Transcript

206:

Somewhere in the Arabian Sea
Transcript

Originally aired 03.01.2002

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/206

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Today's radio show was first recorded back in January 2002. It was still very early after September 11, and US forces at the time were fighting in Afghanistan. Today, of course, there are many more Americans fighting in the region than there were back then, and so the show about what daily life is like for some men and women in the war on terror still seems relevant.

Our enemies are in hiding. Some lived in caves. Some cross borders in disguise. Some slip from one safe house to the next. Sometimes they must go hungry. They pray. Meanwhile, on the largest warship ever built, stocked with the most advanced weapons in the world and a crew of over 5,000, an American sailor was doing her job in the war against terror.

Prevon Scott

My name is Prevon Scott. I'm just filling up the vending machines.

Alex Blumberg

Is that your full-time job?

Prevon Scott

Yes.

Alex Blumberg

It's your full-time job?

Prevon Scott

Yeah, filling up vending machines all day for 12 hours.

Ira Glass

A few weeks ago, This American Life producers Alex Blumberg, Wendy Dorr, and I flew halfway around the world to spend some time on the USS John C. Stennis. The Stennis is one of two aircraft carriers that are launching jet fighters to support the ground troops in Afghanistan. Alex is the one who talked to Prevon Scott.

Alex Blumberg

What are the big sellers?

Prevon Scott

Right now, it's Snickers and Starburst. Snickers goes real fast.

Alex Blumberg

What's the least favorite candy on board?

Prevon Scott

Bonkers, the fruit chews. We got boxes of those, and still have them. Sometimes if we don't have anything else, we'll just put all rows of Bonkers, and they'll still stay in here.

Alex Blumberg

So people hate Bonkers?

Prevon Scott

Yeah.

Alex Blumberg

Nobody likes them.

Prevon Scott

We've still got them. But we've been ordering a whole lot of new stuff, so I've been trying to keep a whole variety of things in here, like Crunch 'n Munch. We just got the Crunch 'n Munch, and the Cheez-Its we normally didn't have in here.

Alex Blumberg

Cheez-Its?

Prevon Scott

Yeah, the Cheeze-Its. The different kind of Cheez-Its.

Ira Glass

Our enemies, needless to say, are not supplied with Crunch 'n Munch. Yes, we're at war, and yes, that means thousands of Americans are in Kandahar and Kabul and other very dangerous places, doing very dangerous things. But for every person on the front lines, there are dozens backing them up with equipment, logistical support, and Cheez-Its. This aircraft carrier has only 50 or 60 pilots on board who actually drop bombs, who actually take part in combat. Everyone else is here, over 5,000 people, to get them in the air.

Back home, over the last few months, we've heard about the pilots. We've heard about the people doing more heroic work. But everybody else on this ship is also at war, is also far from home, is also sacrificing something to be here, and we wanted to hear their stories too. It's one thing to turn your life upside down to go shoot bullets at bad guys. It's another to give up everything to go fill candy machines 12 hours a day.

In the months since the USS Stennis embarked for the Arabian Sea, Prevon has only gone outside twice. If you picture for a moment what an aircraft carrier looks like, the deck of the ship, that big, flat deck, is where jets take off and land, so you can't just walk around up there. She sees daylight maybe once a day. She's 20 years old. It's her first time away from home.

Prevon Scott

You know, the hardest part is just missing home, the home thing. If I can get over that, then I'll be all right. When I first got here, I was really bad. I cried every day, and stuff like that. My parents are really helpful. They email me every day and stuff.

Ira Glass

Today on our program, everyday life aboard a ship at war, what it's really like. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Alex and Wendy and I went to the Stennis together, and throughout this hour you'll hear from all three of us.

Wendy Dorr

We got to the Stennis about six weeks after the ship arrived in the North Arabian Sea.

Ira Glass

The other aircraft carrier on duty there, the Theodore Roosevelt, sends planes during the day, and the Stennis sends them at night. This means that reveille is called over the ship's PA system to wake everybody up for work at 7:00 PM. We expected a bugle, or at least a recording of a bugle, but it turns out to be sort of no frills.

Pa System

Reveille, reveille, all hands heave out.

Ira Glass

From the time we get up, we're led everywhere by a group of public affairs officers, who are, contrary to what you think they might be-- well, contrary to what we suspected they'd be anyway-- good-humored and quite helpful. Our first day they lead us down a long passageway. Every 15 feet or so there's a junction, and other hallways go off to the left or right, and ladders go up and down. It's like walking through a big Habitrail.

Officer 1

Make a left there.

Officer 2

Keep going.

Ira Glass

Remember, the boat is huge. It's four and 1/2 acres. But most of the life of the ship takes place here, in the eight stories of rooms and passageways below the flight deck. There are no windows on these decks, and the boat is so big that in good weather, it doesn't really even sway. And so most of the time, the sensation is less being at sea than being underground in some sort of huge subterranean warren.

Officer 2

Can I cut through?

Ira Glass

You're constantly squeezing by people coming from the other direction.

Officer 2

Hey you.

Sailor 1

Are you still awake?

Officer 2

I'm still awake.

Ira Glass

After five minutes of winding our way through these narrow corridors, we come to a big, rounded steel door. It's maybe five feet tall, airtight. It's got a big lever in the middle. Someone turns it, and we climb through into one of the largest rooms we've ever seen.

This is the hangar deck. It's two football fields long, three stories tall. Entering it is like walking through a closet door and finding yourself at the pitcher's mound in the Astrodome. We walk past parked fighter planes and hundreds of people, all scurrying around, pushing hand trucks, talking into walkie-talkies. And then we arrive at the hangar bay door, which is basically a three-story hole in the side of the ship.

Wendy Dorr

It's nighttime. Peering out, we can make out the shadowy outline and red running lights of another huge boat traveling at the same speed we are, maybe 100 yards away. A half dozen steel cables stretch between the two ships. Helicopters dip and swerve back and forth. And then, out of the darkness, two pallets with hundreds of pounds of food come swinging in on a cable.

Mark

We just took on two pallets.

Ira Glass

Lieutenant Commander Mark [? Semmler ?] explains that they're bringing on enough food for 5,000 people for 30 days, plus machine parts, bundles of food. People pass boxes of fresh pears and strawberries and avocados fired brigade-style. The entire operation takes over 250 people. I know everyone knows they're at war. In most jobs it doesn't feel like a war.

