What a homecoming it was. For the sailors and aviators - Bush's visit to the carrier was something they will likely never forget. Jeff Bender, the ship's lead Public Affair's Officer, wrote me that the President's visit was "one of the biggest events in the Lincoln's 14-year-history and my naval career of nearly 20 years."
I never expected that I would get the chance to return to the carrier following my 27 days spent aboard the nuclear aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf as part of the military's embed program - I too felt very excited about the trip. Bush's historic visit, as chaotic as it was, gave me the chance to find a sense of closure. I cherished every minute of it - every hand shake from pilots who I had seen thunder off into the sky during the first days of operation "shock and awe" and every "Auto Dog! You're back!" I received from sailors I crossed in the passageways. (I had received the nickname/callsign "Auto Dog" due to my affinity for the mess hall's soft serve chocolate ice cream machine - one the sailors jokingly referred to as the "auto dog.")
Time just flew by that day, everything seemed to happen very last minute - in sharp contrast to my previous stay on the ship. But I was thrilled to be back - especially since my trip was also a last minute surprise.
My original plan was to cover the air wing's "fly-in" to their base in Lemoore California. When the President's staff decided that George Bush would declare that major hostilities were concluded live from the carrier- everyone's plans changed. At first I thought it would be impossible for me to make it back to the ship prior to it's docking in San Diego. My colleague Doug Mills pulled some serious strings to have me join the Travel Pool in San Diego - he told me there was a 75% percent chance I could make it onto the COD flight w/ the small White House Press Pool. My plans were changing by the hour - when I landed in LAX - I decided to forego the arrival in Lemoore - and take the gamble and put my bags on a flight to San Diego.
The next morning I was amomgst the dozen or so journalists that slammed onto the carrier's deck and decelerated from 150 M.P.H. to zero in less than 3 seconds.
From there on everything felt rushed - and far too crowded. There were more than 100 members of the media aboard (most had boarded during the ship's stop in Hawaii) and we moved around the carrier like a stampede. I knew it wasn't my place to say anything at the time - but a carrier is not a good environment to rush in - the stairs and deck are covered in oil and grease - and any fall down stairs can put you in a cast.
I was surprised at how quickly the pool made themselves at home in the ship's TV Studio-turned-filing-room. Business cards were quickly taped on the three phones and three computers - which had been communal amongst the 30-media embeds in the Gulf. It became very clear to me that this was no longer "my home" as I was left standing there - seeing that every phone and computer had quickly been claimed. At times I witnessed how little deference was paid to the sailors who were on the last days of the near-10-month deployment. When a sailor walked two cases of water up 8 flights of stairs for the media - one of the pool reporters asked is there was any soda, without ever looking away from her computer screen. Perhaps I too would have acted that way were I part of a visiting media pool - but in this case I took it a bit personally - like a family member of mine was being mistreated.
Bush's arrival was extraordinary - not to mention dangerous. I can only imagine how fast the lead Secret Service agent's heart was beating when the plane barely caught the 4-wire - the last wire before the jets had to put it's engines into full throttle to avoid rolling off the deck into the ocean.
While I think this flight in was a brilliant public relations move - I was dismayed to see the misinformation being carried throughout the media -stating that the carrier was too far out to sea for the president to fly in on a helicopter. CNN later released that the carrier was 80-miles-away from San Diego for the Presidential address - well within helicopter range (the Navy's Seahawk has a 930 km range) When a Navy PAO heard the figure - she shouted out: "we're only 30 miles from the shore" - to which a White House aide let out a loud "shhh!"
It was tough to see these sailors have to wait an additional 24 hours out at sea following a near-10-month deployment. Let alone 30 miles from the coast. I should clarify that they did arrive in San Diego on Friday morning - the day they were originally scheduled to arrive. While I did hear a few of them grumble that they were exhausted and couldn't wait to get home - it seems that mamny saw the visit from the President as the highlight of their deployment. The swarms of media and White House staff members were quickly forgotten by one sailor -when Bush shook her hand in on of the passageways. She jumped up and down with the biggest smile I saw in all of my time on the ship. One officer cried during the majority of Bush's speech and most couldn't wipe the smile off of their faces. While some members of the media saw this visit as nothing more than great footage for a future campaign video - most sailors couldn't have been more honored than by the visit of their commander-in-chief.
Ultimately, I will always remain grateful for a chance to spend another day on the carrier. That afternoon I requested permission to break off from the pool that left immediately after Bush's speech - and spend one more night on the ship. I somehow couldn't resist squeezing out every last minute I could from this story that has come to mean so much to me. Although I don't think I slept more than 30 continuous minutes in the 6 ft. x 2 1/2 ft x 18 inch high coffin-locker-bunk bed I was sandwiched in that night - I think what kept me up most of the night wasn't the claustrophobia - but the excitement of seeing the faces of the sailors when they saw the San Diego coast.
When the carrier finally docked - I was thrilled
for the sailors - and sad to see my time on the carrier come to an end.
I will always leave a piece of my heart on that floating city - and
with those 5,500 men and women who made such an amazing sacrifice for
all of us.