NORAD keeps eye on the sky

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – We were deep inside Cheyenne Mountain, buried beneath thousands of feet of solid granite designed to protect us from nuclear holocaust.

On the big-screen TV monitors at the front of the Command Center, a missile launched from the Korean peninsula arced its way across the Pacific Ocean toward a target in the United States. In this simulated exercise, American and Canadian officers of NORAD – the North American Aerospace Defense Command – used satellites to identify the infrared plume of the missile as it was launched. Using complex mathematical models, they quickly calculated the rocket’s trajectory and began notifying the president, the Canadian prime minister and American commanders in chief.

Then we watched the missile, perfectly tracked by astonishingly sophisticated satellite and computer technology, plunge into the heart of America.

“Uh, when did we intercept it?” asked a disbelieving member of the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference that was touring NORAD at the subterranean fortress outside Colorado Springs, Colo.

After a pregnant moment of silence, the gritty truth was told:

“We didn’t.”

That, of course, is why former President Ronald Reagan came up with his famous “star wars” initiative, a gauntlet that has been picked up by President George W. Bush, who, similarly, wants the United States to develop some sort of missile shield.

The unsettling reality is that the world’s remaining superpower has only one defense against an intercontinental ballistic missile attack: fear of massive, unforgiving retaliation.

Monitoring hostile rocketry is a prime responsibility of NORAD, but not its only role. The joint Canadian-U.S. effort operates a ring of radar sites around the boundaries of North America monitoring all incoming air traffic as well. Nearly 900 unidentified planes enter North American air space each year, drawing NORAD’s watchful eye.

The Space Control Center inside Cheyenne Mountain also keeps an eye on all man-made objects orbiting the Earth. There are more than 8,000 satellites and pieces of space junk circling up there, and within a range of 660 miles above the planet, the center can spot an object as small as 10 square centimeters – about the size of a large bolt. At 22,300 miles above the earth’s surface, where geosynchronous satellites live, the center can spot stuff as small as a volleyball.

Construction of this fortress began in 1961 and was completed in just six years. The idea was to build a bunker inside a mountain that could withstand atomic attack by Soviet bombers.

Air Force spokesmen admit that with the advanced nuclear weaponry of today, not even the miles of rock shielding NORAD would save it from a direct hit. It makes dandy protection from sniper fire, though.
Barbed wire and guarded checkpoints block the entrance to the facility at the end of a narrow road that snakes up the side of the mountain. By the time we were admitted, we were sporting two extra sets of ID badges.

Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center is actually a series of tunnels and wide spaces carved out of solid rock. Massive steel blast doors guard the interior entrance. Inside are 15 buildings, a dozen of which are three stories high, built out of plate steel by Navy shipbuilders and resting on 1,319 springs weighing nearly a ton each. If the Russkies had dropped the Big One, the theory was that the buildings would bounce around while the exterior of the mountain absorbed the brunt of the nuclear blast. It’s an engineering marvel and an anachronism rolled into one.

Inside the mountain the culture is purple, which is military-speak for multiservice. Representatives from the various American armed services work side by side with their Canadian counterparts. This is a prime example of interservice – indeed, international – cooperation. But the flavor is definitely Air Force as about two-thirds of the personnel are either uniformed or civilian members of that service.

Our journey to Cheyenne Mountain was the last stop of an eight-day tour of U.S. military services. The previous day had been spent at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle.

Eglin is the nation’s largest air base, claiming vast portions of the Gulf of Mexico for its bombing range. The Air Armament Center at Eglin reports to Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Eglin also is home to the 33rd Fighter Wing, and on a bright blue-sky morning we were bused to the runway to watch an F-15 Eagle demonstration. Daytonians familiar with the United States Air and Trade Show would have felt right at home.

Loudspeakers mounted along the tarmac blared out “Kryptonite” by 3 Doors Down as the powerful jet fighter rose into the sky.

If I go crazy, will you still call me Superman . . .

“Ladies and gentlemen, watch as the F-15 swoops into the sky and rockets straight up into the air.”

. . . If I’m alive and well, will you be there holding my hand . . .

“The pilot will now execute a perfect four-point roll.”

. . . I’ll keep you by my side with my superhuman might . . .

“Now for an inverted pass across the field.”

. . . Kryptonite.

“Next, the pilot . . .”

WHOOPS.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to have to stop the demonstration because a piece of the tail just fell off…”

The technical term, we were told, was “delamination,” but the upshot was that the pilot had to land in a hurry and the Air Force scrambled to find another F-15 with all of its parts still laminated.

Conveniently, this helped underscore a point we’ve heard many times: Our fleet of aircraft is aging and as these birds get older, they have more maintenance problems.