Male Sailor

Not at all. We do our job.

Female Sailor

I know everything that's going on, but I'm still like, OK, we're living on the boat for six months.

Male Sailor

I feel like I'm doing my job the same way, and this is pretty much normal. It's not like being on the front lines with an M16 in my hand.

Ira Glass

Do you wish you had a job which put you more in the front lines?

Male Sailor

No, man, no. Not with my wife and stuff. No, I'm very happy with what I am.

Ira Glass

Do you feel in danger here?

Male Sailor

No. I mean, the most those guys got is rifles and missiles. They couldn't fire this far out into the ocean.

Male Sailor

No, actually I feel like this is one of the most secure places you can be. We've got 70-plus aircraft looking for the enemy. When I'm not on a ship, I feel like it could happen anywhere. Any time you drive over a bridge, or go to a public place, it could happen. And I definitely feel safer out here.

Alex Blumberg

The average age on board the ship is 21 years old, and when you ask people how they ended up here, the most common answer is, I don't know. They just shrug, and say they were failing out of school, or they wanted to see the world, or they wanted money for college. Almost all the enlistment stories can be summarized as either, I joined the Navy to straighten out my life, or, I joined the Navy because I wanted something more.

Jessica Phillips

I'm Jessica Phillips. I got here six days ago. I'm going through training right now. So everything's still a blur. I don't even know what day it is. Wednesday? Thursday?

Alex Blumberg

When I asked Jessica Phillips my question about how she ended up on this ship, she looked up at me and said, do you really want to hear this story? It all began, she said, two and half years ago, working at the mall in a Barnes & Noble, and living in the same small town where she'd grown up in Ocala, Florida.

Jessica Phillips

Before I'd never even pay attention to military people. It was so what, you're in the Navy. You're a drunken sailor or marine. People call you bullet sponge. Why would you do that? I didn't understand why people-- personally for me, I never thought I'd be in the military. It was a split-second decision.

The place where I live is considered the black hole. Nobody gets out of there. Most people live and die there, and that's just the way it goes. You grow up with the same people. Everything stays the same. I couldn't take it anymore. So I told my-- I had two girl roommates at the time. And I looked at them. I said, you can have all my stuff. I packed up a suitcase, and I was like, I'm leaving, and I left that night. And I left them money for that month's rent and everything. Look, you need to find a new roommate. I get in my car, which was an '89 Mustang, and just putter away.

Alex Blumberg

Jessica had no idea where she was headed. There were vague thoughts of finding someplace cool and applying to college. She made her way up the coast to Raleigh, North Carolina. Jessica ended up stopping in Raleigh, moving in with friends. But without a job, she had to find other ways to make ends meet.

Jessica Phillips

I used to go gas station to gas station, and ask people for money pretty much. I would be like listen, I'm on a road trip. Most people hand me money, $5 or something. But you can only do that for so long.

So I was just sitting there, and I was trying to figure out what I did this for, first of all. I gave up all my stuff. I'm almost broke. I was just like, I need to figure out what I need to do. I need to do something with myself.

We were having a party, and everybody was partying, and I'm sitting outside. And some guy comes up to talk to me, and he said something about what are you doing tomorrow? And I said, I'm going to go home and join the Navy. And he was like, what? He was just like, what are you talking about? I was like, I think I'm going to pack up, and go home and join the Navy. I was like, this is what I need to do.

Alex Blumberg

Why did the Navy pop into your head? Why Navy?

Jessica Phillips

I have no idea. I think my manager at Barnes & Noble was in the Navy for two years. She was a yeoman, but that was like 20 years ago. And that kind of like came back to me. And I think-- this sounds so cheesy though, but it was like a Navy commercial came on in between television or something. It's the one where they say that the sea is our classroom. They use the intro to some hard core rock song. I think it's a Limp Bizkit song. Maybe not. Maybe it's a Godsmack.

I don't know, but there's the carrier, and it's racing across, and they've got the jets flying over, and they got the people all smiling in their nice uniforms, and sitting in class doing their schoolwork, and the people who are sitting in front of the radar and looking at the picture. And then they're like, most people go to school, but this is our classroom. And then it says gonavy.com. So then I was like, hey, maybe I will.

Alex Blumberg

From the time you told that guy at the party you were going to join the Navy to the time you were in the Navy, how many days passed?

Jessica Phillips

Six. Five. That was a Friday, and that Wednesday I was in boot camp.

Alex Blumberg

When I got back, I actually got a copy of the commercial from the Navy. The entire thing takes 15 seconds, and Jessica's memory of it is pretty much perfect.

Commercial

Why should you consider getting an education in the Navy? This is one of your classrooms. Navy, accelerate your life.

Alex Blumberg

And how is it for you? Once you were in boot camp, did you have second thoughts?

Jessica Phillips

Did I ever have second thoughts. When you first get on the bus, it's a whole nice trip. Everybody's polite to you, everything else. Then you get on the bus, and you're sitting there. Some guy gets on the bus, and tells you you're not home anymore and starts yelling. It's the basic boot camp thing. I'm not your mama or your papa. Stop talking. I don't want to hear it. So I was just like, OK, they're just trying to scare me. Whatever. I'm sitting there laughing. I'm like, God, this is such a movie. I was like, how stereotypical is this?

So they bus us to the Navy boot camp in Great Lakes. And we get off the bus, and it's the middle of the night. It's cold, and they're yelling at you to stand against the wall, and why can't you stand still, and everything else. And when I call your name, yell out your social. And they yell out my name, and I'm standing there yelling my social security number. They're telling me I'm not doing it loud enough. And I'm thinking, what did I do? What am I doing here?

It's 5:00. Gosh, this day is so clear. It's 5:00 in the morning. And you're looking at a stranger, and you understand everything they're feeling. That was one of the few moments where you look at somebody, and you're like, I know exactly what you're thinking. And I know what you're feeling, because I do too.

Alex Blumberg

It got better, of course, and Jessica was satisfied with the Navy. At 22, she says, she's been to countries and seen things she never would have otherwise. But her feelings about the Navy became even stronger after September 11.

