Monday, April 28, 2008

In The Navy

The mother of a former student let me know a few months ago that she would be one of the "stars" of the PBS Documentary Carrier, which debuted its 10-part series last night. The film captures the stories on a six-month deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (a sailor's clever acronym for the ship: Never Imagined Myself In This Zoo) to the Persian Gulf in 2005. The saga follows sailors, officers, pilots, master chiefs, commanding officers, and captains while they acclimate to the ship, develop mini-dramas, and prepare for the specter of war in the Middle East. I was completely riveted throughout the first two one-hour episodes.

My father was in the Navy and deployed on nuclear submarines, but never when I was old enough to notice his absence (he actually didn't meet me until I was six months old, after his last long trip). I don't think I truly understood the military lifestyle, as my family didn't move often and my father wasn't actively involved in a military conflict since Vietnam.

Working in a Navy town, though, I have watched many friends, students, and families adjust to absent parents and loved ones, returning parents and partners, and frequent cross-country relocations. The effect of long deployments on families has caused me to question the rationale, logic, and efficiency of the Navy's ways. And I won't lie: I've been a skeptic of the military and its claims that "the best offense is a good defense." I tend to eye recruiters with suspicion and inwardly wince when former students declare proudly that they've enlisted.

But I am always willing to consider new perspectives; when 12th grade students and I read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, I included in their packet of related reading a Vanity Fair article on the pressures on military recruiters--and some of corners they cut in the quest to meet quotas.

Watching the complicated systems aboard the Nimitz and the daily grind of practicing the launch and safe recovery of armed jets got me closer to understanding that each six-to-nine-month journey of that floating city can be seen as both symbolic diplomacy and crucial preparation for the worst case scenario. Everything is predicated upon creating meaningfulness, accountability, and teamwork from each individual aboard. Even the youngest, greenest, seemingly-headed-nowherest kind of young adult is given status, skills, and pride in being part of a self-sustaining city of 5,000 people in close quarters. Seen from a vague distance, it's easy to characterize the military as a cold machine...from closer up, it's a bunch of people doing their jobs, being very human. While sleeping stacked three deep on racks. The "machinery" seems far away, the "puppeteers," those giving orders.

Though this LA Times review suggests that the portrayal of the Navy in Carrier is less than rosy, I can attest to the fact that I felt my chest swell watching the ballet of men and women loading up and directing jets on the flight deck, over and over again, willing cables not to snap and bombs not to explode. Then I was reminded that these were not Top Gun's Goose and Maverick playing volleyball on the beach, but the funny, fallible, oft-misguided and youthful recruits whose hometown foibles and shipside follies were just recounted on camera. And I know the poignant parts are coming.

As one officer shared, these largely 18-to-21-year-old sailors work hard for paltry pay, especially when calculated hourly. He admits that he doesn't know how anyone gets them to do their often-unsavory jobs. It's that we're all in this together, one observer suggests. And you help the guy next to you because he might save your life someday.

And there's a personal connection I feel to this film through Susan, an air traffic controller on Carrier. She and I became friends through her daughter, a student on our campus who somehow connected with me, her vice principal, perhaps over talk of tardies or her artwork. Her mom was deployed again for much of 2007, and during that time Grandma was in charge. She began her slow descent into disconnectedness, anticipating her family's transfer across the country after Christmas. She disappeared for a few days in November and we gathered together to remind her of her responsibilities as well as to encourage her, not knowing she was already under water, deep.

Susan left me a message a few days short of New Year's, letting me know that she had run away again. When she was found almost two weeks later, and we better understood the depth of her troubles, Susan whisked her to Florida and into rehab. But it wasn't long before she escaped back to California, where's she's holed up right under our noses but out of grasp. And so far away from her mom.

In episodes later this week, Susan and her three children are featured, a painful retrospective now. Susan is hoping that publicity from Carrier will provide an opportunity to update the public on her predicament.

And that she'll get some help bringing her daughter home and keeping her safe.

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