Nearly 60 percent of the Army National Guard’s helicopters are grounded for lack of spare parts. Last week, the General Accounting Office reported that at least 154,000 times a year, military mechanics cannibalize pieces from one aircraft to fix another because of the lack of spares. This costs a million extra hours of work a year, leaves aircraft unfit to fly and demoralizes mechanics, the report said.

In one example cited by Neal Curtin, GAO director of defense issues, about 400 pieces had been removed from one plane to repair others and the aircraft eventually had to be trucked to a maintenance depot to be entirely rebuilt.

Not only is that wasteful, the report said, it is unsafe.

The GAO findings mirror results of an extensive investigation into the cause of military plane crashes published by the Dayton Daily News in 1999 that concluded, among other things, “that hundreds of in-flight emergencies and accidents – some deadly – can be traced to parts installed improperly, engines overhauled incorrectly and other mistakes by mechanics or the people supervising them.”

But if that leads you to fear that the Air Force is falling apart, consider this: Since the end of World War II “there hasn’t been a bomb dropped on U.S. troops,” according to Maj. Gen. Michael Kostelnik, commander of the Air Force Armament Center. That’s what they mean by “air superiority.”

It could also be noted that there haven’t been any enemy bombs dropped on our houses. Or our mountains, for that matter, which brings us back to our last stop on the tour.

You enter and leave Cheyenne Mountain in buses that rumble along a tunnel nearly a mile deep into solid rock. As we emerged and began our trip down the mountain, a staff member ambled through our bus selling official NORAD souvenir coins for five bucks apiece.

Throughout our eight-day tour of the military we had been collecting coins like this. Officers and even high-ranking non-coms pass them out to friends like business cards. If you’re at a bar and someone flashes his coin, you have to buy the drinks if you can’t match him. If you can, he buys.

Having spent the day inside a mountain learning how America defends itself from the emerging threat of foreign nations such as China and Korea, I was eager to add a NORAD coin to my growing collection.
It came in a clear plastic bag on the outside of which were stamped these words:

“MADE IN CHINA.”

‘Remember we’re here’

How important is a strong military to the United States?

Ask Adm. James Loy, commandant of the Coast Guard: “Because of the collective might of our armed services, millions of  Americans can sleep well tonight, never fearing . . . a foreign threat.”

It’s easy to forget that you couldn’t make a statement like that until recently. Travel back a handful of decades in history, and Americans were waking up to the shocking news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the beginning of a war that would engulf the entire planet – a titanic struggle between good and evil that redefined America’s destiny.

My father fought in that war. He was the last member of my family to wear his nation’s uniform. Fewer than one in 10 people today have done so.

“The last 18-year-old to be drafted is now 46,” Assistant Secretary of Defense Charlie Cragin said. “We haven’t conscripted anyone for, essentially, two generations.”

With the end of the Cold War, we have grown comfortable in our sense of national security. And because so few of us have any direct ties to the armed services, we don’t often think about the people in uniform who stand ready to shield us from harm. Their numbers are relatively small. There are about 1.4 million officers and enlisted personnel on America’s active-duty roster. Add to them our reservists and National Guard, and the uniformed services still represent only about 1 percent of the American population.

What do they want? What do they need?

There are “two essential truths that all Americans should know about their armed forces,” Loy says. “First, we have terrific young people demonstrating incredible devotion to duty; second, we need to support them with proper equipment, training and compensation.”

Finding and keeping good people was a common theme among all the services during the eight-day Joint Civilian Orientation Conference.

“Your Army is about recruiting good people,” Lt. Gen. Larry Ellis said. “We’re challenged with recruiting quality soldiers . . . and we need help in maintaining the Guard and Reserve.”

Pay, especially in the lower ranks, is often cited as an issue. An enlisted solider or sailor at the E-2 rank with less than two years of experience makes about $14,000 a year. He or she also would receive a housing allowance, medical and other benefits. It’s not all that bad, really, for a kid right out of high school, but only if you don’t look at the hourly rate.

The hours young enlistees face can be brutal and the living conditions tough. Aboard a ship at sea, you work and you sleep. Aboard a carrier, you stand in long lines, sometimes for more than an hour, to get fed. And be careful where you walk. Blue tiles mean “Officer Country,” so mind your place.

Young Marines with families at Camp Lejeune live in substandard housing. The system never was designed to support 18- and 19-year-olds married with children. It’s not unheard of that these young service members must rely on government subsidies, such as food stamps, to get by, we were told.

As soldiers and sailors move up in rank and experience, their pay and benefits tend to look more like the civilian world. But turnover also can be a problem in the upper ranks. Just ask the Air Force, where the lure of the airlines is a tempting siren call to experienced pilots.

“I think everyone would agree that we don’t pay our people enough for what they do,” said Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, commander in chief of U.S. Space Command.

Adding to the retention and recruitment challenges has been the robust economy. It’s a bit ironic: A big chunk – if not most – of the federal budget surplus is a consequence of the downsizing of the military, according to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. “The surplus is really a DOD (Department of Defense) surplus,” he said. “Not a Clinton surplus or a Greenspan surplus.”