Jessica Phillips

As far as September 11, a personal reflection of what it does: you become a little bit more patriotic. Before it was kind of like, maybe, ah, I'm in it. It's a job. I do my eight hours a day, and then I'm done. I'll be able to get my college money. If you had asked me before as a civilian, I'd have been like, oh, war. Make love, not war. Let's go for the hippie side of it.

But now it's just kind of like, I want to cry. I'm tired, so I'm going to start crying. But I look at my family, and it's just like, I'm willing to die for these people on the street, the people you're walking by. I'm willing to give, sacrifice myself for what has happened. I don't even know how to correctly say it, but when you realize that you're really fighting for something and for somebody, it kind of gets more personal.

Alex Blumberg

Almost everyone we talked to said some version of this, even people who happened to be doing jobs they hated. They all felt proud to be out there defending their country. And sometimes while they would talk about it, an almost startled tone would creep into their voices, as if they were as surprised as anyone that this crappy job felt so different than all the other ones they'd ever done. They felt they were doing something that mattered.

To give you a sense of the variety of things going on at any given moment on board the Stennis, here's what we passed walking down just one hallway. On O3 deck was Senior Chief Barbara Mendoza, an electronics repair shop, a room in charge of anti-submarine warfare, an air traffic control center, a conference room that they actually call the war room, the office of the admiral who's in charge of this ship and the six other ships and two nuclear-powered subs which travel with it at all times, protecting it.

Barbara Mendoza

This is CVIC.

Ira Glass

CVIC means?

Barbara Mendoza

Intelligence. They're not really that intelligent. No, they are. And this is the air wing commander's office.

Wendy Dorr

Toward the back of the boat, some corridors have red lights on instead of white, indicating people are asleep. We pass a guy playing Nintendo. Video games of all sorts are huge on the Stennis in off-hours. A guy runs past us with a bloody nose. We never find out the story behind that. There's a workout room, and next to it a locked door that music's blaring out of. Barbara raps on the door.

Barbara Mendoza

[KNOCKING] They're not going to be able to hear me.

Wendy Dorr

On the door is a sign-up sheet for bands who can use the room as a rehearsal space. There are lots of bands on board. This one's called Recoil.

Barbara Mendoza

You feel the door is just echoing. It's just vibrating. [KNOCKING]

Wendy Dorr

The guys in Recoil work on planes or on the flight deck. It can be hard to work out their schedule so they're all free to rehearse at the same time.

Ira Glass

So where do you draw your inspiration from?

Musician

A lot of stuff. That song comes from my ex-wife. I recently got divorced, and it came out of nowhere. I got blindsided. So I draw on my personal experiences.

Ira Glass

And then where do you perform?

Musician

We've performed at the Steel Beach Picnic a couple days ago.

Ira Glass

Where's that?

Musician

Up on the flight deck. Every holiday, like Christmas, they have bands performing in the mess decks, or in the hangar bay. They're going to have a Super Bowl halftime show. We're going to play in the hangar bay.

Ira Glass

The Super Bowl is sort of tricky for an aircraft carrier. They scheduled a day off from flying, but the quality of the ship's satellite TV reception depends on which direction they're heading, so the plan was this: at the start of the game they would set course in the most TV-friendly direction at the slowest possible speed. When they got to halftime, they would turn a 97,000-ton ship around, and then chug back as fast as possible to where they began, while Recoil and other bands played. And then, when the game started again, they would set out again in that first TV-friendly heading at the slowest possible speed.

It's now just a few hours since we saw the resupply operation. We're in the ship's library. It's 11:30 at night. Summer Anderson is on a schedule where her work shift just ended. But before she goes to sleep, she comes here and waits in line for a half hour to go into one of the computers, where she can do email. While she waits, I ask her about her job, which involves moving airplanes around from one spot to another, but she cuts us off.

Summer Anderson

You want to talk about something interesting?

Ira Glass

Sure, let's talk about something interesting.

Summer Anderson

My job's not interesting. No, it's tedious.

Ira Glass

What are you liking about being on board?

Summer Anderson

I actually love the Navy. I don't like my job per se, but I love the whole military. I like the lifestyle.

Ira Glass

Which part of the lifestyle?

Summer Anderson

It becomes kind of like a big family. You all live together. You all dress, and talk, and eat the same exact things. We shower in the same exact showers. It becomes like a culture.

Ira Glass

Summer's friend Melissa walks into the library. She's older than Summer, 25-- Summer's just 19-- and is here to write email back home.

Melissa

Well, I'm a single mom. For my son's kindergarten class he has to email me, so that's why I stay up for that extra hour after work to read them.

Ira Glass

I'd assumed that Summer would also be writing to people back home. She tells me no. She's writing to friends on the ship. It's the only way to keep up with people, she says. Everybody works different hours, and there's a lot to keep up with.

Summer Anderson

That's the other thing about the ship. Rumors just fly. It's amazing. I found out the other day that I liked somebody I never even met. Rumors are amazing on a ship, because people get bored. I don't gossip. And it just goes way out of proportion. It's really actually kind of funny.

Ira Glass

Most of the rumors on board have to do when they're going to get to go to shore. These circulate constantly. The second biggest subject?

Summer Anderson

You know, other people. It's kind of like high school sometimes.

Melissa

Yeah, it's like a small town in the outskirts of nowhere. You know, how everybody knows everything about everybody. You can walk up to someone, look at their name tag, and be like, oh, that's who they were talking about. OK.

Ira Glass

This conversation about rumors ends up getting Alex and Wendy and I in a little bit of trouble, mostly because of me. I find the entire subject so interesting that I bring it up the next place we visit, the ship's laundry. I'm having what I think is a perfectly innocent conversation with an airman named Jason [? Bess. ?] His regular job is to work on high-tech aviation electronics, but the way the Navy works is that when you first report to a ship, you do 90 days at one of the jobs that nobody signs up for when they join the Navy, that the Navy has to have someone do, or you can't actually run a navy-- cleaning, serving food, and doing laundry, thousands of pounds a day of laundry, stacked in bags to the ceiling.

Jason

Right now I'm opening the dryer. This dryer holds about 100 pounds of laundry.

Ira Glass

Jason, it turns out, actually doesn't mind his 90 days doing wash.

Jason

I don't know. I really like laundry, actually.

