Growing up at the end of the Vietnam era in what she calls the "liberal, anti-war" suburb of Marblehead, Mass., Helen Garten had little contact with the U.S. military.
But not until this month -- when Garten (now our third selectman) and her husband, Michael Wiseman, accepted an invitation from the nonprofit Naval Institute -- did she realize how talented, dedicated and passionate the young men and women who serve our country really are.
Once a year, the Navy invites "opinion leaders" -- particularly women -- to spend two days on an aircraft carrier. So -- dodging one of Westport's ubiquitous snowstorms -- Garten and Wiseman flew at their own expense to San Diego, to spend two days about the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson.
After dinner and breakfast at the Naval Air Station in Coronado, the group of 15 were briefed on the carrier, its planes and safety. The hour-long flight to the ship was on a C-2 Greyhound cargo plane. Sitting backward, wearing "extremely uncomfortable" helmets in an aircraft with no real windows, they saw little. But they experienced a forceful tailhook landing.
"The steel cable played out and snapped like a rubber band," Garten says. The plane came to a sudden, dead stop. The cargo door opened, sunlight flooded in, and the third selectman thought she had landed "on a different planet."
Crew members moved purposefully around the 4 1/2-acre flight deck. Different colored helmets denoted their tasks. Beyond the deck, the Pacific Ocean raced by.
Garten's group watched in awe as -- a few yards away -- a squadron of F-18 fighter jets landed, just a minute apart. Each snagged one of four steel wires -- ideally, the third -- with their tailhooks. While landing, pilots gave their planes full power, in case they missed the wires and had to take off again. Some of the pilots were just 19 or 20 years old.
The noise was deafening, even with helmets. The deck shook, steam rose in the air, and the smell of jet fuel was everywhere. All this took place with the Vinson moving through the water at 30 knots (35 mph).
Over the next 24 hours, Garten and Wiseman toured the air traffic control center, bridge, ammunition magazine and hangar. They climbed dozens of ladders, shared meals and conversations with many of the 5,000 officers and enlisted personnel, and slept in officers' quarters.
Every man and woman Garten spoke with was extremely proud of the Vinson -- the ship that disposed of Osama bin Laden's body and hosted the first NCAA basketball game ever played on a carrier. "These are the best ambassadors the Navy could hope to have," she says.
"Obviously, they wanted to tell their story," Garten notes. "They realize there are lots of misperceptions in the general public about the military -- things like sexual abuse and harassment. But everyone we talked to said that serving provides a way for them to learn, achieve and rise through the ranks. They said there were no problems with gender, race or sexual orientation. They're very proud of what they are doing. They work 12, 14 hours a day or more, and they love their jobs.Read Full Article
"The Navy's motive for inviting civilians like me, with no military experience and little knowledge of carrier operations, is to increase public understanding of and support for the carrier fleet. It's the most costly of all military programs, but also the most visible symbol of America's military power."
Her visit coincided with the Pentagon's decision to reverse plans to scrap one carrier from the fleet, at least for now. Garten says, "However one may feel about that decision and the future of the carrier program generally, I cannot underestimate the professionalism and dedication of the crew, and how proud every American should be of them. They take their public service very seriously, and enjoyed answering our endless questions."
After a scary departure -- the catapult takeoff rocketed the plane from 0 to 165 mph in two seconds, which was like "riding a horse at top speed, then somersaulting over his head" -- Garten and Wiseman returned to Coronado, and from there back home, on a much tamer commercial flight.
"I can't stop thinking about the experience," Garten says. Though Westport is hardly a military bastion, she notes that several friends' children have joined or are considering the armed forces. She's a bit old for that. But her experience this month, she says, will continue to resonate, whenever she thinks about any man or woman performing any public service -- on an aircraft carrier, or here in Westport.