We need to be mindful of cutting too much, of becoming complacent, Wolfowitz said. We may think of ourselves as the world’s only remaining superpower, but, he argued, “there is a danger in being smug.”
What makes military commanders lose sleep? It’s not the Cold War fear of a Russian missile salvo. Terrorism is at the top of the list. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially biological weapons, is up there too.

Some threats to readiness are internal, such as equipment that’s old and falling apart. Air Force pilots today are flying planes that were built before they were born.

“Just like your old car, we don’t know what’s going to break next,’ Eberhart said. “We’re working our people harder and harder to get the same results.”

And those people don’t get the respect they deserve from the American people, we were told time and again.

“These are not 12-foot monsters with ragged teeth,” one Marine general said. “Go home and tell America what this (the armed forces) is all about.”

It’s about hard work and discipline. It’s about endless training. It’s about being away from home and loved ones for extended periods. It’s about danger. And it’s about patriotism.

What’s the message the enlisted men and women of our armed services want you to hear?

I had lunch at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida with a young airman who knew how to put it into words.
His name is Robert Spencer, and he’s an airman first class from Memphis, Tenn. Spencer enlisted after three years at Memphis State. “I kind of needed a little direction in my life,” he said. “I was always fascinated with aviation, so the Air Force was my choice.”

Unlike so many younger enlisted men and women, Spencer plans to re-enlist. And he hopes to join the Reserve Officer Training Program. He’ll deploy to Saudi Arabia this fall.

What’s the word you’d like me to take back from this trip, I asked him.

He thought for a moment, then said this:

“There is a military. Whether we’re in a time of crisis or not, we’re ready. We need the support of the country. We need people to remember we’re here.”

Military changes its stripes

We were herded from the rooftop of the American Embassy in the West African Republic of Nogoland. Gun smoke and dust filled the air as I approached one of the Army Rangers who had just rescued us from an armed and angry mob.

“I noticed you didn’t read those guys their Miranda rights before you opened up,” I joked.

“No, sir,” he deadpanned. “When we show up, it’s too late for that.”

Fortunately for me and my fellow “hostages,” Nogoland is a fictitious country and the bullets and bombs unloaded by the Special Forces troops were blanks. But the assault felt real enough at the time: the rapid staccato of machine-gun fire, the blasts of exploding hand grenades, the shouts of soldiers in combat and the beating chop of helicopters overhead. All that was missing was incoming fire. Thank God. The actual setting was Fort Bragg, N.C., home of the 82nd Airborne Division and the third stop on an eight-day tour of the active-duty military sponsored by the Defense Department.

The Pentagon puts on this show because it is worried about the growing disconnect between the American people and our warrior class.

Fewer than one in 10 of us under the age of 65 has served in the military. Ninety-five percent of the news media (including yours truly) have never worn a uniform, which may not surprise anyone, but here’s a statistic that might: Only 8 percent of members of the Congress have military service on their resumes.

So when the four-stars try to persuade politicians on Capitol Hill that it’s a bad thing they can’t afford spare parts to keep planes airborne, or when your friendly Army recruiter comes knocking at the local high school, the reception isn’t what it once was. Too many people haven’t been there, haven’t done that. And their fathers and mothers haven’t been there and done that either. In the span of two generations, we’ve evolved from a country where nearly everyone either served or someone close to them had served in the armed services to a nation where only a tiny fraction of its citizens has a clue what the military is about.

Consequently, the Pentagon grasps every opportunity to tell its story. It collaborates with Hollywood in movie productions such as Pearl Harbor, which it hopes will cast the military in a favorable light. It spends millions on television commercials. And it runs programs like the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference to put its best combat boot forward.

Like everything else military, the conference goes by an acronym – J.C.O.C. We quickly took to pronouncing it Jay-Cock instead of the more genteel Jay-See-Oh-See (as in Oh Say Can You See) preferred by Pentagon organizers. The Marines pronounced it Jay-Cock, so it was official as far as we were concerned.

The conference was mercifully light on Power Point presentations and exceedingly heavy on participation and pyrotechnics. This year’s was the 64th of these tours de forces since the end of World War II. I was invited to attend by Lt. Gen. Bob Raggio, commander of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

The 55 participants paid for their rooms and meals, but everything else – incidentals like continuous air travel, the priceless time of countless soldiers and sailors, bombs, rockets, bullets and the use of Kevlar helmets – was picked up by Uncle Sam. That would be you, the taxpayer.

In return for this full-immersion experience, which one participant dubbed a military fantasy camp for civilians, the Defense Department hopes we will return home and spread the word about our armed forces.
As you would expect, the Pentagon’s story was well rehearsed. Time and again during our eight-day journey we heard these messages repeated:

* The young men and women in uniform are doing a splendid job under trying circumstances.