Ira Glass

Oh yeah?

Jason

Yeah. I feel good. It's just washing laundry. My regular job is really complicated, and sometimes I have a hard time comprehending all the electronical systems, and memorizing all the different systems, and the start-ups and all that. And laundry was a good break, because it's really simple. Here all you do is you just throw it in the washer, take it out of the wash, put it in the dryer. And there's not too much complication.

Ira Glass

And then, at the end of this perfectly nice conversation, I bring up the new thing that I'd learned just minutes before in the library.

Ira Glass

I've heard there's a lot of rumors on board a ship, like there's always rumors. What are some of the rumors that you've heard?

Jason

Oh, you always hear rumors about when we're going to pull in, when we're not going to pull in, when we're going to see a port. And a lot of rumors about when we're going home, because some people say we're going to stay longer. Some people say we may leave earlier. Rumors about like what ports that we're going to hit on the way back, because everybody wants to go to Australia. And of course you hear rumors about different girls and different guys sleeping together, and people getting in trouble and getting caught for that.

Ira Glass

What happens if they caught for that?

Jason

You get in a lot of trouble. You're not allowed to have any fraternization on the ship. That's another thing that's kind of rough. I haven't had much physical contact in a long time. Even just a hug every now and then, you're not really supposed to do that in uniform, and you're always in uniform. I miss affection a lot. I do. I grew up in a very affectionate home, and I'd like to just get a hug every now and then.

Ira Glass

Jason tells me another rumor or two he's heard, we say goodbye, and Wendy and Alex and I go down to get some food. Perhaps 15 minutes later, one of the public affairs officers informs me that Jason and I had been overheard talking about rumors on the Stennis, rumors about men and women sleeping together on board, and that within minutes this had been reported up the ranks, all the way to the ship's executive officer, the person who oversees the day to day operations of the Stennis. People were upset. What sort of story were we putting together anyway?

I won't bore you with the details of several rather tense conversations. Let's just say that we had inadvertently hit a nerve. It's been just eight years since women were first deployed on to combat ships and aircraft carriers, and just 10 years since the Navy was forced to rethink how women were treated in the service in the wake of the Tailhook scandal. This is all still enormously sensitive, sensitive enough that this conversation in the laundry was enough to raise red flags up and down the chain of command.

At some point, we're brought in without our tape recorders to meet the ship's executive officer, a friendly but tightly-wound man named Jeff Miller. And he explains that when new crew members arrive for duty on the Stennis, he personally gives the speech reiterating Navy policy on male-female relationships, a policy he sums up for them as no dating. A date, he tells them, is as simple as two people walking side by side closely, heads leaning together and talking. A date is when you sit too near each other. You should be a minimum, he tells them, of two butt-widths apart. When he spots crew members sitting closer than that, he'll ask them if it's a date, and when of course they say no, he'll tell them, well then make sure it doesn't look like a date.

Which all seems sensible enough. This is a workplace, like any other, and you can't sleep with people you work with. But consider what the Navy is up against in trying to make this policy work. 12% of the crew on the Stennis is female. The average age on board, as we said, is 21 years old. That is thousands of young people cooped up together in a close space for months at a time far from home. Trying to keep people from having sex with each other in that situation is in a sense fighting nature itself.

In any case, after that incident the public affairs officers felt that it was necessary to monitor our interviews a little more closely. Lieutenant Jeff Gorell, one of these very smart, very capable people saddled with the thankless job of escorting us around the ship, a job which the lieutenant compared to herding cats, was with me on the mess deck not long after all this came to pass. We had some time to kill, and I saw a group of talkative young sailors who looked like they might be talkative interviewees. I asked Lieutenant Gorell if it will be OK to talk with them, but worried about their big mouths, he steered me instead to a serious-looking sailor named Kevin [? Wrenn. ?] This turned out to be a mistake for poor Lieutenant Gorell.

Kevin

I'm just ready to go home. I don't know what it's about.

Ira Glass

How come you chose the service?

Kevin

A court order.

Ira Glass

Really, court-ordered?

Kevin

Yeah, that's how they do it in Texas. Instead of you going to jail, they send you to the armed service. So that's how--

Ira Glass

They gave you the choice of jail or the Navy?

Kevin

Yeah, or the armed service, any armed service.

Ira Glass

You don't have to tell me the answer to this, but what kind of trouble were you in?

Kevin

Drugs.

Ira Glass

Drugs?

Kevin

Yeah.

Ira Glass

How much jail would you have had to do?

Kevin

Seven years.

Ira Glass

So how do you like it?

Kevin

It sucks. It's like a prison on water. That's what it is. I don't really like it.

Ira Glass

This was not, of course, what Lieutenant Gorell was hoping for from young Kevin. I asked, hoping to turn things to a more positive area, if Kevin is changing. If people grow when the courts send them out here.

Kevin

No, because people get flown off the ship almost every month for doing drugs and all kinds of stuff. So no, it's whatever you got inside of you. That's what's going to change you. If you don't want to be changed, you ain't going to be changed.

Ira Glass

I could practically hear the acid eating away at Lieutenant Gorell's stomach at this answer. I wracked my brain for the most completely neutral question I can ask.

Ira Glass

So what do you do on your job? Like what is there to do?

Kevin

You just walk around all day. For eight hours you walk around and check spaces.

Ira Glass

And what are you looking for?

Kevin

Just people having sex, fights, anybody drinking, doing stuff they ain't supposed to do on the boat. Hopefully we'll get to see, but I haven't seen anything yet.

Ira Glass

You haven't seen anything yet?

Kevin

No. I've been looking, though.

Ira Glass

I glance over and catch the expression on the lieutenant's face.

Ira Glass

It's actually like people are pretty well behaved on this boat.

Kevin

No, that's not true. That's not true. I don't know who told you that, but this boat is like a love boat right now.

Jeff Gorell

All right, you're done. If anyone ever asks you to do an interview again, say no.

Ira Glass

This is what Lieutenant Gorell has to deal with all day long in the service of his country. As for the love boat aspect of living on the Stennis, a number of men and women both pointed out, with the incredibly long work hours, who has the energy?

By this point, perhaps you've noticed that everyone you've heard so far this hour sounds very, very young. One of the most amazing things about the Navy, and the military in general, is that it takes people who are so young, and then gets them to operate something as huge and complicated as the Stennis.

