Rather be home but `need to be here'

War: Despite the strain and pressure of his work and missing family events, a lieutenant acknowledges the importance of his mission.

War On Terrorism The Response

October 14, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON - There is little time for a father at war to brood over missing Halloween and a son's birthday. A Navy lieutenant named Tom, born and raised in Towson, settles for making a daily stop in a lounge to look at a wall-sized October calendar adorned with the crew's family photos.

Amid the wedding and family snaps, there is a picture of the lieutenant's son dressed in a green turtle suit for Halloween, waiting for his father to return home.

"I feel very safe out here," the lieutenant says. "When the Sept. 11 attacks went down, I don't think there was a place I'd rather be than back home. But what I do out here helps protect my family - and a lot of other families. I need to be here."

The lieutenant is a 32-year-old helicopter pilot. He is, for now, working as a shooter, the person who launches high-powered, bomb-laden jets off the carrier's deck.

It's one of the more dangerous and important jobs on the ship. He has the last call on what is flung into the air. "We're not flying anywhere, so psychologically it's different," he says. "But it's good to know that aircraft loaded with rockets and bombs and missiles are leaving the ship and coming home empty."

The crew keeps in touch with shore by e-mail but receives letters and utility bills, the part of life that does not pause for war.

The ship has also received a flood of cards and messages from students via the Pentagon. "We are not afraid," said a card accompanied by a picture of a bald eagle with an American flag tail. "Sorry for the disaster Pentagon," a California middle school pupil wrote. "I hope you get them back."

The ship's public affairs officer has received nearly 100 e-mails from citizens, schools and civic organizations wanting to send care packages, become pen pals, or just express support: "I'm too old and too slow to directly help you, but I can express my support," one man wrote. "How many crewmen should we plan on adopting?" a schoolteacher wrote of plans to send cards to everyone on the ship.

Meanwhile, the grind continues for shooters like Tom. A shift can last up to 20 hours; the shooters pace and crouch on a steamy deck that is hot to the touch, and breathe the odor of fuel, and use hand signals because of the deafening noise of strike jets in full roar.

"If I get five or 10 minutes to sit, my head is drooping," the lieutenant says.

Tom admits the first few days were "exhilarating, knowing we were carrying the fight to the enemy and playing a pivotal role in the battle. There's no better sight than an F-18 going to afterburners."

By the third day of airstrikes, the crew had hit a routine, the tasks done like clockwork. "It's very sobering knowing that a payload is going to destroy something or kill somebody," the lieutenant says. "It's nothing we take lightly."

He wants to win. He wants to go home.

He doesn't want to miss the next Halloween or his son's next birthday.

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