ABOARD USS HARRY S. TRUMAN, EAST MEDITERANNEAN (BP)-A first-person account.
–Monday, 3/24, fourth day on board.
One of the highest points on board the USS Harry S. Truman, the newest aircraft carrier in the U.S. Navy’s fleet, is an observation deck called the Vulture’s Nest. This is where I and photojournalist Jim Veneman from Union University along with several other media from all over the world assembled Friday night, our first day on board the ship which is located somewhere in the east Mediterranean. Many of you will remember Jim from his 15 years as photographer for LifeWay Christian Resources in the communications office where I only recently started as a staff writer.
This was a moment in history for those on the ship that night. The first air strikes of what is being called the “Shock and Awe” offensive in Operation Iraqi Freedom would be launched from the very flight deck I was standing just above. We had observed them loading the guided munitions on board the planes early that day. It’s a surreal feeling to experience. Especially when you know that the average age of the crewman who loads that ammunition is 19.
Whether you agree with the war or not, you are faced with two realizations as you stand out on the deck. You see firsthand how significant this mission is by the size and amount of ordnance and firepower and you’re concerned for the obviously dangerous missions that the naval aviators are making. You also think about the targets for where these bombs will be dropped and you wonder about the people who will be killed. This is not a possibility of life or death. There is no doubt that someone is going to be hurt tonight. When these planes returned hours later still under the cover of darkness, they returned with their ordnance storage empty.
I am writing this in the wee hours of Monday morning, 3 a.m. to be precise. We are getting ready to experience another air strike launch, bigger than the first one we witnessed. The late hours aren’t anything new. Since we’ve arrived, we’ve worked with little sleep and have taken meals as we can. We aren’t the only ones. Sailors typically work 12 hours a day, with officers working longer, sometimes 18 hours. Everyone has a job to do. Our job is to report.
I have been amazed at the stories we’ve been so blessed to cover the last couple of days.
Today we talked with three men who just completed “Experiencing God.” One man is a brand new Christian. One is a Greek Orthodox Christian. The leader of the study is in a Church of Christ.
Yesterday, we met Sam and Chris, two best friends, both 22, who work as Navy jet mechanics. Both talk passionately about their love for God and how he keeps them going. They are both extremely involved in the church services and Bible studies on the ship.
Throughout the day today we’ve observed the different services that are held by the team of chaplains here. The most striking thing for me to see has been watching sailors and Marines, men and women, young and old, singing praise songs and lifting their hands and voices to God. And I feel God impressing upon me even more that the military, particularly Christians, need our prayers and support.
This afternoon we talked with a Southern Baptist who is teaching Sunday School on Sunday afternoons using LifeWay curriculum. He sees his calling as Bible teacher first, Navy sailor second. He knows God put him on this ship to minister to others.
It’s very strange to live on a floating city. One of the challenges according to some Christians we’ve talked with is the fact that you must work and live with the same people day in and day out. There’s not a lot of downtime. When asked what they like to do most for fun, most people say they work out. It’s a good stress reliever.
I have another reason I’m up writing this so late at night. This morning, after one of the services, we had the fortune to meet an aviator named Johnny who’s a Southern Baptist. Johnny’s home church is in Georgia, but he’s a member at London Falls Baptist Church in Virginia where his wife and children are.
Johnny shared with us that his faith is what keeps him strong. And though he has a lot of mixed feelings about the job he’s in as a naval aviator flying one of the F/A-18’s, he has to believe what the apostle Paul wrote about trusting the authority God has placed above him. He told us he’s thankful for a president who isn’t afraid to share his beliefs and stand by them. And he trusts that God will watch over him and the missions he flies. His first air strike of the war will be tonight.
In terms of intercession:
Pray for the military aboard the USS Harry S. Truman.
Pray for the chaplains that they will have strength to minister to the sailors on board.
Pray that lives will be touched and changed by God.
Pray that revival will break out.
— Tuesday, 3/25, fifth day on board.
This morning I woke up late — just before 6 a.m. I’m not sure whether I slept through the alarm on my watch. I think the earplugs in my ears may have worked better than I thought, a tip I picked up from one of the young enlisted women I talked with yesterday. The planes have been launching pretty regularly and we’re told to expect much the same for a while. Maybe I’m getting used to this. I was excited last night. I actually came to bed about 1:30 a.m. My earliest bedtime since we got here.
The makeshift newsroom on board that the Navy has provided for the media is slowly starting to thin out as the first week of the war concludes. Many of the reporters we’ve met have been here for two to three weeks already and a lot of them are anxious to leave — either for home or another location deeper inside the war zone itself.
It’s interesting to note how the other members of the press have accepted us into the newsroom. It’s clear that they’re not quite sure why a religious news service would be here. I think they wonder what we have to write about if not about the battle strategy and number of planes being launched and amount of ammunition and military tactics. Sunday was particularly funny. A lot of the media who saw us in the newsroom that morning made comments like “Today’s your big day, huh?” and “Are you covering the services today?” As if Sunday was the only day and the only stories aboard. But their intentions were good.
When we relayed the comments to Chaplain Dunn, he laughed and said he experiences the same thing along with the rest of the chaplains. Many assume that Sunday is his only day of work too.
I’m proud of what we’ve done so far but anxious to write more. We have a lot of stories on our list to cover; these are stories that will take a little more time to develop but hopefully will show a bigger picture of what it’s like and what Christians experience in the military.
I feel like we are making a difference in a way just by being here. Yesterday, I tried asking a question of an aviator who had just come off a mission. I asked him if faith played a part in how he did his job. His face said the answer before he spoke. He didn’t really know what I was talking about. He stumbled around in his answer and finally said that he supposed that he believed in a supreme being, that it’s a good thing to have for falling back on. I thought about that brief encounter for quite a bit afterwards. I felt a little sheepish about making assumptions and asking a question like the one about faith to someone I didn’t know.
But God seemed to be telling me that it’s OK to ask those questions, because I may be the only person to ask someone about their faith. And God confirmed for me later that day when we ran into a chief I had interviewed earlier this week. She thanked us for asking the questions about faith that we did. She said that some of the things we asked got her thinking about her relationship with God a little more deeply than she has in a while. She said it helped get her focus back where it needed to be.
We never know how God is going to use us. Whether it’s through the stories we write, the questions we ask, or the mere fact of being somewhere for someone to talk to, all God asks is for us to be available.
Colossians 4:2-5 (HCSB): “Devote yourselves to prayer; stay alert in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us that God may open a door to us for the message, to speak the mystery of the Messiah. … So that I may reveal it as I am required to speak. Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the time.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: BP QUERY.