It’s 0200 and the young lieutenant from Nebraska lies in the middle tier of a three stack coffin rack, eyes wide open in the darkness as his roommates sleep, seeing nothing but the ephemeral shooting stars one’s imagination creates when he stares into the darkness and there’s nothing to see, nothing there at all. Of sounds there are no few by contrast, the gentle snoring of the JG in the top rack, the heavy breathing of his best friend and liberty buddy in the bottom rack, the working of the hull in a gentle sea. Just outside the stateroom door is the more or less continuous sound of footsteps, the occasional slam of a hatch, bluff and hearty voices inappropriate to the hour, but for whose owners the day is just starting, bubble up and then fade away. And always there are the mechanical sounds, a warship at sea never truly sleeps – there is the tireless tintinnabulation of a hammer striking something on the flight deck, the wheeze of hydraulic pumps and air circulation ducts. Worst of all were the sounds of the re-spot going on over his head, the weary yellow shirts moving the jets from the last recovery into position for tomorrow’s first launch. They’re coming to the end of it by now, almost ready to turn in for the evening and get their four to five hours of rest before it all begins again – they at least will not have trouble sleeping. The straining groan of the aircraft tractors towing jets from the bow to the fantail has been replaced in order by the ghostly swish of tie down chains dragged aft and finally the ritual spiking of eighty-pound tow bars to the flight deck. This last is the worst of it, and the lieutenant has come to half believe over the course of the deployment that there is a cross-hair mark directly above his stateroom wtih blocks of text beside it indicating “Slam tow bar down here.” It is probably untrue that exhausted and envious yellow shirts conduct this ritual every evening as a kind of class warfare tactic, with the express purpose of waking up the pampered and privileged pilots slumbering right below the flight deck, but there is a sizable minority of aviators that isn’t quite sure that it isn’t so.
He’s been at sea now for four months on his first deployment, and by now he would ordinarily be able to sleep through it all, with even the tow bar ritual merely dredging him up from the very deep waters of his unconsciousness to only a slightly higher plane, but today was no ordinary day. Today he did what he had been trained to do, today he became the weapon that his country had forged into high tensile strength and hammered flat into a razor sharp weapon over the course of the last four years of flying, useful to the task of doing a very difficult thing with surgical precision. It was a simple as this, and as complicated: Men died today, and he had killed them.
That they were bad men he was relatively sure, that good men were saved too by his actions he understood as well, or at least he thought he did. When he had gone into the Carrier Intelligence Center, or CVIC to debrief the mission, the air intel officers had been strangely silent. They did their duty of analyzing his weapons systems video, checking carefully and with approval the precise coordinates he had entered into the weapons keypad against those assigned. From there they scrutinized the video of the target as it was before his bomb struck against overhead satellite imagery from the vault, analyzed the moment of impact and high order detonation and took stock of what very little was left behind after. And all of this met their approbation; the tape was copied, digitized and sent ashore to higher headquarters for further review and archiving. Nothing however did they know, or at least, nothing were they permitted to say about the target itself – what it was, who was inside, what lives were saved. The lieutenant went to his flight lead in protest over this stoic refusal, or inability to share – he had done this thing, he had a right to know, he thought, what it was that he had done. The lead had gone to the commander whose job it was to run CVIC, a member of the ship’s company, and huddled with him in brief conversation. The lieutenant kept a respectful distance away as he watched these two speak, but it was clear from their body language that no new information would be forthcoming. The XO returned with a shrug and said, “Well, it’s clear that you did what was being asked of you, and you did it well. If it had been something that went wrong or if we had made a mistake then we’d know about it by now, we’d have the lawyers all over us taking statements, and CAG in here looking worried. So it’s something else – some other reason that they won’t share with us.” The rules came from the beach; there was nothing to be done.
Amid feelings of frustration, the lieutenant felt a surge of gratitude to the squadron XO: When he had been talking about a job done well, he had given the lieutenant individual credit – “You,” he had said. When he raised the possibility that something had gone wrong, the subject had changed to, “we.” The lieutenant committed himself to remembering this. “Any idea why they won’t tell us, XO?”
“Oh. There’s any number or reasons why. Best not to think about it. It’ll only cost you sleep.”