When I get a chance to visit the bridge and interview the captain of the Stennis, James McDonell, he makes clear that he is intensely aware of the youth of his crew. When he walks through the decks, they tend to chat him up, but on a very narrow range of "are we there yet" questions.

James Mcdonell

When are we going home? When is the end of cruise? What are we going to do after we get back from cruise?

Ira Glass

How often are you asked this question?

James Mcdonell

Oh, several hundred times a day. So, literally, I walk around this ship, and I see the sailors, and I have to come up with a little shtick to make sure that I portray it correctly. It's not very satisfying to just say, we don't know. Although that's the truth, we don't know.

Ira Glass

Another thing Captain McDonell is very aware of is the need to keep everybody in touch with how they are contributing to the overall war effort. Every single day, he gets on the ship's PA system and reviews any international news that might have consequences for the Stennis.

James Mcdonell

Just to kind of keep the crew connected, I just like to make sure that they keep focused on why we're out here. It's very easy, as I'm sure you've probably seen, to start letting your mind drift about other things other than the task at hand.

When I have young folks up here-- I have the sailors of the day up here every day, one from the air wing and one from the ship. The interesting thing is that I will ask them just kind of, hey, do you know who the Secretary of State is? And that's about a one in three get it right. Do you know who the Secretary of Defense is? And maybe a little higher percentage, but not much more, because they're so focused on their world that it really kind of is our job to help them break out of that a little bit, and put their very hard work in the context of the big mosaic that's going on.

Pa System

[BOSUN'S WHISTLE]

Ira Glass

A few hours later, we stood in a passageway and listened to the captain's daily message.

James Mcdonell

Aboard USS John C. Stennis, good day, this is the captain. Day 35 of combat operations over Afghanistan. This is an incredibly uncertain time for all of us aboard. The war on global terrorism, tensions between India and Pakistan, separate warnings from the President of the United States to Iran and Iraq--

Ira Glass

But it's the PA announcements which give you an even deeper sense of who the crew is, and what it means to supervise a shipload of young people, announcements like this one from the ship's executive officer, Jeff Miller.

Jeff Miller

The real topic I need to talk about right now is fresh water. For some reasons we're not completely sure of, we've gotten ourselves in a little bit of a bind with the amount of fresh water we have on board. I'm going--

Ira Glass

He's upbeat. He thanks them for their hard work on the problem. He urges them on to more. The tone is like a great high school football coach.

Jeff Miller

So here's what I need you to do, and I need all 5,000 of us to work on this one today. We need to make sure that we're taking short Navy showers. That's a little redundant. Every Navy shower is supposed to be short. We expect the water to run for no more than two minutes. So the trick is, turn the water on, get wet, turn the water off, soap up, turn the water on, rinse off, turn the water back off again. If you're taking a Hollywood shower right now, you're going to hurt the ship. Right now, for the next 10 to 12 hours, if we can turn this around and start to build up our water reserves, we can avoid--

Ira Glass

Coming up, what it's like to drop a bomb on Afghanistan. In a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. This week, with tens of thousands of Marines and sailors, infantry divisions, and fighter wings, and National Guardsmen deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere in the war on terror, we're re-broadcasting our program from early 2002, when This American Life producers Alex Blumberg, Wendy Dorr, and I visited the USS John C. Stennis, an aircraft carrier that at the time was cruising somewhere in the Arabian Sea, flying bombing missions over Afghanistan, and monitoring the region for Al Qaeda nautical traffic.

We visited the briefing room at one of the air squadrons on the Stennis, a squadron that calls itself the World Famous Screwbirds. On a desk there's a big jar of red licorice and some homemade blondies that someone's girlfriend sent everybody. On the wall, there's this underground newspaper the aviators print, which is in the style of the Onion. Stories and headlines all consist of these inside jokes like, "New Billet Added to Air Wing Watch," which, um, we don't understand at all, but everybody else seems to find hilarious.

Wendy Dorr

On the backs of the leather chairs the pilots sit on are their call signs, the official nicknames they use over the radio on their missions. There's Frenchie, Tank, Chewie, Fish, Rain Man, Mr. Burns, that last one for a pilot who supposedly looks like the character on the Simpsons.

Pilot 1

This is Pom-Pom.

Pilot 2

Oh yeah?

Pilot 1

Pom-Pom.

Wendy Dorr

Interesting.

Pilot 2

Yeah, fascinating.

Pilot 1

Well yeah, there's a story behind it, though. I think I know it. Hmm, what was it? Oh, one of us sitting here, call sign Pom-Pom, was a cheerleader in college.

Pilot 2

Good friend. We're very close here.

Wendy Dorr

One of them shows us the official drawing of the squadron mascot, and quietly points out that it's a bird whose wing has a middle feather extended like a middle finger.

Ira Glass

At 4:00 AM, nine of these guys sit down in their flight suits to watch an intelligence briefing that comes in over closed circuit TV. Then a young guy named Steve [? Coppler ?] stands up in front.

Steve

All right. Good morning. Briefing here for our [? XAR ?] mission. 702, 705, and we've got Gonzo in 706. I'd like you to act as a fill.

Ira Glass

Watching him, it occurs to me how rare it is as an adult to hear somebody speak in your own language for 10 minutes, and not understand a word he's saying.

Steve

Divert field, we're working blue water ops. If we need to divert and we're feet dry, you know where we're going. And if we're feet wet, we'll go to Masirah there.

Ira Glass

Then they suit up. It's a crazy amount of survival gear, 20 to 25 pounds worth, including the parachute, survival knife, radios, flares, and something called a blood chit. Screwbirds' commanding officer, Ross Myers, a trim man with the call sign Monkey Butt stitched on to his Navy coveralls in neat block letters, pulls one out to show us. It's a piece of paper with an American flag and a serial number, with the same message in several languages.

Ross Myers

Oh, Arabic, English, Dari, Pashto, Uzbek-- which would have to be for Uzbekistan-- Persian, Farsi.

Ira Glass

And then in English it gives a translation.

Ross Myers

Yes.

Ira Glass

It says--

Ross Myers

I'm an American, and do not speak your language. I will not harm you. I bear no malice towards your people. My friend, please provide me food, water, shelter, and necessary medical attention. Also please provide safe passage to the nearest friendly forces of any country supporting the Americans and their allies. You will be rewarded for assisting me when you present this number to American authorities.

