Jesus, has it really been nearly a year since I last worked on this thing? I guess it has.

Let me talk about what was going down in my personal life for a bit, in the time between September 11, 2002 and January 3, 2003.

See, we Tomhawk techs, in addition to answering the red phone while we're on watch, also man up the super sneaky squirrel ops shadow internet Tomahawk Firing Unit chatroom. Keeping us company in there are the COMFIFTHFLT's Tomahawk Strike Team. One of 'em just happened to be a reserve FC1 who had been activated to sit over there in Bahrain and be ready to coordinate Tomahawk strikes.

He and I got friendly. Then we got really friendly. Then we got Involved. We saw each other face to face for the first time around Thanksgiving, as I recall. Up until then, all I had was a voice on the radio and some typing in a whisper box on MS Chat. On Christmas, I took two days of leave and stayed with him at the really rather spiffy apartment the US Navy was paying for him to live in. It came complete with cleaning service, how sweet is that?

Some of what we talked about was the situation winding itself up to some sort of awful conclusion there in Iraq. Most of the time, we were an escape for each other from that sort of thing. It was nice, but in the hothouse atmosphere of the Persian Gulf and the time-limited frame of deployment, it was intense. Intense like a hothouse orchid, the colors too bright for the surroundings. Honestly I'm amazed we managed to carry it on as long as we did.

And life, meanwhile, continued. If there is an overwhelming theme to the months leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom for me, it is summed up by that one sentence. Certainly life was colored by what seemed like impending doom and war, but if you think about that stuff constantly it will drive you crazy. It's just not doable. So life continued in its round of watches, meals, sleeping, equipment maintenance, reading, MWR sponsored games tournaments, drills, and sleeping. Most of us worked under the assumption that if we could get 12 hours of sleep a day, deployment was really only 3 months long, and we would go to great lengths to get some shut-eye. We smuggled mattresses down into the Tomahawk Equipment Room and made up proper beds in the concealed spaces behind the equipment. We kept a few tools next to the mattress, so that if you were awoken by the sound of a door opening you could sit up, grab the tools, and pretend to be doing something useful. Your tax dollars at work, people.

Once a month we pulled into Bahrain for four or five days, to break the monotony. I would see FC1, we would spend a lot of time talking and even more time intensely naked, and then the boat would pull back out.

Life, meanwhile, continued.

It's a long road to be forgiven

Welcome to the two year anniversary of the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. By this time two years ago, I was a mass murderer.

O God, my eyes fill with tears when I think of my sins. Shall I ever be what You want me to be, or is the striving a matter of rising and falling? My weakness obesses me at times and Your Mercy is absent from my mind. Thoughts of despair fill my soul. O Lord, give me the realization of Your love. Amen.

It started in the middle of the night. We knew it was coming, but we didn't know exactly when. Sometime around 0100 I was yanked out of sleep and out of my rack by the 1MC (Shipwide Loudspeaker Circuit). "The ship is in receipt of Indigo. Now set Condition II Strike. Now set Condition II Strike." By "Indigo" I was awake. By the first "set" I was on my feet. By the last "Strike" I was on my way to the Combat Information Center, zipping up my coveralls and fastening my belt as I went. Less than two minutes after that announcement, I was at my console in our little corner, the curtain drawn shut around it to keep out unnecessary spectators and protect classified information from prying eyes. Everyone knew what was happening. People who had been asleep were woken by other crewmembers to bear witness. The Captain used the 1MC to lay down the rules for watching the launch from topside weather decks.

I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do; and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.

Launching missiles is not an instantaneous process. In this case the Indigo (a document that not only gives the targets to be fired upon but the time the missiles should arrive; it consitutes a direct order from the Command Authority to launch the birds) arrived some hours before we needed to launch the birds. We had plenty of time to plan our flight paths, plenty of time to power the missiles up (a process that takes over half an hour), and then plenty of time to sit in front of our consoles, waiting. I took a couple breaks to go smoke before the launch went down. The questions and interest of the other crewmembers who were on the smoke deck were almost painful. Yes, we were going to launch. More than a dozen birds are going. Yes, I know what the targets are. No, I can't tell you. The birds are flying in a couple hours. Don't pick up any of the debris from the launch, the residue from the solid fuel booster's burn is toxic.

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence, I fly to you O Virgin of virgins, my mother, To you I come; before you I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in your mercy, hear and answer me. Amen.

Watching the countdown on my console was almost painful. We did any number of things to pass the time. Launch rights were divvied up, so that each member of the team got to launch at least one missile. There were 10 of us and more than a dozen birds. I and the other guy sitting launch side divvied up the extras among ourselves. One of our Engagement Planners refused to launch a missile at all. I said a rosary, then hung my rosary from one of the handles next to the screen of my consoles. "What the hell are you doing, Jones," my chief asked. "Are you gonna pray while you're killing people?" I turned and gave him a flat look. "Is there a better time?" I responded. He turned away from me, shamefaced.

My God I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, because Thou art all good and worthy of all love, and because sin displeases Thee. Pardon me through the merits of the passion and death of Jesus Christ Thy Divine Son. I purpose by the help of Thy holy grace never more to offend Thee and to do penance, and to avoid the near occasions of sin. Amen.