* The end of the Cold War has not made the world a safer place. Indeed, with the proliferation of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction – coupled with the growing threat of terrorism – it’s scarier than ever out there.

* Money. Money. Money. There’s never enough.

* The military has changed its stripes. These days it loves the color purple.

Purple, we were told, is about being joint, as in conjoined, working as one (and not to be confused with the controversial “Army of One” ad campaign).

The Defense Department wants you to know that the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and even the Coast Guard are talking to each other, planning together and even manning important missions together. These joint commands fall under neither the banner of Navy blue or Army green, but purple, as a way of signaling their being joint – as in Joint Civilian Orientation Conference.

Why this emphasis on purple? “This is an integrated force because we can’t do it any other way,” said Charlie Cragin, assistant secretary of defense.

Why can’t they do it any other way?

Downsizing.

Since the end of the Cold War, America has reduced the size of its armed services by a third, yet the number of missions – from brush fires in East Timor to major theater conflicts in the Persian Gulf – have risen 300 percent.

Downsizing has brought about some efficiency in the way the services interact, we were assured. But the cuts in military spending have been so deep the Pentagon now believes it can no longer fight two major wars simultaneously, a long-standing tenet of American military strategy.

And like a “right-sized” company whose overtime is out of control, the services are calling upon their reserves and even National Guard elements as never before to fill in for active-duty personnel.
Sustaining both the enlisted and officer rosters for the services has been challenging, especially during the recent economic boom years. Young people have many career options; even when the services can lure them, they often don’t stay long.

Which is why aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, one of America’s most sophisticated nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and among the most fearsome battle platforms the world has ever known, the captain told us the average age of his enlistees is just 19.

Throughout our journey we were continually encouraged to talk to these young men and women, and their work was frequently praised by their officers. “These kids are great,” we were told time and again.
And, indeed, during this tour we encountered many fine young men and women in the ranks:

* Frank Rupnik III, 22, of Troy has earned enough college credits that when he returns to civilian life in a few months he will be just two quarters away from finishing his college degree.

* At Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, 24-year-old Robert Spencer of Memphis told me he feels the Air Force has given him the focus he needs to succeed.

The stream of accolades finally got to one of the more iconoclastic J.C.O.C. participants, however. Weary of the praise, he wondered aloud at a closing conference with a panel of Pentagon brass:

Of course they were great. What did you expect? A bunch of drug addicts?”

No. But I suspect most of us didn’t have a clue what to expect, which was why we were there.

While the Pentagon worries about the disconnect between civilian and martial cultures that has grown since the advent of the all-volunteer military, it has been during that same period that the wounds of the Vietnam war have healed.

America’s attitude about the military and its mission is more positive. Feel-good victories in the Persian Gulf and Kosovo have helped. We’ve emerged as the world’s remaining superpower (never mind all those Russian nuclear warheads). And our technology is so hot we could shoot a cruise missile through the keyhole in Sadaam Hussein’s outhouse – if only we could find it.

But the world is still a dangerous place and this tour offered an opportunity for an inside look at what are armed forces are facing.

Our journey began in Washington, D.C., in late April with briefings at the Pentagon, and then for the next week we were airlifted across the United States to see and, for a short time, experience life in each of the services.

First stop was Norfolk, Va., where we toured a nuclear-powered attack submarine (no, we didn’t get to drive it) and a cruiser. From Norfolk we took off on a thrilling ride to an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic.
In the following days, we would find ourselves at Fort Bragg in the midst of a staged rescue operation and then on a rainy North Carolina beach where Marines would execute an amphibious assault. We would fire machine guns, sail with the Coast Guard, fly Air Force simulators and finally journey inside Cheyenne Mountain where American and Canadian forces monitor our borders from land and from space.

And in the end, we would have a deeper appreciation of the challenges faced every day by the young men and women in uniform who, for all of our sakes, stand in harm’s way.

Aboard a city at sea

They call it a COD. It’s a noisy, smelly, albatross of an airplane the Navy uses to shuttle cargo and sailors from shore to aircraft carriers at sea. On a perfect morning in April, three CODs cranked up their powerful twin turboprops on the tarmac of the Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Va., and prepared to board a band of fidgety tourists.

It was Day 3 of J.C.O.C. – the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference – and the anticipation and anxiety surrounding our imminent takeoff was palpable. The previous day in Norfolk, we had toured a nuclear-powered attack submarine and a Ticonderoga-class cruiser at dockside. Now, we were about to embark on what the captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt would later call the Navy’s version of a Disney E-Ticket ride.

The first part of this adventure would see us fly to the Roosevelt, 100 miles off the North Carolina coast, where the tailhook of the COD would “trap” the third of four wires sprawled across the deck of the Roosevelt, bringing us to a bone-jarring, but safe, landing.