Pa System

Everybody maintain their [UNINTELLIGIBLE] station. We'll be taking the next aircraft out now, 20 minutes.

Ira Glass

The Screwbirds head out to their planes. An aircraft carrier's main mission is to fly planes, but when you see what it takes to launch or land a jet on a boat, what you realize is that human beings should not be doing this at all. The runway is just too short. For the planes to get enough lift under their wings, the crew actually has to drive the boat at top speed into the wind. Then the front wheel of the plane is attached to machinery under the deck, the catapult, which literally flings it off the edge of the deck like a pebble from a slingshot.

Wendy Dorr

Landing the plane on the deck is much harder than taking off, and it's very, very dangerous. The head of the Screwbirds, Ross Myers, aka Monkey Butt, says that in his 16 years of service, he's personally seen six of his friends crash into the back of the boat while trying to land. None of them survived.

Ira Glass

Basically what you're trying to do is latch a hook that hangs from the back of your plane on to one of four cables that are stretched across the deck. An airman named Dave Cruz explains how it works. The pilot looks at something called the ball, which indicates if he's coming in on target, and talks to guys called LSOs-- they're fellow pilots actually, who stand right on deck.

Dave Cruz

And it's up to the LSOs to guide him in.

Ira Glass

They're talking to him over the radio?

Dave Cruz

Right now they're talking to that next guy who are coming in, which is a Tomcat, which is 3/4 of a mile. He's calling the ball, and stating the fuel state.

Lso

115 on course, on glide path, 3/4 of a mile. Call the ball.

Pilot 3

115, Tomcat ball 8.0.

Lso

Roger ball, 28 knots down the angle.

Dave Cruz

Right now it's about a quarter of a mile. Right now he's just telling him you're on ball, and it should be good to go.

Ira Glass

He's right over the edge of the deck?

Dave Cruz

Yes. That is too short. That is too short, which is the one wire. That is too short.

Ira Glass

The one wire is the wire closest to the rear of the boat, and if you catch it, that means that you were dangerously close to going too low and slamming into the back of the carrier. Sometimes a pilot can't straighten out his approach enough, and the LSOs have to wave him off. It can get a little tense.

Ira Glass

Here comes another one. Just describe how he's doing.

Dave Cruz

All right, he's turning. He's turning into the 3/4 mile now.

Lso

Roger ball, 28 knots down the angle.

Dave Cruz

And right now he's a little too low. All right, now the pilot should be telling him, kind of give it a little throttle.

Lso

Don't settle. Power. Power. Wave off, wave off.

Alex Blumberg

One deck below, in the Blue Diamond Squadron briefing room, I talked to a pilot named Jeremy Markin about what it's like when things don't go well during a landing.

Jeremy Markin

Who knows what happens? Maybe you lose an important instrument inside, and it's nighttime, and maybe there's weather. And so you're in the goo, we call it, inside the clouds. It's dark. So you tell yourself you've got to fly the best pass ever, and you come down, and just one thing leads to another.

And the next thing you know, you're looking at the back of the boat, and you're close to it, and you've got guys screaming at you. You put in the afterburners, and your hook touches down a couple feet past the back of the boat. And you go taxi into the one wire there, high speeds, and realize they caught you. Your legs are shaking. You're still on blower. Your lights are still on, and the air boss says, we got you, you can relax now. And it's kind of hard to relax right away. You kind of got to unwind for a little bit.

Alex Blumberg

You said you're hooking it to the back of the boat by a couple inches. What does that mean?

Jeremy Markin

Well, obviously the hook hit the back of the boat. That means your plane hit the back of the boat. It wouldn't be good.

Wendy Dorr

The Blue Diamonds' briefing room is just like the Screwbirds' room, only a little more spartan and a little more macho, including the nicknames, which make Monkey Butt sound almost dignified by comparison.

Dave Balsitis

Balls, Scrote, Itchy. I got Itchy for a while because my last name is Balsitis. Looks like Balls-itis, sort of like some kind of disease.

Wendy Dorr

Both Alex and I hung out with the Blue Diamonds for about an hour. I interviewed Dave Balsitis on one side of the room, while Alex interviewed another pilot, Jeremy Markin, on the other side. And what struck us when we got home is how closely they agree on some things, and how far apart they are on others.

Alex Blumberg

How long does it take to get to Afghanistan?

Jeremy Markin

Anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours. It depends on where you're going.

Alex Blumberg

And what's it like over in Afghanistan? What does it look like?

Jeremy Markin

Actually it looks pretty in the mountainous areas. Snow on the mountains, looks like real nice mountain peaks.

Wendy Dorr

What does it look like when you fly over Afghanistan, and you fly over these targets?

Dave Balsitis

I can't cuss, can I?

Wendy Dorr

You can, but we'll have to beep it out.

Dave Balsitis

OK. It's a [BLEEP] hole. It really is. There is absolutely nothing down there. I don't see anything worth fighting for down there. It's all sand, rocks. I don't know how they live down there.

Jeremy Markin

Yeah, it's probably not much different from out near Glamis in southern California or something. There's dunes, mountains. It looks like a beautiful country.

Dave Balsitis

There's no color. There's no irrigation, no lakes, no streams, no farms. Just brown, and some snow. So it's pretty ugly.

Jeremy Markin

When you're actually doing what you're doing, you're kind of so busy that you don't really have a lot of time to sit back and go hey, look at the scenery. But in those moments, those positive moments you have, and you look around, the world's a beautiful place. It's kind of weird to imagine up that high and you're looking down. It looks so beautiful, and then you get snapped back in to what's going on down there, and you got to refocus.

Alex Blumberg

This might be sort of a bonehead civilian question, but is it hard to drop a bomb?

Jeremy Markin

Oh, you mean like in almost a moral sense?

Alex Blumberg

Emotional or--

Jeremy Markin

Emotional, it's a double-edged emotion. It's what you train for your whole life. The fact of you doing it, doing it correctly, and you drop your bomb on the target, it's emotional from a hey, I did my job. And just that I was trained, and I did it well. While you're up there, I don't really think about the other side of the sword. It's my job to go up there and drop bombs, and so I do it.

