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

September 16, 2009

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.