But the best was saved for last when the COD – Navy shorthand for Carrier Onboard Delivery aircraft; actually a C-2A Greyhound twin-engine cargo plane – would catapult off the deck of the carrier, reaching flight speed in just two seconds and subjecting its passengers to G-forces comparable to a space launch.

Before marching out single file to the awaiting planes, my fellow J.C.O.C. participants and I were fitted with “cranials,” floppy helmets with goggles reminiscent of Anakin Skywalker’s headgear in The Phantom Menace. We were told to stuff orange, spongy plugs into our ears to blunt the plane’s deafening roar, even though the cranials came equipped with ear covers.

We all wore inflatable life vests in case we landed in the drink. The vests came equipped with dye markers and flares. We were warned, if we splashed down, not to inflate the vests until we climbed out of the emergency exit in the roof of the plane lest the bulky vests jam us in the exit. Comforting thought, that.

We entered the windowless, dark interior of the COD through a ramp at the rear of the aircraft and found our way to our seats, all facing backward, where we struggled to buckle our four-point seatbelts and shoulder harnesses. Pull them tight, we were warned. You’ll be glad you did when you land.

We were.

The standard approach for a carrier landing required us to fly past the Roosevelt, then make a steep U-turn that pinned us to our seats with the force of about two times normal gravity. Slowed by this banking maneuver, the COD then dropped to the carrier deck. But on our first pass the deck was “fouled,” meaning it would be bad news if we tried to land, so we flew over, did it all again, and hit the No. 3 wire – thus earning us the title of “honorary tailhookers.”

After the infamous Tailhook Scandal, some of us were surprised the term was still bandied about. But I didn’t see anyone refusing the cool certificates presented to us. Sailors we met on board during the day expressed surprise and even envy that we got to fly onto the carrier. Sailors can spend entire careers in the Navy, even on carriers, and never get that ride.

The flight deck of an aircraft carrier is the most dangerous work environment in the world, we were told. It was easy to believe.

As we clambered out of the COD, the blast from nearby engines almost toppled me. I looked to my left and there, a few feet away, was the Atlantic Ocean. Not a good place to lose one’s balance.

All about us, sailors, dressed in color-coded uniforms signifying their duties on deck, were positioning jet fighters for takeoff, signalling incoming aircraft and helping naval aviators climb aboard. It was a scene straight out of Top Gun.

The Roosevelt is immense. The flight deck is 1,092 feet long and 257 feet wide. It towers 24 stories from keel to mast top and is powered by two nuclear reactors that propel the carrier to speeds of more than 34 mph. It carries a crew of more than 5,500 and can handle 76 aircraft.

At 97,000 tons, the Roosevelt redefines the meaning of “heavy metal.” Surprisingly, the behemoth has only two anchors, but they weigh 30 tons each. Each link of the anchor chain weighs 360 pounds.

It is a city unto itself with more than 3,000 television sets, 2,500 telephones and serving 18,600 meals a day while at sea. It even has its own hospital and surgery suite capable of handling most emergencies, including pregnancies. Welcome to the co-ed Navy.

It’s also a far cry from the ships we had toured at dockside the day before in Norfolk. You can live on a carrier. You survive on a submarine (where, by the way, women have yet to be welcomed as crew members). Despite what we’ve seen in the movies, subs – even modern fast-attack submarines such as the Los Angeles-class Montpelier – are coffin-tight. Indeed, quarters are so snug sailors must share “hot bunks,” sleeping in shifts in the same beds squished into impossibly small crevices in the bowels of the boat. This is no place for anyone who gets nervous in crowded elevators.

Why anyone would aspire to spend weeks, even months, confined in these sardine cans is beyond me, but they are the top choice among Naval Academy grads. What’s it like being submerged for so long? “After four months,” Cmdr. Ron LaSalvia said, “outside air stinks to us.”

Talk to these “bubbleheads,” as the surface sailors call them, and you quickly realize the depth of pride they have in their combat capability. They carry 33 years worth of nuclear fuel on board, produce 10,000 gallons of potable water a day, have unlimited recirculated air and, consequently, can be anywhere, any time, undetected. Bristling with torpedoes and Tomahawk missiles, the nuclear sub is the ultimate weapon at sea.

What do submariners think of their “black shoe” counterparts topside? Not much. Ask them what they call surface ships, friend and foe:

“Targets.”

The biggest target of them all, of course, is the aircraft carrier, which is why, like a schoolyard bully, you never see one alone. Submarines such as the Montpelier prowl the waters surrounding carriers like the Roosevelt hunting for enemy subs. Destroyers, cruisers and orbiting aircraft provide a shield around the carrier and are coordinated by an admiral on board.

But while the admiral may run the fleet, the captain runs the ship, and he made that perfectly clear to all of us in a briefing before our daylong tour:

I am in charge of this ship. I command all 5,000 personnel on board. I am responsible.