Dave Balsitis

I feel no remorse about dropping a bomb on them down below. It's not sadistic. It's just I think it's the right thing. Someone came into our house and trampled on our land, and to go on their land and absolutely pulverize them makes me feel very warm inside. I think that's great. I'm just glad I could be part of the team that's out here doing it, and dropping bombs on the bad people. I sleep at night.

Wendy Dorr

It's 7:30 in the morning, and it's over 12 hours since reveille first called everyone to work. For most people it's the end of the work day. In the mess hall on the second deck, Cynthia and David have just finished their dinner, and they're waiting for the 8 o'clock movie, Exit Wounds, to begin.

Cynthia

Every now and then we get to watch a chick movie.

David

Yeah, we got to watch Stepmom the other day. Yes.

Cynthia

Yeah, I like Stepmom, Steel Magnolias. They've been showing that one lately. They've got it on board.

David

Oh yeah, I haven't seen that one.

Wendy Dorr

There are TVs just about everywhere people are not working on the ship, with two channels of movies and network shows 24 hours a day.

David

Every Tuesday night we have a movie night where we'll pick a movie through email. We vote on what we want to see.

Cynthia

I voted for Miss Congeniality. I'm so going to watch that tonight.

David

As did I.

Wendy Dorr

Sitting there side by side in their matching navy blue jumpsuits, they look like they're best friends, if there was such a thing for a man and a woman to be on a Navy ship. They're both reading the Left Behind series. He's on book two. She's on book four. They love playing The Game of Life on Cynthia's PlayStation, and they both enjoy a good chick movie.

David joined the Navy so he could get out of his small town in Iowa, and Cynthia joined so she could get her and her three kids off of welfare, and it worked. They're are all doing great now, she says.

Cynthia

And I've said this before. People laugh at me, but when I come out to sea, it's like a break for me, because at home I've got kids to take care of, a house to take care of. And I get out here, and all I've got to do is take care of myself, go to work, and go to sleep, kill time in between. So it's kind of a break being out here for me.

Wendy Dorr

Even though she has 11 years of service and he has 13, both with decent rank, this is how they live. David sleeps in a room called a berthing with 196 other guys, and he's one of the oldest at 34. Each sailor gets a bunk bed with a locker underneath it, and their entire personal space is six feet long, a foot and a half tall, and about two feet wide.

David

And it's set up in the berthing, it's set up kind of in areas. You'll have this one little neighborhood that's listening to this music, and I'm over in the old folks place. Most of us listen to country music or something slow.

Cynthia

See, I live in a 26-person berthing, so it's not quite as bad as 197. A lot of us have brought stuff to make it kind of homey. Mine's Tweety Bird. I have a Tweety Bird comforter, a Tweety Bird pillows, Tweety Bird wallpaper around my rack.

David

You don't see that stuff down in the male berthing at all.

Ira Glass

It's now very late, meaning 9:00 in the morning, and Senior Chief Barbara Mendoza invites us to the chief's mess, a special dining room for the ship's chiefs.

Wendy Dorr

There are maybe 30 tables, with chairs stacked on top, and the floors are shiny and clean. The room is quiet, aside from the pleasant electric hum of refrigerators and drink machines, and the far-off purring of the ship's engines. In the center of the room, five middle-aged men are sitting around one of the tables. It's their nightly card game. They're playing Hearts, and they're passing around a picture of someone jumping into the ocean during a recent break, when they were allowed to swim.

Chief 1

This is a perfect shot. You have Randy there jumping off the elevator, and they have a picture of a shark trying to swallow him up.

Mike

Nobody can decide, though, whether he's going in or being spit back out. It's up to your interpretation.

Wendy Dorr

The person who made this picture, this fake picture on the computer, is the person you just heard, Bobby, Bobby [? Boucher, ?] which is not his real name. Joel, which is not his real name, explains.

Joel

Well, his real name's Mike. We call him Bobby. You want to know why?

Alex Blumberg

Yes.

Mike

Tell him the story of Bobby [? Boucher. ?]

Joel

Bobby goes over here to a bar with one of our other friends, Brent. They go out, and Brent offers to buy him something. Well--

Chief 1

It was a free beer.

Mike

No, no, you're getting it all wrong.

Joel

OK.

Mike

We went to the--

Wendy Dorr

They do this over and over. Tell a tip story. Tell him about the girl in Singapore. And then they all start laughing. And then they finally tell the stories, barely getting through them because someone is always interrupting to say they're not telling the story right.

Chief 2

Tell him about the tip, Bobby.

Mike

No.

Chief 3

Tell him the tip. You've got to.

Joel

You got to tell him the tip, Bobby.

Chief 3

Yeah.

Wendy Dorr

If you picture how the Navy works, there are the enlisted men, and then are the officers. The enlisted, and you've met lots of them on today's show, usually come into the Navy at 18 or 19 years old, straight out of high school. Officers come into the Navy as officers, with higher rank and privileges. The chiefs are the highest-ranking enlisted people, and anyone in the Navy will tell you they run the Navy. They're the buffer between the bosses and the people who actually do the work.

Chief 4

We have to keep the high-echelon people from bothering these guys. Let them do their job, at the same time getting the job done so that these guys up here are happy.

Brent

You become like everybody's, your whole division's, father and mother all rolled into one. They need to cry on your shoulder, you let them cry on your shoulder. You need to kick them in the butt, you kick them in the butt. You listen to their problems. You talk to them. You try to help them, and that's probably what most of us spend most our time doing.

Ira Glass

Every day, The Don says, somebody comes to him with a problem back home they need to solve, and The Don-- his real name is Brent-- helps them out. Often this means getting on the phone and contacting another chief out there somewhere. There's a whole chief-to-chief network.

Brent

The chief that I need to talk to knows somebody at the command, and they can talk to that chief, who can get this whole thing going. It's a fraternity. We work together, and that's one of the biggest things about being a chief. We are one.

The goal-- once you start out in the Navy, if you have a good chief from the beginning, your goal is to be a chief. I mean, your goal is to be that chief. And for me that was the goal.

Ira Glass

Who was your chief?

Brent

It was a guy named Chief Womack. He was my first chief in the Navy, and he was there anytime I needed anything. He was always there.