When the first bird launched, God help me, I laughed. There was a weird exultation in it I hope never to feel again. First came a *whump*, a sound like the lighting of a burner on a gas stove, only a thousand times louder, as the booster ignited. Closely following upon it was the roar of the burning solid fuel rocket booster, and the whole ship shook as the missile made its slow and deadly way out of the launcher. Then silence. Finally, the bridge called down to us to tell us the bird had transitioned to cruise. By that time there were already two more birds in the air. The whole launch was over in a matter of minutes. It was still dark outside. The sun wouldn't rise for hours. Most of the crew had been on the weatherdecks to watch the missiles go away. It would be hours yet before they reached their targets. Tomahawks aren't fast, they're just hellishly precise and lethal.

Almighty God,
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
maker of all things, judge of all men:
We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins
and wickedness,
which we from time to time most grievously have committed,
by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty,
provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.
We do earnestly repent,
and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings;
and the remembrance of them is grievous unto us,
the burden of them is intolerable.
Have mercy on us,
have mercey upon us, most merciful Father;
for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake,
forgive us all that is past;
and grant that we may ever hereafter
serve and please thee in newness of life,
to the honor and glory of thy Name;
through Jesus Christ our lord.

Months of waiting....

I'm trying and trying to think of a way to convey to the civilian population what those months of waiting on deployment were like. We were waiting for something to happen. We didn't know what it would be, but the whole situation was balanced so acutely. President Bush seemed to be driving toward war come hell or high water, but at the same time the international community was urging that we give diplomacy more of a chance. Demands and ultimatums were flying all over the place. France was vocally censuring us while at the same time not mentioning their financial interests in Hussein's government. It seemed that at any moment the whole delicate house of cards would come crashing down and bullets would start to fly.

It was an enormously conflicted time, at least for me. Killing people was not on my Top Ten List Of Things To Do This Year. But at the same time, my whole job in the Navy, for which I've spent years training, is to launch Tomahawk missiles. Unfortunately, launching Tomahawk missiles is inextricably linked to killing people. I wanted to launch those missiles, I really did. There's a ... how to put this without making civilians think we're a bunch of bloodthirsty wackos ... a glamour about a Fire Controlman who has launched Tomahawks. There's an aura surrounding them, because that's the closest most of we surface Navy types come to combat unless something has gone horribly, horribly wrong. And let's face it, Tomahawk is the only offensive weapon the small boys (cruisers, destroyers, or frigates) carry. Hell, frigates and some cruisers don't carry Tomahawk; they are referred to derisively as "torpedo sponges." Fletcher was carrying over two dozen Tomahawks, better than 24,000 combined pounds of explosives ready and waiting to fly. On our last deployment, we had carried less than half as many. Our pre-deployment loadout was, perhaps, our first clue that things were different this time around.

At the same time, I was well aware that Tomahawks don't fly in a vacuum, as it were. If we sent our birds in, then the ground troops would be going in too, and the manned aircraft. We were entirely safe out there, but those guys wouldn't be. Those guys would be dying, just as surely as the people who had the misfortune to be in the area when my missiles hit. How could I wish that on the Army and Air Force and Marine Corps, just so I could send a couple dozen cruise missiles hurtling towards targets that had human beings in them?

So there I was, as we tried ultimatums, as Saddam Hussein dithered about letting in the weapons inspection team, as formerly staunch allies stood up at the UN and condemned us in strong language, as the US split on the issue... It seemed that the whole world was polarizing over 167,400 square miles of freakin oil-rich desert. Let's face it, Texas is 268,601 square miles of flat sandy scrubby land with oil under it, and we haven't been to war over THEM since the 1800's, no matter their penchant for exporting annoying politicians.

And all of this teetering and tension stretched on for months. I'm surprised my hair didn't fall out, I didn't get ulcers... I didn't even have any serious sleep disturbances. Life just went on, but there wasn't a day went by that the issue of when we'd get rid of those missiles didn't come up. To top it off, Fletcher would be leaving the Gulf in January come hell or high water to do a "sea swap," a program whereby we would pull the Fletcher into a port in Australia, and a whole other crew would meet us there. We were to give them our ship and then disperse. We all had orders for duty stations post Fletcher. Mine were to the USS Higgins, set to deploy in November to the Persian Gulf. Higgins was then to do its own, different sea swap with the USS Benfold, where HIG would pull in to a foreign port yet to be named, the BEN crew would meet them there and take HIG, and the HIG crew would fly home to San Diego and take Benfold. I was supposed to see none of that, I was just supposed to do Fletcher's sea swap, take 45 days of leave after spending 2 weeks doing jack shit in Hawaii, then fly to San Diego and be part of the advance crew taking over Benfold before the rest of the HIG crew returned. I know, I know, it's the Navy version of the old shell game.

To drag it all back to relevancy, the closer it got to January the nervier we got on Fletcher. We didn't want to leave without offloading those missiles the fast and easy way. Meanwhile the rest of the battlegroup made preparations to leave the Persian Gulf and return to their homeports in Pearl Harbor, San Diego, and Everett. They were scheduled to leave a lot earlier than we were, it takes a lot longer to get back to San Diego (or even Pearl Harbor) than it does to get to Australia.

And STILL NOTHING WAS HAPPENING. Warlike noises were made on both sides but it looked like a lot of male primate posturing, all sound and fury. It was enough to make a sailor crazy.

It's been a while...

It's been a while since I've updated here, mainly because I'm trying to think of how to describe what went on between September 11, 2002 and January 3, 2003 when I left the USS Fletcher for the USS Higgins.

In some ways, quite a bit happened. In others, not a damn thing happened. So I guess I'll just start talking, and you can always scroll on to the next entry in your friends list if this gets too boring.

Collapse )