The frequent use of the first person by the captain made me wonder if this is how they came up with the Navy’s famous “Aye, aye.” Was this ego running wild? In the civilian world, it is more customary to hear the word “we” in these settings, signifying the team effort of business.

But this isn’t ordinary business. Lives are at stake every day. Officers, I was told, are taught early on to take personal responsibility for their actions. Accountability is paramount.

Which is why commanders so often use the first person and why, among the Navy officers I met, there was so little sympathy for the commander of the USS Greenville, the American sub that collided with a Japanese fishing boat, killing nine people on board.

You don’t get to run a carrier or a sub for nothing. You get this job, you’re supposed to be the best. No excuses.

Capt. Richard O’Hanlon seems typical of the breed. Steely eyed and focused, he worked hard to be an affable host during our stay, but it was clear that the guy is all business.

During a visit to the bridge while Tomcats were busy taking off and landing on the flight deck below, O’Hanlon was interrupted by a bridge officer notifying him that radar had spotted an object 3,000 yards off the carrier’s port bow. “We have no visual, sir,” he told the skipper.

O’Hanlon casually swiveled his command chair away from us, glanced to his left, and pointed.

“There.”

In a blink, he had spotted a boat his younger officers had not. If there is one photograph I wish I had captured on this trip, it was the look on that duty officer’s face at that moment.

And that’s why O’Hanlon’s the boss.

While we watched the continuous stream of aircraft catapulting off the deck, we knew it would soon be our turn. But first we spent time below decks, touring the innards of this mammoth ship and visiting crew members.

At lunch, I sat with 22-year-old Frank Rupnik III of Troy, Ohio. He’s a petty officer second class, an intelligence specialist who has been deployed to both the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. I asked him what he did. He told me he’d have to shoot me if he told me. Actually, he didn’t quite. He’s far too polite for that.

Rupnik has only six months of service left before he returns to civilian life. He plans to finish his degree at Wright State University, then head off to divinity school.

How do you square your ambition to don the cloth with your role aboard a fighting ship? I asked him.

“I’m just doing my duty to God and my country,” he said. “I believe in my chain of command. And the Lord.”

Rupnik said he has been heavily influenced by conversations he’s had with the ship’s chaplain. And he explains that what he and his shipmates are doing is just and moral. “This whole job is about helping people,” he said.

Nonetheless, he’s a perfect example of the turnover problem the services are experiencing. Does he think his decision to enlist in the Navy was worth it?

“No matter who you are or where you’ve come from, you can use the Navy as a step in the right direction.”

The guy’s a walking recruitment poster.

Finally, it was time.

Once again we crossed the blustery flight deck and reboarded our COD. All day long we’d been told what a thrill the catapult off the deck of the carrier would be. Zero to 150 mph in two seconds. A kick in the pants.
If we’d strapped our seat belts on tightly before, they were doubly snug now. Crew members advised us to bend forward, presumably so our heads wouldn’t snap off when we shot from the deck. Everything loose was secured, lest it become a missile in the plane’s interior.

We felt the COD being positioned for takeoff. Long moments passed. Finally the signal: We were about to do it.

BAM!

Son of Beast has nothing on this ride. We were slammed into our harnesses like we’d been shot from a cannon, which, more or less, we were. How can two seconds last so long?

Then it was done. We were airborne. And we had lived to tell about it. We all looked up. And cheered. And high-fived. And, finally, relaxed.

It was beyond E-Ticket.

Storms in the dead of night

FORT BRAGG, N.C. – It’s the dead of night and we’re standing in a flatbed truck in the middle of a thunderstorm watching tracer fire streak past us on both sides.

The tracers glow a bright, luminescent green through our night vision goggles. In fact, everything is green, just like in the movies. Every so often, a bolt of lightning turns our green world even brighter. The bullets, rockets and bombs exploding around us are real. So are the soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division who are staging this assault as a demonstration of a coordinated attack on an enemy position.

Their target is a bunker dead ahead. Camouflaged gunners pour on a steady stream of machine-gun and small arms fire. Bullets ricochet off the top of the bunker, arcing into the night sky. Rockets whiz past us, exploding in a shower of sparks, adding to Mother Nature’s own thunderclaps.

I slip the night vision goggles off, and the stream of bullets is reduced to an occasional red streak. A solitary crimson ember descends slowly from the sky, illuminating nothing to the naked eye. If there were bad guys out there without these devices, I think, they’d be obits before they knew what hit them. I slip the goggles back on, and the red ember becomes a flare transforming night into day, albeit a lime-colored day.

There should be more paratroopers dropped into this killing zone, but their mission is scrubbed due to the lightning. No sense risking soldiers’ lives.

That doesn’t keep the Army from trucking us around in the midst of the storm, though. We’re mere tourists.

