make a hole!” The fact is that to maintain our carefully crafted air of could-care-less, we don’t exert more than minimum effort to haul our pale sun-deprived doughy poop decks around. But not that day.

I was nearly to the plant when the whole ship started shaking like an earthquake, the kind of shaking that comes from a full backing maneuver from a forward bell. An 1100 ft. long ship that displaces more than 80,000 tons doesn’t do anything quickly, and generally avoids aggressive maneuvering. But the GW started heeling over, fast, like we were doing high-speed turns for testing. And then heeled over some more. And I’m telling you, stuff started flying, nearly including me. Chairs, tables, carts, and people went rocketing across the mess decks. I’ve sailed through two separate hurricanes and those were the only other times in addition to this that the GW was anything other than rock steady on the floor. When we finally came around, the shuddering started again, this time from what I knew was an ahead flank bell. We were on our way somewhere, fast.

I went down to the plant, as did pretty much everyone else in Reactor Department. Other than doubling up the watch teams and ensuring that we were ready and able to “give her all she’s got, capt’n”, there was unfortunately not much else to do except wait and speculate. The CO made an announcement ship-wide over the 1MC about the attacks and that we should consider the US to be under attack from an unknown enemy. I should note that it is almost unheard of for anyone to broadcast our actual position or intended location. Those of aboard who were curious usually had to figure out where we were in the world by looking at one of the computerized real-time maps scattered around the ship. The last portion of the CO’s announcement stated, “Our speed is all ahead flank, bearing 000. Our destination is New York harbor. Our mission is to provide air defense to New York city and the eastern seaboard of the United States.”

With our new directive firmly in mind, the hypothesizing began in earnest all around the ship. I am not sure at that point in the day if the phrase “al Qaeda” even came up, though we knew the attacks to be the work of terrorists for sure. Speaking for myself, I had a concern that topped all others at that moment: my ship, currently heading straight into unknown danger was essentially naked. I mentioned before we were on a shakedown cruise. I’m not entirely sure that 100% of the shipyard work was even complete. We still had bare unpainted hull welds, and some equipment not yet reinstalled. Additionally, prior to the yard period we did a weapons offload. Meaning we had next to nothing in the way of defensive weaponry. In the most general terms, I believe we had a small number of Mk 57 Sea Sparrow missiles (NSSMS—and by small I say you could count them on one hand), a couple thousand 20mm Phalanx CIWS rounds, and an unknown but probably small amount of ammo for the .50 cal machine guns. Most problematic was the complete lack of aircraft aboard, a carrier’s primary offensive and defensive weapon. I take that back—we had one airplane. It was an F-14 that on the deployment preceding our return to the states had semi-crashlanded on deck and became unairworthy. The engines had been removed and offloaded, but the plane itself had been just lurking in the hangar bay until we could get a crane to take it out at the end of our shipyard period. If you can believe it, they put that sucker up on the flight deck right at one of the catapults to look like it was ready to launch. I think if we’d had inflatable aircraft á la the Allied dummy tanks in WWII, we’d have done that too.

The solution to the problem of no planes was remedied that afternoon and evening. We continued to transit north, and made a stop in Narragansett Bay; both to pick up a contingent of smaller ships that had come up the James and Potomac rivers, and to catch our aircraft—expediently and generously loaned to us by a carrier that was near Gibraltar. In 4 years aboard the GW, including 2 deployments to the Med and Persian Gulf, I experienced my share of flight operations. In fact, since I slept one deck directly below the arresting gear hydraulics I used to hate flight ops with the power of a thousand suns, because it was near impossible to sleep while they were landing planes. Selfish I know, but sleep to me was like air and food and I defended it righteously. I stand fully and publically contrite about that now—my heart expanded with relief at the sound of the first planes being caught that day. We caught one after another after another with a speed I hadn’t seen before, so many and so fast I lost count. But I knew with each passing concussion of noise that we were not only not going into battle with our pants down around our ankles, but we were going in to kick ass and take names if needed.

We sailed on through the night, and by the time I awoke early on the morning of September 12 we were already on station in the harbor off Manhattan island. We sailed slow circles; the Statue of Liberty seemed terribly small in relation to the rest of the city and the terrible columns of black smoke that rose into the sky from the site of the twin towers. Everyone on board was prepared to help in any way they could. The aft mess decks was cleared in preparation to become a triage area for wounded, the walking blood bank was activated and readied for potential casualties, and hundreds of people volunteered to go ashore in RHIBs or ferries to help with the rescue efforts. We’d had, unfortunately, a small bit of experience with this kind of thing earlier in the summer of 2000 when a commercial airliner crashed into the sea on go-around near Manama, Bahrain where we were anchored. We helped in rescue and recovery then, and were even more ready to do so again.

Though we were never authorized to go ashore and no wounded ever made it aboard, we apparently served another purpose. I’d been worried about the morning of our arrival because, staring back at us on CNN was…us. I wondered if New Yorkers waking up in the morning and seeing this gargantuan ship parked off their back porches wouldn’t actually increase their fear, the fear that the threats were ongoing and imminent. I wanted people to feel protected and know that we had their backs, no matter what happened next. Well, my fears were unfounded and I got what I wanted. I think I can best sum up the reaction to our presence by paraphrasing an e-mail the ship received some point after 9/11: a man from Manhattan wrote to us that he hadn’t hardly slept the night after the attacks, and that the first time he felt a relief from his fear was when dawn broke and he saw the GW out on the water. He likened it to having a really big ferocious dog guarding the door of his house. Well said, man from Manhattan.

In the days following 9/11, a lot is blurry. One thing stands out for me though: I don’t remember when we found it or from where it came, but a political cartoon from some newspaper started making its way around the ship. It had no words, just a picture of an eagle sitting on a stool sharpening its claws with a file. I think that illustrated our feelings more succinctly than anything else. In the end, our 3 day cruise ended up being a bit like the Gilligan’s Island boat and was extended a bit, but for me exemplified for the first time what it meant to serve my country. Everything that came before was simply leading up to that moment; all the training and exercises finally made sense, and we were unified in our desire to see the mission through. The GW’s motto is, “The Spirit of Freedom”. I now know what that means.