Times reporter boards a warship returning from Iraq

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A first-person account from our reporter as he learns the ins and outs of Navy life.

By Ryan O’Quinn/Special to The Malibu Times

T he media coverage of the war in Iraq was historical in scope. Never before had so much media personnel been allowed so close to combat and had the technology to broadcast words and pictures around the world in a matter of seconds.

Either the public is more demanding, journalists are more pushy or the military is more lenient; whatever the case, this reporter recently took advantage of an opportunity to board a Navy warship on its way home from Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The USS Boxer is the centerpiece of the Navy’s Amphibious Assault Ready Group. The ship is 844 feet long, 106 feet wide and weighs 40,000 tons. Its primary purpose is to transport Marines, sailors, helicopters and various amphibious vehicles.

Last February, the Boxer left the San Diego Naval Station on an unscheduled deployment to an undisclosed location in support of U.S. interests abroad. Within a matter of weeks the Boxer was alongside other warships in the Persian Gulf in preparation for war.

One of the conveniences, if there is such a thing on a warship, is that the Boxer is equipped with closed circuit television throughout the ship. While at sea, it was able to pick up between two and eight channels including CNN, two Armed Forces Network channels, sports and international news, a channel for information relating to day-to-day ship operations and a movie channel.

When “Shock and Awe” began, many sailors gathered around television sets, not unlike millions of other Americans thousands of miles away.

“We watched the war on CNN,” David Gallegos, an aviation electronics technician, said. “We were seeing the same thing you guys were seeing at home.”

My faux military career began as I awoke at 4:30 a.m. for a 06:00 departure at San Diego’s Naval Station. After a security briefing I took an LCAC (Landing Craft, Air Cushioned) to the Boxer that was anchored several miles offshore. The LCAC is a high-speed, ship-to-shore amphibious vehicle with an inflatable base that easily travels over land and through the water transporting soldiers, equipment and cargo.

Having never been on a warship there were a few things I had to learn quickly. Always duck and step up going through doorways. The scuttles are also difficult to manage. The sailors seemed to effortlessly maneuver these tiny, steep stairways used to move between the decks and levels of the ship, but I had to hold on and duck in a way my body was not used to moving.

Speaking of unnatural contortions, there is one aspect of Navy life I would probably never get used to-the rack. It’s no coincidence this device shares the name of an instrument of torture. I slept in a tiny cramped cranny that was big enough for one medium-sized human and no room to toss and turn. The ceiling is inches from your nose and if you roll four inches to the left you will drop to the floor and instantly hear the sound of sailors laughing at you.

One of the perks of being a reporter on assignment was getting to tour parts of the ship that are normally off limits. I toured the bridge and saw the instruments and people it takes to drive a 40,000-ton ship. I was also taken into the Command Information Center (CIC). This is a room of 30 or so people with computers and sophisticated radar equipment that do amazing things I was told are illegal for me to disclose.

I was then escorted into the military intelligence section.

“This is where the war was won,” Intelligence Specialist Tom Cable said of the cramped five-person room that was lit only by computer screens. “The satellite info here is relayed to the central command.”

The outer room had satellite imagery on many computer screens. One table in the center of the room held a sprawling map of the Middle East. Another computer had a map of Southern California, and with permission and a few mouse clicks, I could look at the details of any street.

One of the Boxer’s proudest moments during the war came on the evening of April 1.

“The crew was told to have everything finished by 2,000 [hours],” Gallegos said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, but we knew it was something big.”

The aviation department completed the necessary details and sent off a barrage of helicopters on a special mission. Later that night they watched CNN to discover they had sent Marines to rescue Pfc. Jessica Lynch.

On the morning the USS Boxer arrived back in San Diego, the crew was told to be in their dress whites by 06:00. As I struggled to get just a few more minutes of sleep I noticed anxious sailors started to move around at about 4 a.m.

The master chief called “man the rails” at 6:15 a.m. and it was an incredible sight to see the brave men and women of the Boxer line up side-by-side around the entire deck of the ship.

As the Boxer drew closer to Pier 5 at the Naval Station, the marching band and the cheers from the crowd grew louder. There were hundreds of people on the dock with flags and signs.

“Wow, this is amazing,” said one sailor, as the crowd cheered following a rendition of “God Bless America.”

The first to disembark were the 20 new fathers who had never seen their children. The proud fathers rushed down the ramp to greet their wives who were pregnant when they left, and to meet their babies for the first time.

The gates that held back the crowd on the dock were removed, and families and friends ran onto the pier to meet sailors who were scanning the crowd to find their name on a sign or see someone they knew. Time after time screams were heard as signs and duffle bags were discarded to allow for a two-armed embrace and long awaited kisses.

I honestly don’t think the sailors fully understood that they were American heroes until that moment.

“My stomach has been in knots. This is like a dream come true,” said teary-eyed Gamze Gallegos, who squeezed her husband for a full five minutes without letting go. “My baby is finally home.”

One double stroller with sleeping twins had a 4-foot sign attached that read “Welcome home, Daddy. Look how we’ve grown!”

Welcome home indeed.