It’s exciting, all these pyrotechnics. But the bullets are flying in only one direction – away from us. It doesn’t take much imagination to sense what it would be like if this were the real thing. It wouldn’t be exciting. It would be terrifying. You would want to run. You would want to hide. You wouldn’t want to be in this place. Playing soldier isn’t as much fun when the bad guys shoot back.

Earlier that day, members of the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, of which I was a participant, had been briefed on Army Special Operations Command, seen a demonstration of a vertical wind tunnel where paratroopers practice free-fall, and toured an Army Psychological Operations center, where they print propaganda used both in warfare and peacekeeping. One such publication was a Superman comic book designed to teach kids in places like Kosovo about the danger of land mines. They also churn out leaflets, like the kind dropped on Iraqi anti-aircraft positions in the Gulf War warning them to.

Later, we witnessed an urban assault demonstration complete with flash-bang grenades and gunfire. Then we were taken to a firing range where we shot pistols and automatic rifles. After retrieving my paper targets, I concluded that any enemy falling in my gunsights was pretty safe.

Next, a few paratroopers dropped in – literally. They arrived via a HALO jump – that’s shorthand for High Altitude, Low Opening – meaning soldiers leap out of perfectly good airplanes from thousands of feet above ground then wait until the last possible moment before pulling their ripcords to slip in behind enemy lines, unnoticed.

Then, we were bused through throngs of raging anti-American demonstrators to the American Embassy in the fictitious African republic of Nogoland, where we scurried to the rooftop to await “rescue.”

The Army Rangers came by Chinook helicopters, storming the embassy compound with grenades and gunfire, attacking everything that moved. By the time the shooting stopped, nothing was left alive. I doubt even bacteria could have survived that assault.

“We do not apologize for swatting flies with a 16-pound hammer,” explained Lt. Gen. Dan McNeill, commander of the Army’s Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg.

After evacuating the embassy, soldiers escorted us to the awaiting Chinooks for a simulated treetop level escape from Nogoland to Pope Air Force Base, where we met up with enlisted “Airborne buddies” who walked us through a series of “static displays,” meaning that nothing blew up or made noise. We saw communications gear, howitzers, mortar teams and armored vehicles – the tools of the trade.

More importantly, it was another chance to talk to the guys who meet the customer, the infantrymen. They were universally polite, knowledgeable, on-task and noncommittal when asked if they planned to re-enlist.

The biggest gripe I heard: The Army’s plan to issue black berets to all soldiers, robbing the Rangers of their unique headgear. The “Army of One” advertising campaign earned a few rude remarks, too.

Turnover at this level is high. Like the television ads used to say, the Army is a “great place to start,” and after a few years a lot of these young men and women move on. They have options. The service has trained them well.

There’s another issue, too:

How long can the service reasonably expect capable people to stick around as “trigger pullers?” as one Marine major called them.

Speaking of Marines, no tour of American military life would be complete without spending a day with the Leathernecks. After a day at Fort Bragg that began at 5:45 a.m. and ended at midnight, we were off to . . .

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C.

We were standing in the driving rain, shivering and waiting for the Marines to land on Onslow Beach. Despite the camouflaged Gor-Tex jackets we’d been issued, we were soaked and freezing.

One of the J.C.O.C. members, in a moment of wimpiness, suggested the program should be moved indoors because of the inclement weather.

Marine Maj. Gen. Martin Berndt, commanding general of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, was within earshot and his face screwed up in disgust as he heard those words. Fellow participant Ron Gunzburger, editor of HillZoo.com, recorded his incredulous response:

“The colonel told you the coats will keep you dry and warm. Well, they won’t. You’ll be cold. You’ll be wet. That’s tough. Suck it up! Get over it!”

And with that, “Suck it up and get over it” became our mantra. After all, we were with the Marines, and like they say in their recruiting ads: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

Moments later, it was show time. Amphibious landing craft bobbed toward shore as helicopters bombed the storm-swept beach, clearing it for the assault team. Like a scene from D-Day, the landing craft hit the beach and young Leathernecks came charging out, guns ablaze.

The Army arrives by air, the Marines arrive by sea. Once they show up they both start breaking things.

The seas were choppy and the Marines had to travel from near the horizon to shore. I knew I wouldn’t want to take that trip without some Dramamine.

The ride is so miserable by the time the Marines land they really “feel like killing somebody, which is good,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas Braaten.

“But you’re not feeling so good because of all that weight you’ve lost throwing up.”

Faster landing craft would help. The technology is there, the money isn’t. A familiar story from all the armed services.

Later that day, we would witness demonstrations of Marine river patrols, crowd control techniques and a bomb disposal exercise, the finale of which was blowing up a bomb via a gun-toting robot on wheels.

Like their Army counterparts the day before, the Marines staged an urban assault, equipped with helicopters lowering troops to rooftops, tanks, machine guns, the works.

I asked a Marine major if he could explain to me the difference between the Marines and the Army Rangers we had met the day before.