And had a point, because he lay there in his rack at 0200 on the day before a duty day thinking about it while saying to himself, “If I get to sleep right now, I’ll get five hours of sleep,” just as he had said about six hours of sleep an hour ago, or five and one-half hours thirty minutes ago. He rolled over, pounded his pillow in frustration and closed his eyes again, trying to force himself to sleep. Count backwards from 100, Mississippi.
Leaving CVIC, the lieutenant had passed the other two aviators from the CAS event, the ones who had been involved in the strafing mission in al Anbar, heard and saw their hearty joy and self-satisfaction, saw the simultaneously congratulatory and envious looks of the other aviators gathered around. Troops in contact and the 20MM cannon in reply – hard to improve upon for job satisfaction, at least for these two veterans of what the young lieutenant still though of as “the Big Fight” just two years back.
Afterwards they had debriefed maintenance control on the aircraft status (both jets up and up), input their flight times on the laptop computer designed for this purpose and entered the ready room across the passageway, their home away from home. Waiting for them was 304′s pilot, the man who had broken off his probe tip on the tanker… was that today? It felt like yesterday, the lieutenant thought. He could see the shame on the man’s face, his desire to explain, his desire to be reassured, the XO holding up a silencing finger, looking around the ready room: Too many people.
“Wait right here,” the XO told his wingman, and gripping 304′s pilot by the shoulder went out into the passageway seeking privacy. The lieutenant had had the opportunity to be counseled by the XO himself before, although not for a flying mishap, thank God. He also knew that the only thing more rare and valuable than sleep aboard an aircraft carrier at sea was privacy. Counter-intuitively, at least when contrasted to the ready room, the virtual town square, the center of squadron life, the open passageway outside the ready room door at least provided interrupted moments when a man could get his butt chewed away from listening ears. This XO at least still believed what they had all been taught growing up in the service: Praise in public, chastise in private. Not everyone practiced what they had been taught.
The lieutenant saw a glimpse of 304′s pilot in the passageway as the XO returned through the ready room door – the young man’s face was ashen, shocked even as the XO’s face was bright red, himself breathing hard. The door shut behind him and the moment was broken, the vignette over. They’d debriefed the mission they had just finished in only 45 minutes or so – a remarkably short time for such a long mission, but the XO was the type to focus on high points and low points, leaving the routine unremarked upon. The lieutenant looked into his flight lead’s eyes searchingly, looking for the meaning behind the meaning in his words. But the debrief was clinical, ordinary – they might have been discussing a training mission back at home base. He had done his task; the weapon had found its target. Both of them, the weapon and its wielder, had done what they had been designed to do. It was… unremarkable.
They broke up to go to chow, the XO with the skipper, he with his contemporaries. He had sat through the dinner almost entirely without speaking. There was the usual give and take, the occasionally profane anecdotes, raucous bursts of laughter, the characteristic raised voices of his tribe, in dispute or in agreement, this group of warriors, his band of brothers. They had asked about his mission, and he had recounted it briefly and analytically, as was the expected form, while looking into their eyes, seeking some context to it all, some response from them, some hint about what to feel inside from these who had been there before. But they only nodded thoughtfully, seeing it all inside their heads until one of them was reminded by some particular or another of an amusing story from the previous cruise and before he knew it they had all moved on to the next tale, laughing again as one story led to yet another. Public introspection was apparently not a characteristic of the tribe.
After supper he had spent some time in his divisional spaces, paperwork and training jackets, special request chits and just “being there,” talking to his people. They responded politely, satisfied to listen to him with all apparent complaisant attention to the clearly distracted officer while each of them secretly hoped that he would go away so that they could get back to their work. From there he had gone back to the ready room, logged in to one of the three unclassified computers which the aviators shared to send emails, sat looking at the empty screen, a post addressed to his parents on this most interesting day which stubbornly refused somehow to write itself. After ten minutes, having typed nothing more than, “Dear Mom and Dad,” and unable to think of what to say, with three other guys waiting in line he closed the email window (Do you want to save? – No) and logged off. By 2300, having chatted with his roomates about everything but the thing which most interested him, having volunteered nothing, and having nothing returned for free he lay his head down in his rack to sleep, tomorrow being a day of duty, all day at the desk and early in the morning to start with to top it all off.
In the darkness he again touched the button on his wristwatch that illuminated the dial’s face, read the time and said to himself, “If I get to sleep right now, I’ll get four and one-half hour’s sleep.”