Fifty-Five Hours Aboard US Aircraft Carrier Harry S. Truman
"A lot of people lose their shit out here."
Taylor's morning routine is usually interrupted by the sight of a sailor furiously masturbating, usually as she is on her way to the shower.
"She do it the same time every day," she says, drawing on a cigarette. "One leg be hanging out with the curtain open."
"At this point, I'm just... do whatever you do, you know what I'm saying?"
On board the USS Harry S. Truman, routine is everything. It's 10 PM, which means Taylor is in the smoking area, a claustrophobic red-lit corridor on the edge of the boat that is atmospherically somewhere between Berghain and Burger King. Eighteen 25-year-olds lean against the humming metalwork sipping sodas, the tiny beat of Chance the Rapper on somebody's phone punctuated at seven-minute intervals by the 150dB shriek of an F/18 taking off. Everyone here has their own rhythm.
Taylor finishes her 12-hour shift. She eats. She smokes. She returns to bed. She wakes to the half-mute pant of her roommate, leg swaying in her line of sight.
"It's the pretty girls," she says. "All the pretty-ass girls who come out my berthing, they the nastiest ones."
We visited the aircraft carrier for three days over summer.
The Truman began its deployment on November 26 last year, and by the time it finished in July, the Islamic State had lost half of its Iraqi and a fifth of its Syrian territory. Between December and our arrival in June, planes had flown 2,000 separate sorties and dropped a record-breaking 1,598 pieces of ordinance [bombs]. America is winning the war. But we arrive the weekend after the mass shooting at Pulse, which was initially claimed by the proto-state, and there is a tangible sense of unease that has spread right up to the flight tower, where Bret Batchelder, the commander of the harrier, is explaining why the Truman's tour has been extended a month.
"I'm not sure that there are more targets, but there are continuous targets," he says. "The fight is taking a while, and I can't put a timeline on how long it might take."
Batchelder gazes down at the flight deck, about 65 feet below, where the mechanical ballet of the F/18s is underway.
"Have you looked out the window?" he says. "In about one minute, you're going to see those two airplanes up there get fired up and shot off the cap."
The deck whirrs into life like a cuckoo clock. Hatches open and close.
"Here we go right now, they're getting ready. There is nothing like this in the world."
Men and women in brightly colored jerseys cluster around the poised jets, their fist pumps, squats, and lunges giving it the feel of a baseball field.
"It's an incredible team," says Batchelder. "There are 6,000 members in this team. If you put it in the football analogy, if the left guard misses his block, you know it's a three-yard loss, and you're looking at second and 13. Here it's 6,000 left guards and everybody's got to do their job to make the whole team successful, and it's incredibly inspiring and motivating to be a part of that."
It's a pristine operation. But it's also a long way from home. And the question of the role America's military plays in curbing the domestic threat of terrorism is on everyone's mind.
"The way we prevent [terrorism] from happening domestically in the United States or any other allied partners is to get at the root of it and eliminate the hate that the radical terrorists are perpetrating," says Batchelder.
"I think we defeat the homegrown terrorists by destroying the people that inspired them, OK?"
Not everyone on board agrees. Ethan is an ABE, meaning he launches planes from the flight deck. During a busy day, he can work 16 to 20 hours in blistering heat. Ethan enjoys the work and is pretty cool about the hours, although he misses his daughter.
"We may be able to destroy [ISIS] over here, but we're not going to be able to take them out in the States," says Ethan.
"There's really not a short answer for what you can't control. You won't be able to stop it. If somebody wants to do it, they're going to do it."
"Do you think it's a gun control issue?" I ask.
"No, I love my guns! I'm a proud gun-owner myself. I have a lot. I have nine handguns, two shotguns, four 45s, one 90mm, one .38, two .40s and a .44."
Ethan spends the little free time he has working out. There are gyms everywhere. In the Hangar Bay, between the jets and the mechanics, men and women squat, press, heave, everyone slick with oil and sweat. Some of the hulks barreling down the corridors are so big you're forced back into alcoves like you're playing Donkey Kong. Space is a rare commodity, and any scrap contains a treadmill or a bench press. The Truman abhors a vacuum.