“The Rangers are very good,” he allowed. “I’d rate the best of the Rangers about equal to the average Marine.”

“I would have been a Marine,” a Ranger told me, “but I couldn’t fit my head in a jar.”

HOOOAHH VS. OOORAH

Rivalries between the services are legendary, of course, but the soldiers of the Army and the Marines do have one thing in common: They both make funny noises.

Which is endearing, because most of what they do for a living isn’t the least bit funny.

We were at dinner and a general was holding forth on the challenges facing the Army in the post-Cold War world, when from the back of the room came this grunting, coughing sound as if someone was struggling with a belch or was about to hurl.

“Hoooahh.”

One too many toddies before dinner, I assumed. Then it happened again. Another guy.

“Hoooahh.” Then another. And another.

I soon learned this is the Army’s equivalent of shouting “Amen, brother!” in church.

Depending on how you say it, “Hoooahh” means “right on.” Or it means “darn shame, ain’t it.” For all I know, it can also mean “pass the ketchup.”

Marines, likewise, do the same thing. Only theirs is “Ooorah.”

“Men, we’re going on a 20-mile run.”

“Ooorah.”

“Then, we’re going to do 500 pushups.”

“Ooorah.”

‘Afterwards, I’m buying the beer.”

“OOORAH!”

Since the Air Force was the next stop on our tour, I asked an Air Force major if members of his service were into this kind of noise-making. You guys have something you say? I asked.

Sure, he replied. “Fore.”

Into Woods About the Journey

In Bill Roorbach’s latest book, a collection of 11 essays, he takes us on a physical and spiritual journey that begins in France and returns to America, where he travels the breadth of the country in search of a place to call home. Into Woods is less about Roorbach’s geographic destination, the woodlands of Maine, than his exploration of life, relationships, the meaning of manhood and the ever-elusive pursuit of happiness.

The book, Roorbach’s fifth, picks up where his earlier memoir, Summers With Juliet , left off. It is an earthy and disarmingly honest blend of humor, travelogue, social observation and commentary – and a dash of philosophy and a hearty helping of wit, to boot. Roorbach grabs readers right away with his first essay, “Honeymoon,” a hilarious account of his and Juliet’s first weeks of marriage outside the small French agricultural town of Cerqueux sous Passavant.

Juliet is there to attend art classes; Bill hangs around their rented cottage during the day, writing. To the natives, he is viewed as a slacker and entirely too old for Juliet, with whom the younger men unabashedly flirt. It’s France, so there are prodigious quantities of wine to be drunk, stories to be told and famously rude natives to be dealt with.

In subsequent pieces, including the title essay “Into Woods,” Roorbach allows us to travel with him to Montana, Maine, Ohio (where he never quite feels comfortable) and finally back to Maine, where he resides today working on his next novel.

Numerous themes are explored throughout Into Woods, but the most soulful is in the final essay, “My Life as a Move,” in which Roorbach tells of his search for a place to call home. It is a theme that will resonate with readers who have found their lives caught up in the meandering and migratory impulses of modern American society.

Ohio, where Roorbach had “probably the best creative writing job in America,” turned out not to be his final stop in his search for a place to hang his hat:

“The plain, sturdy landscape of the central part of Ohio seems to attract plain, sturdy minds, smart people whose thoughts despite intelligence don’t climb many hills, but hop on the perfectly straight interstate and go where they’re going, whose rivers of emotion are stable, easily dammed, slow flowing, often muddy and brown, oxbows of indirection hiding great fish of aggression . . . who like gathering, since gathering is easy; high school football games in great stadiums, endless malls, giant universities. People who need dramatic or intricate or undulating or featured or obfuscatory landscape don’t stay here. People who don’t, do. And they have children over generations so that a new species emerges: Ohio Man. Or am I just being mean, blaming Ohio and everyone living there for my own psychic struggles?”

People like Roorbach who have experienced life as a move will identify with his discontent. Some places simply feel more like home than others. Blame it on the climate. Blame it on the culture. Blame it on our own restiveness. It’s there. But in the search for a place to call home, how do we know when we arrive?

Roorbach’s last three words invite the question: “Are we home?”

Sometimes it’s easier to know when you’re not than when you are. And, perhaps, finding home is also about hanging around long enough in one place for it to emerge from the landscape.

For now, for Roorbach, home is Maine. For readers who take Into Woods into their home, they are in for a “journey in joyous prose,” as a headline in the Hartford Courant put it. In the accompanying review, book critic Carole Goldberg noted that `if Into Woods has a flaw, it’s that Roorbach’s trademark breathlessly cascading passages . . . can overwhelm if the essays are read one right after another.”

Put another way, Into Woods is like a fine, robust wine, best served in sips so its full flavor can be appreciated. It would be a waste to rush through it. After all, it’s about the journey, not the finish.