Alex Ritman - Writer and Editor in Dubai now working for The National. Esquire, Time Out, LA Times, Sunday Times, Dazed & Confused.

Boredom, Bombs and Bingo – Esquire, September 2010

God knows how I managed this blag, but somehow I was invited to spend 24 hours aboard the USS Eisenhower, one of the US Navy’s biggest aircraft carriers, floating in the Arabian Sea just south of Pakistan and serving in ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ (making Afghanistan tremendously safe). I flew there from Bahrain on an army propeller plane with no windows, no toilet and seats facing the rear cargo ramp, jerking to a halt on the carrier landing deck. I nearly arrived with extra luggage.

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Boredom, Bombs and Bingo

If you were on a warship holding five thousand personnel, stationed in one of the world’s most dangerous regions, what exactly would life be like?

Words: Alex Ritman. Pictures: George Dipin.

SMOKE SEEPS FROM THE FLOOR OF THE PLANE and creeps down a solitary aisle. Exposed wiring dangles from the ceiling and the din from the engines is near-deafening. Without windows, the only illumination comes from a couple of loose bulbs humming a dim orange glow above my head. Come back economy class, all is forgiven.

This is a COD, or Carrier Onboard Delivery, a twin-propeller C-2A Greyhound taking me, along with about twenty or so others (all in army fatigues, all seemingly at one with the plane’s frankly terrifying interior) on one of its daily three-hour trips from Bahrain to a hulking mass of steel in the Arabian Sea a few hundred kilometres south of Pakistan.

I’m on a twenty-four-hour tour of duty aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of ten Nimitz-class (read: the biggest) aircraft carriers in U.S. Navy. Since January it has been part of the U.S. 5th Fleet that patrols the Persian Gulf to East Africa.
To give it some perspective, the USS Eisenhower (or “Ike” as it’s more lovingly known, if you can lovingly nickname ninety-five thousand tonnes of metal) is a mere thirty-four-metres shorter than the Empire State Building. It’s gargantuan, and took almost seven years to build in the vast shipyards of Newport, Virginia, before being commissioned in October 1977. You get some idea of this after landing, assuming you manage to re-swallow your stomach (the flight deck, somewhat shorter than your average runway, relies on large ropes, or “arresting wires”, to bring planes to a sudden, jerky halt in around ninety-seven metres).

Once the COD’s cargo ramp opens and light-starved eyes adjust to daylight, there it is — the cloudless sky, the endless dark blue sea, and, oh yes, a taxiing F-18 fighter lining up for takeoff. It’s just metres away from us and a collection of other heavily-armed flying machines, which jostle for space on four-and-a-half acres of vast floating tarmac. A large container of rather mean-looking missiles is also being wheeled about by a man in a bright red outfit. I’m sure after a few trips you could become slightly jaded. But for first-timers, it’s a spectacular introduction.

The real sense of this ship’s enormity comes below deck. From its highest to lowest point there are eighteen levels, linked by a complex maze of pipe-lined corridors, steep ladders and imposing metal doors, sealable with giant crunching locks. Almost five thousand soldiers live and work on Ike during one of the ship’s tours, which usually last around six months. Many of them rarely get to venture outside during this time, except for one of the few periods of shore-leave.

It’s a roughly fifty-fifty split between the air wing who deal with the planes and ship staff who make sure everything else runs smoothly, from dropping anchor to doing the laundry. Each side comes with its own sleeping quarters, uniforms and complicated tiers of hierarchy. It’s a bizarre mix of highly-skilled and hillbilly, Ivy League and trailer park, all rubbing shoulders on the narrow corridors, day after day, month after month.

At the top of the chain of command in the helm is Captain Dee L. Mewbourne, the Commanding Officer. “I’m the mayor of this town,” he smiles as a team of people buzz about in front of bleeping screens and dials. While I’m onboard, Ike is serving in Operation: Enduring Freedom, the name used by the U.S. Government for the war in Afghanistan. Ike has been providing an estimated thirty percent of the air support for ground troops, or “seeing if there are baddies around the corner,” as one officer explains it to me in layman’s terms.