The pilots enjoy a slightly upgraded lifestyle. Those who place themselves in harm's way on the front line in Syria are rewarded with a few perks, including the Ready Rooms –a briefing area for each squadron where they can drop by to drink coffee, play Xbox (FIFA is usually the choice), and watch films.
Every pilot has a "call sign" or nickname as part of their ritualized initiation into the squadron, and when we visit the Wallbangers, it's "Zipples" who happens to be on duty, brewing coffee and playing Old Dominion on the stereo.
Zipples earned his call sign from the way he anxiously tweaks the pectoral zips on his flight suit. He's in charge of the evening movie.
"I was thinking about Pearl Harbor," he says.
Do you ever watch Top Gun?
"Occasionally, just to laugh at it. There's a lot that's wrong, just wrong."
Zipples is a Hawkeye pilot, which means he flies surveillance missions in the area. I ask if he's been keeping an eye on the Russian frigate shadowing the Truman on the horizon. The zips oscillate wildly.
"Just checking out the area," he says.
Nighttime on the boat is signaled with a sudden transition to red lighting that bathes the metal skeleton in a soft-pink light. As the sailors diffuse to their berths, the carrier seems to expand in every direction, the pink flanges of the empty corridors stretching like an infinite mirror lengthways along the boat, the great iridescent innards of the Truman sprawled out as far as the eye can see. A strange metallic stench pools in the corridors, like stale water or tissue fluid. Somewhere, deep in the bowels of the clanking labyrinth, is a prismatic shrine to 33rd US president Harry S. Truman, who coined the "Give 'Em Hell" slogan that adorns battle flags all over the boat.
At this time the smoking area is packed, and we are talking about sex.
"Honestly, I don't think a lot of people do it here," says Sara. "I know people that have and they usually get caught."
"Josh does it all the time."
"Yeah, but Josh is a shitbag. I'm smart, and I'm not gonna do that shit."
Stacking thousands of young people in cramped conditions for eight months in any other context would probably result in a rapacious and unforgiving sexual hunger games—a rutting mass of oil-stained excessively toned gym bunnies working off months of sexual frustration. But get caught here, and the penalties are severe. It begins with a trip to see the captain and ends with half-pay for the month and a red band on your arm. And it's not really the kind of place where everyone is looking to get laid.
"[The guys] treat you kind of like a guy," says Renae, 21. "And then you get to a port, and you're like, Wait a minute, I'm a girl."
Even so, some people manage it. There is only one point at which our press liaison prevents us from taking a photo, and that is when we stumble on a bucket of condoms in the medical room ("You can't take a picture of that," she says, whisking them away).
The frustrations of life onboard sometimes express themselves in other ways. Late at night, the evening before we leave, we meet two glazed sailors stuck on the night shift.
"You get numb to the boat," says Michael. "You don't even feel time anymore."
"[Last week] it was June 6, and I didn't even realize it was June 6. I thought it was still the 1st. Especially at night when you never see daylight. It's weird."
They're on nights because they're being penalized. One swore at a superior; the other got into a fight.
"A lot of people lose their shit out here," he says.
Medical professionals and ordained pastors onboard offer assessments, workshops and advice for sailors dealing with mental-health issues and the stress of deployment, and there is a noticeable culture of looking out for one another. But you sense that everyone develops their own ways of coping with the tensions of deployment. Sara is a 23-year-old parachute packer with a total of seven stuffed animals in her berth sent from her mom back in West Virginia. She recommends carrying two packets of cigarettes at all times, running up and down the ladders ("If you do it slow, it's more tiring"), and learning not to fight the boat.
"It's like your mom. It rolls you to sleep and feeds you. It gives you balance," she says. And if you can find balance in this strange cocktail of Stockholm syndrome and ritualized purposefulness, you'll probably be OK.
"I love it here," says Sara. "I don't want to do it again, but I love it."
*Some names have been changed
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