Alex Blumberg

Late one night, Lieutenant Gorell and a TV crew from San Diego and I are on our way back to the staterooms, when Gorell invites us into the officer's mess for a bowl of cereal before bed. Inside there's a group of officers talking at another table, and one enlisted man breaking down the serving line. It's late, and most of the people in the ship are in bed.

So we're eating cereal and talking when the enlisted man appears with a huge tray of food. We all look at each other. No one asked him to fix us anything. Just thought you all might like a snack, sir, the enlisted man says to Gorell, and puts the tray on our table. The tray contains 12 chicken breast sandwiches, each with lettuce and a slice of American cheese on hamburger buns. There are four of us, and we already have our cereal. Apparently, the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force applies to food service as well.

Later in our cabin, Wendy, Ira, and I talk it over. Being on an aircraft carrier, we're surrounded on all sides by the lopsidedness of American military superiority. Just the very fact of the carrier itself-- no other country even has one like the Stennis. The US has 12. But it's the chicken sandwiches which somehow make that fact real.

Such is the size and strength of the attention to detail, which fully conveys the sheer uncontested might of the American military. Not only does the Navy give each pilot one of the fastest, most expensive fighter planes in the world to fly, not only does it provide him with the most accurate bombs in the history of warfare to drop, it also feeds him at any hour of the day more chicken sandwiches than you can possibly eat. It gives him a room to hang out in, with his own official nickname on the chair, and a practice space for his band. Someone, somewhere, stitches Monkey Butt into his flight suit. The other countries don't have a chance.

You've never slept in bunk beds with your boss until you've slept in bunk beds with your boss on an aircraft carrier. By Navy standards, the room Ira and I shared was luxurious, only two of us, not 200 or 600. But the problem with the room, everybody warned us, was that it was right below the flight deck, and it could get kind of loud. And sure enough, we were woken up several times that first night by the thumps and the clanks of the planes landing and taking off. Still, we figured, we could manage.

Then, the second night, a bus ran full speed into the wall by my head. That's what it sounded like. Like the steel wall six inches from the top of my head had just suffered a collision with a very fast-moving bus. It was the loudest sound I'd ever heard.

And here's what it's like to be in a bunk bed with your boss on an aircraft carrier when you've just heard the loudest sound you've ever heard, if your boss is my boss. What happened next was this: the loudest sound I'd ever heard happened again. And I have to stress, this is not a normal loud sound, like a rock band or a car horn or even a stick of dynamite exploding. This is a sound that's only made when things that shouldn't happen happen. It's the sound of disaster, of destruction. It is the sound of catastrophe.

I lay there stunned for a second, and then I heard Ira jerk into action, saw his feet swing down from the top bunk. I actually said the words, "You're right man," as I threw off my blanket and started to run. And then I looked behind me, and I saw Ira digging through his equipment. And I realized I was running for the door, and Ira was running for his tape recorder.

Ira Glass

One two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. [INAUDIBLE]

Alex Blumberg

While we waited for the loud sound to happen again, Ira and I handed the microphone back and forth between our bunks and recorded our conversation.

Alex Blumberg

If there was a problem, though, there would be alarms going off and stuff, right? I mean, it just wouldn't just be like a horrible accident and then nothing-- and then no sound, right? They'd be saying, all hands to your stations, that sort of thing, right?

Ira Glass

I'm sure if it really gets bad around here, there's bells of some sort.

Alex Blumberg

The loud sound never happened again, and eventually we fell sleep, though Ira left the tape recorder running just in case. We were out for maybe half an hour when we were woken up again.

Pa System

[UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] control. Loss of feed in number two reactor plant. Reactor mechanical casualty assistance team, layer number two, reactor room.

Alex Blumberg

"Loss of feed in number two reactor plant. Reactor mechanical and casualty assistance teams, report to number two reactor room." Casualty assistance teams? That can't be good, right? After half an hour in which I tried to convince myself that my stomach ache was not radiation sickness, and Ira tried to figure out how he could get down to the ship's nuclear reactors to report on the accident, another PA announcement came on, just like the first, but with one additional sentence.

Pa System

Reactor mechanical casualty assistance team, layer number two, reactor room. This is a drill.

Alex Blumberg

At breakfast, we learned what had happened. The loud sound? That was a routine test for one of the catapults, and the PA announcement had been a routine drill. The two things were totally unrelated. Both things, they said, happened almost every day.

Ira Glass

Thank you very much, Alex, for that report.

There's one more thing that happened on the Stennis that I keep thinking about in the weeks since we returned. It was at the end of our very last day there, which meant 10:40 in the morning. And Barbara Mendoza, the chief who had been kind enough to invite us to the chief's mess, took Alex and Wendy and I outside to the very back of the ship, the fantail, looking at the water and the sky. It's one of her favorite places on the Stennis.

Barbara Mendoza

I come out here every day before I go to bed. It's very peaceful. I do a lot of thinking out here. I relax a lot, and I really like it. I mean, look at it. It's beautiful. There's no other place to be.

Ira Glass

We look out at the north Arabian Sea, the waters that military vessels have sailed for thousands of years. Persians were here 500 years before the birth of Christ. Alexander the Great sent ships here, the Ottomans, the Chinese, the Romans, the Portuguese, all of them great naval powers in their day.

Ira Glass

Hey chief, do you ever think about the fact that you're serving over here in this particular ocean, this particular body of water, how long people have been traveling by sea across this?

Barbara Mendoza

You know, I always wonder-- when I look at big bodies of water like this-- I always wonder how many ships are on the bottom of this floor. So that's one of the things that I like to think about when I'm out here. I wonder how many ships are out here on the bottom that never made it home. Hundreds? Over hundreds of them? From all the wars that we've been through.

Ira Glass

Here you are working for the mightiest navy in the history of the world.

Barbara Mendoza

Isn't that cool? How cool is that?

Ira Glass

Off to the starboard side of the ship, we can see the USS Port Royal protecting our back. We Americans are here for now, while it lasts.

Act One.

Ira Glass

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Original music for this hour by John Kimbrough. You know, you can download audio of our program at audible.com/thisamericanlife, where they have public radio programs, best-selling books, even The New York Times, all at audible.com. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who describes his personal life these days this way:

Kevin

It's like a love boat right now.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.