ASIDE FROM SUCH WARLIKE ACTIVITIES, the ship really does function as a small, albeit peculiar, village. Fighting for space amid the metal is a hospital, dentist, police HQ, library, chapel and store. There’s even a museum, detailing the ship’s history and that of its former president namesake (whose excessively-polished bust sits in the centre). From the media room, a daily newspaper, “5 Star”, and TV channel are produced, while hundreds of films are stored in the digital library.

“We show movies every day on the TV,” says John Supple, the officer designated to showing me around, as we inspect the wares in the store (among the strangest places I’ve seen The Beatles’ Revolver sold). “But on Saturday, it’s movie night in Hangar Two, where we put up an inflatable screen twelve feet high.” John explains that I’ve arrived a day too late for his favourite event, Wednesday’s Bingo Night.

Fighter planes and racks of missiles might be this ship’s bread and butter, but it’s clear that social events are just as important, especially during the lengthy periods of relative inactivity. With the crew away from home for over half a year at a time, keeping motivation high and boredom low is a crucial concern. (“Work, sleep, eat, s***, shower, hope for mail,” is how one former crew member described his time serving aboard Ike on a blog). While the pilots and flight deck operatives may spend their days running about with billions of dollars of military technology in their sweaty palms, many of those underneath are faced with the daily monotony of menial work, but without the usual 6pm escape.

“I just want to go home and stand, bare-foot, in some grass,” one staffer wistfully explains to me. Another, a long-timer with a sun-starved complexion to prove it, tells me about the sacrifices he’s made. “My first tour was hard because it was my first. The second was hard because my son was born. The fourth time, well, I missed his graduation.”

As a somewhat American-style attempt to keep spirits high, slogans painted on walls and scrawled on chalkboards in the mess rooms encourage everyone to “Have A Great Day!” or will them on to greater heights with platitudes like “Greater Each Day”. Meanwhile, the officers regularly heap praise on the crew around them. “You’re doing a great job,” one offers a forlorn looking individual sweeping an already-spotless stairwell.

To an outsider it all seems a little forced. There’s a distinct feeling that such excessive back-slapping paints a rather shiny gloss over the fact that many lost souls have been taken from their homes and whisked to a patch of water on the other side of the globe. “There weren’t many job opportunities around, and the navy offered me a five-year contract,” one of the crew serving his first tour tells me, adding that he’d gotten married just weeks before setting sail. The truth is, signing on with the military – which provides future college grants as well as a basic starting salary of $1,338 a month – represents one of the only ways out for some. It doesn’t take a Michael Moore documentary to explain why much of the army’s recruitment is focussed on U.S. towns suffering from high unemployment.

John leads me to one of two cavernous hangars that house many of Ike’s sixty or so planes and helicopters. They’re arranged, jigsaw-like, for rest and maintenance before they’re taken up to the flight deck via one of two giant elevators. Aviation types may appreciate what F-18 E/F Super Hornets, F-18 C/D Hornets, SH-60 Seahawks, EA-6B Prowlers and E-2C Hawkeyes do, but to the layman, let’s just settle on fighting planes, planes providing support to the fighting planes, and planes jamming the radars of those who might want to detect the fighting planes. The official term on board for much of this activity is “protecting our brave troops on the ground.”

Amid this gargantuan display of All American might, some-thing else catches my eye. To the sound of a tinny bass drum, around a hundred sweaty folk in lycra are taking part in a step aerobics class. Facing out towards a never-ending sea and surrounded by enough firepower to take out a city, it’s a rather peculiar sight. Keeping fit, it seems, is one of the main pastimes onboard the Eisenhower. There are treadmills everywhere — under stairwells, in corridors, and all permanently in use. “Any place we can fit ’em,” says John.

Occasionally, the crew looks for other ways to break the boredom, with pastimes not recommended in the navy handbook. In 1994, Ike was the first boat in the U.S. armed forces to allow women officers on board. It quickly earned itself a reputation. “The Love Boat”, as it became known, had to redeploy fifteen newly-pregnant female crew members ashore during its first assignment. Women currently make up around ten percent of the crew. While “fraternisation” isn’t the easiest thing to stifle (actual physical relationships are banned while at sea) I notice that Ike’s in-house TV channel – through some excruciatingly bad acting – is at pains to discourage it.

