Image: USS Abraham Lincoln Crew
Crew from the USS Abraham Lincoln relax on the flight deck during a picnic Tuesday.
By
NBC News
updated 3/13/2003 2:39:44 AM ET 2003-03-13T07:39:44

It’s been 236 days and counting. For the crew of the Navy aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, in the Persian Gulf, it’s a statistic to be proud of and to dread — one of the longest deployments by a U.S. warship in recent memory. For the ship’s captain, it’s increasingly a challenge as he tries to keep his homesick crew prepared for war.

The Abraham Lincoln was only supposed to have been gone from its home port of Everett, Wash., for six months as part of “Operation Southern Watch” — the enforcement of the no-fly zone over northern Iraq. But on its way home in January, the warship was turned around as the war of words with Iraq got hotter. And as of Thursday, this trip ranks 50th in duration in recent U.S. naval history.

For the 5,655 men and women of this flagship nuclear carrier, it’s been tough. In the time they’ve been away, divorce papers have been filed, loved ones have died. Complaints are often voiced to journalists aboard ship when they meet crew members in hallways.

“You say morale is low,” one sailor said when he overheard a reporter recording a narration about the mood on the ship. He added sarcastically, “But over the MC1 [the Lincoln’s public address system] the captain says everything is good.”

Actually, Capt. Kendall Card, the commanding officer of the Abraham Lincoln, admits that everything is not good.

“Obviously, the number of family problems increase the longer you’re away from home,” he said. There are just some problems that are insurmountable at home. There are a lot of people in December who were hanging on for one more month to take care of that problem. And now we’re in March.”

Which is why Card gave his crew a break early this week, canceling flights for two days. He could afford to — there are two other U.S. carrier groups in the Persian Gulf: the USS Kitty Hawk and the USS Constellation. And the USS Nimitz is on its way, ostensibly to replace the Abraham Lincoln, but no one is making any promises right now.

A STEEL BEACH PARTY

So this week, sailors laid down a portable basketball floor and played among the multimillion-dollar jets flanking their court. The insurance company Lloyds of London calls the deck of a modern aircraft carrier “the most dangerous four and a half acres on the face of the planet.” But it’s less so on this Tuesday. Suddenly, a gentle breeze blew along the top of the carrier as sailors put aside their uniforms and donned jogging shorts. And a few hours later, they held a “steel beach barbecue,” where thousands of crew lined up for hot dogs and hamburgers, played golf, tossed a football and sat in plastic pools. For a brief period, they were not members of a powerful, potentially destructive fighting force. Instead, they were young men and women, lounging around in the sun, trying to enjoy the time off.

And it’s not just a chance to relax. With all this waiting around, senior officers fear that even as conflict with Iraq looms closer and closer, their people may be getting soft.

“It’s a challenge to stay current,” F-18 fighter pilot Lt. Ryan Bernnachi said. “And to stay on edge for combat.”

But with all this time spent in the gulf, the crew of the Abraham Lincoln may have one huge advantage — and that’s experience. They were declared overwhelming victors Wednesday, in the Navy’s annual “Battle ‘E’” (for efficiency) awards — which made a lot of people proud.

“We do feel instead of showing up that we’re pretty well rehearsed for what we might do,” Bernnachi said.

And Capt. Card is convinced the crew will do what it has to do. “For the most part, they understand there’s a purpose out here,” Card said. “And while they are ready to go home, they don’t want to miss fulfilling their purpose, either.”

(NBC’s Hanson Hosein is on assignment on board the USS Abraham Lincoln.)

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