21 June, 2008

DV Embark: Overview

"DV" stands for Distinguished Visitor. I'm not sure how distinguished I am, but I was definitely a visitor to an aircraft carrier at sea this week for just about 24 glorious hours. I have struggled mightily with how to write about this. I truly don't know where to start, and it seems so many others have expressed it all so much better than I. But I'll try...

Aircraft carriers are a jumble of paradoxes—postage stamp-size for a plane taking off and landing, yet gargantuan for the visitor who would have an easier time navigating a foreign country than the distance between his bed and the nearest exit; incomprehensibly complex to the outsider, but blindingly simple to the person explaining every detail of how his particular machine operates and how it affects the rest of the ship; hot, cramped, humid and miserable for the sailor manning the catapult engine 16 hours a day, while spacious and exhilarating for the "Shirt" repositioning aircraft on a quiet deck as the sun rises.

I was also struck by the contrasts between the youngest sailors given so much life-and-death responsibility, and even the best of the teenagers I currently know or observe. If the startlingly young man on his 16th hour of monitoring and maintaining the catapult engine screws up, somebody above him can be severely maimed or killed. If the eighteen year old I had breakfast with doesn't do proper maintenance of the ship's diesel backup engines/power plant, 5,000 people come to a grinding halt. If their doppelganger at McDonalds doesn't wash his hands, someone goes home and is sick for a little while. Maybe.

But it's more than that. There is a light in the eyes of young sailors given great responsibility. It is the spark of confidence in knowing both that what they do matters and that they are up to the task. Even the shy ones or those without the gift of gab will still straighten a bit more and look you in the eyes when you ask about what they do and how they feel about it. And then they'll proceed to immediately communicate that information to you in a straightforward, easily-understood manner that resonates with quiet pride.

You can see echoes of those kids in the Command Master Chief who was once one of them. And yes, he calls them kids. His kids. He described his job as helping them find that spark of pride and confidence, "Getting them to the deciding point," he calls it--the point where they have completed their first enlistment with honor, learned at least one skill/trade, and have an Associate's degree so that they have the opportunity to attempt to move forward into a successful naval career or step out with a personal and intellectual skill set that will make them successful civilians (the CMC deserves an entire post of his own, a lesson in management and leadership).

But over and over again, it was the very youngest sailors who most amazed me. Volunteering at the USO, I see the full range of young sailors coming through: the terribly nervous ones straight out of Boot Camp at Great Lakes who are going to a school to learn their "Navy trade," and the more polished but just-as-nervous sailors going to their first duty station. The ones who walk in with the world on their shoulders and a bad attitude to match, and the “squared away” ones who are somehow every inch the teen while still being polite, respectful, and quietly confident. Overwhelmingly, it was that last type I saw most often on U.S.S. STENNIS this week—and it was those in the menial jobs that impressed me the most.

Our meals included times in the general mess hall with the enlisted, but our first meal was a formal dinner set up in one of the wardrooms. We were served by a wait staff that was as polished, attentive and efficient as any fine dining could require. I enjoyed the experience, but thought nothing of it until our host commented that these sailors were not formally trained in this; they were merely doing their grunt time as brand new sailors before moving up into the positions for which they had actually enlisted.

I was floored. Their attitudes, professionalism, and way above and beyond approach to dealing with a unique situation during the meal would have done the finest restaurant more than proud. I was humbled, and honored. If how they can serve a meal is anything close to how they are going to approach their more ship-related tasks when they advance, STENNIS will be in very good hands.

The old cliché about aircraft carriers is that they are a floating city, which is absolutely true. And like any city they’re a mixed bag of humanity, though the bell curve is much thinner on the negative end than in the general population. In the case of STENNIS, it’s quite obvious—from the lowliest seaman to the senior officers and Chiefs—the good guys are generally in charge.

I’ll put it another way: I went out there thinking I’d meet some neat people, but expecting to be wowed by the technology. I had quite the opposite experience—wowed by the people.

I’ll write about it all in detail in multiple upcoming posts. And yes, they lost my camera when they took everything that wasn't attached to our clothing at the catapult safety briefing and put it in the cargo section of the plane [update 6/27/08: Found!]. It had every scrap of video and every photo I took while onboard. Even my notes were in that bag. The only proof I have that I was ever there is the ship’s photo of Captain Johanson and the DV group. The fact that I haven't cried about that is either an indicator of my continuing total exhaustion, or testament to the fact that the rest was so overwhelmingly impressive it can't be overshadowed. I suspect the latter...

Update: Okay, I cried. I remembered something else that was in the camera bag--a delicate gold and silver Harley-Davidson necklace given me by a soldier I had adopted long before I thought of Valour-IT and with whom I had lost contact until he requested a laptop due to his wounds. He gave it to me the day we met after his recovery, when he called me a real-live angel and took me out on a Harley. As much as it's a hit to my finances, I don't care about the expensive camera, the $100+ dollars in cash, or even my driver's license or the notes I took. But the pictures/video and the necklace are irreplaceable. The disappearance of the bag is just incomprehensible, based on the geography and logisitics of the situation, but these things happen. I know that from my own travails in trying to keep track of stuff. If that's the bill for the opportunity I just had, I can accept it. And I'll always have the pictures in my head, which reproduces them far better than any pixels or ink. It sucks, though. Just. sucks.

Update II: Hurry Up and Wait