UP ON DECK IT’S TIME FOR THE MAIN EVENT. Take-off and landing sessions occur every ninety minutes. The fighter jets literally catapult off the side of the carrier, from zero to 165 mph in two seconds — an awesome, terrifying spectacle. As the hypnotic red glow of the afterburners trails into the sky leaving wisps of white smoke to linger on the runway, the only real response is… wow.

Evidently, the excitement loses its sparkle after a few hundred viewings (I’m the only one staring open-mouthed); the rest of the crew are hurrying around preparing other planes. Each person wears overalls and helmets colour-coded in bright shades to depict job role (given the noise, it’s easier that way). Most noticeable are the “yellows” who, through a combination of elaborate hand-signals, guide the taxiing planes. Accidents do occur: an E-2C Hawkeye reportedly ditched into the Arabian Sea last March; and two years ago a sailor was killed after he was struck by the wing of a fighter jet.

Landings and take-offs carry on deep into the night. The sound reverberates around the ship, which, along with the other whistles, bells and random intercom announcements, makes peace and quiet an impossibility. “I’m still trying to figure out what all the different noises mean,” a sailor tells me later. Thankfully, I’ve got a VIP room featuring one bunk bed, a desk and an “Ike” branded washbag. Most of the crew sleep in ninety-plus berth dormitories in bunks with little privacy. My TV also has a large selection of (Navy-approved) channels to help drown out the screech of tyres from above. BBC Lifestyle, CNN; it’s all there — with the noticeable exception of Al-Jazeera. I’m fairly sure I’m the only person on board watching Burnley and Stoke play out a dreary one-all draw in the English Premier League.

Woken by the bosun’s whistle at 6am the following morning, I flick on Ike’s own TV channel. It’s scrolling through a list of dos and don’ts in preparation for the next shore-leave in Dubai. After over two months at sea without a break, there’s a noticeable itchiness on board. “I could do with some sleep,” Captain Mewbourne tells me. For most of the crew there is a drastic need to stand on solid ground, see some sunlight and have a drink.

Ike, along with the rest of the U.S. navy fleet, is completely dry. Overdoing it on foreign soil is therefore a running concern for the higher levels of command. “The guys do have a habit of going off without having drunk or been outdoors for several months and come back with severe sunburn and vicious hangovers,” one officer tells me. A bigger worry is falling foul of the local law. “Please be careful about your behaviour in Dubai,” the Ike channel urges. “And please don’t be sick in the cab. You’ll have to clear this up.” Other warnings include hand gestures (“especially flipping someone off”) and discussing the Israel/Palestine issue. “Hmm, I’ve got the feeling that stuff might be classified,” John tells me after I mention what I’ve seen on TV.

Captain Mewbourne suggests to me at one point of our tour that the Ike functions as “part airport, part hotel”, but it is much more than that. The present-day Aircraft Carrier Strike Group (each carrier is accompanied by a flotilla of heavily-armed destroyers and cruisers) often arrives first at international trouble spots, and the first question asked in times of crisis is said to be: “Where are the carriers?”
The U.S. isn’t going to let this dominance slip in a hurry. Although its navy already has a battle fleet tonnage greater than the world’s next thirteen largest navies combined, a carrier more advanced than the Nimitz class is currently being built.

In its starkest terms, USS Eisenhower is the projection of American power in its most physical and global form. Ike may be floating in the Arabian Sea assisting the troops in Afghanistan, but at a moment’s notice it could change course; its two nuclear reactors charging it along at thirty knots towards, say, the Strait of Hormuz, should Iran decide to enforce its long-threatened closure of oil supplies from the Gulf.

While life onboard may be a daily grind, there’s always an underlying feeling that something explosive could erupt any second. In the meantime, however, John’s weekly Bingo Night and upcoming shore-leaves are there to keep the crew as close to sane as possible.

A few weeks after my trip, I receive an email from John about his break in Dubai. “It was AMAZING!” he announces, before listing the sights he’d visited (and a particularly enjoyable pint of Guinness) with equally capitalised awe. Again, much like living on a vast floating airport carrying enough warplanes and missiles to put a serious dampener on a country’s day, I suppose you do get used to things after a while.

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